Whittard of Chelsea seeking right blend of tech as it looks east

Whittard of Chelsea operates less than half the number of UK stores it had ten years ago, but the tea retailer is confident it has found the right blend of physical and digital to support international growth.

Having started trading on Alibaba’s Tmall online marketplace in 2016, the retailer is focused on expanding its presence in Asia and it opened two Taiwan stores in May with franchise partner Ruentex Group. Three more shops are planned for Taiwan in 2019.

As the company expands its horizons abroad and looks to maintain its circa-50 store portfolio in the UK, several technology decisions are being addressed, covering eCommerce and core in-store and retail management software.

It recently relaunched its website on Salesforce Commerce Cloud with systems integrator Tryzens, bringing to market what it describes as a more mobile-friendly platform and one that requires less of an administrative burden and supports international expansion. The site has recently added a multi-currency option too, so customers outside the UK are confronted with suitable pricing and payment options.

Talking at software provider Cegid’s annual user event in Madrid in May, Nathan Smith, finance officer at Whittard, said a joined-up approach to technology is crucial when expanding internationally.

“What we are trying to avoid is a silo, we want everything to be consistent as far as we can,” he noted.

Whittard is discussing with Cegid how it might extend its existing retail management suite as it expands to China and, potentially, rolls out new stores there. Currently, the technology is in all the retailer’s UK stores and integrated in an “omnichannel” manner that supports click & collect and reserve & collect functionality for online shoppers.

Simon Watson, IT manager at Whittard, who was also at the Cegid event, added: “We’ve virtualised the back-end Cegid runs on, [and] we’ve invested quite heavily in a refresh of hardware in stores.

“We’ve recently replaced probably 50% of the till estate in the last year on to new technology with Aures and our partner Cegid. We’re shortly going to do the other half of it as well – it’s all about trying to improve the customer service in store.”

The company also hopes a new data management project will revolutionise the way its analysts and head office teams operate. Business intelligence software provider Qlik has been identified as a company that can improve the retailer’s data analytics capability.

“We’re very early in the project but it’s key for the business,” said Smith.

“It’ll save a lot of manual effort on reporting, and what we can do then is re-train people to analyse the results rather than just produce a report.”

He added: “We’d rather them have the report in their hands and say ‘I’m doing, this, this and this to drive the change’ – we want much more data-driven decision making.”

Whittard operated 135 stores before falling into administration in 2008, but its more streamlined portfolio – which tends to focus on London, and cathedral, tourist and university towns and cities – appears sustainable. Most recent accounts show revenue at the 133-year-old retailer jumped by 20.5% to £34.7 million in 2017, while net profit was £251,000 compared to a loss of £1.4 million one year before.

Smith, who joined as part of private equity house Epic’s new-look management team in 2009, said: “The idea at first was to turn it around and make it profitable again, which we did, and then invest in it, which we did, and now it is to grow, which it is doing.”

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