Big interview: ACHICA CEO Steve Robinson

New ACHICA CEO Steve Robinson is operating in what he describes as a "dream retail" environment and, as the boss of an online membership community, he thinks he has some distinct advantages over the traditional bricks and mortar retailing world.

In an exclusive interview with Essential Retail, the former Tesco Direct boss said that the digital footprint left behind by shoppers gives online players a significant lead in the personalisation process that all retailers should be implementing into their businesses. There won't be a time in the medium-term future, he argues, when traditional retailers can gain such a complete level of understanding about their customers.

"We are fortunate because we ask customers to login before they come to us," Robinson explained.

"I pretty much have perfect information about my customers – I know what they look at, what they buy, what they don't buy, when they dwell on a page – it's like dream retail. I understand everything about them.

"Tesco has made some great inroads with its Clubcard, but they still don't know when they've let someone down in a shop because they've got no way of measuring that."

Robinson says that technology is now reaching a point of intelligence where, when accompanied by right-minded staff, retailers have the opportunity to tailor their customer service in powerful ways – but "there's just a sprinkling of people doing it well", such as Tesco, Amazon and Shop Direct.

"Personalisation for me is about understanding all of that data, either by using technology or people, and fine-tuning the customer journey to optimise the amount of money you make from consumers," he added.

Likening online retail's potential to the moment in The Matrix, when Keanu Reeves' character Neo realise he is "The One", Robinson says: "In new dream retail, I can alter my store for every individual customer if I want to – and that's really powerful."

New era

ACHICA was set up by Asos co-founder Quentin Griffiths and former Tradedoubler CEO Will Cooper, and is currently in its sixth year of operation. The company, which runs special time-limited offers, selling discounted products for the home, now has three million members across the UK and Europe – and is competing with some established retail players.

"Businesses like ACHICA are biting at the heels of not just B&Q but other traditional retailers," Robinson explained.

"The reason that it's a challenge [for the traditional players] – and they all have omnichannel strategies going on – is that they are spending millions of pounds on IT to facilitate that.

"The reality is that online businesses' starting point is nothing to something pretty quickly – they can do that without stores, rent and rates and a load of staff stood around inefficiently waiting for people to walk into stores, as well as pension schemes that have been going for 40 years, where you are paying for people who don't even work for you anymore."

However, Robinson, who after nine months as chief operating officer has taken over the CEO role from new company chairman Cooper, is far from saying that ACHICA is the finished article and he is clear it is still a young business, looking to expand.

Since taking on the top job, Robinson has pinpointed a number of areas of improvement it must make to take advantage of its position as an agile online operation, not to mention seizing the opportunities presented by its access to accurate customer data.

"We're not happy with the website navigation at the moment, so that will improve and allow us to do more personal promotion with customers," he explained.

"At the moment we send the same email and homepage to three million people, which in this age of retail is almost criminal."

There are also plans in place for improving cooperation between ACHICA's international businesses, accepting more currencies, shipping to more locations and generally joining up the different parts of the European business.

Despite ACHICA operating French, Spanish, German and Polish language websites, as well as running buying offices in Spain and France, Robinson admits "we don't behave like an international business".

Key technology partners

Two "key partners" from a technology perspective, according to the CEO, are Microsoft Dynamics for ERP and Ivis Group, which provides a number of the systems behind and is a company that Robinson worked with during his time at the grocer between 2005-2007.

Ivis has a product called Sonetto, which is soon to be implemented at ACHICA, and Robinson says that the vendor has "a unique twist on the product information management model, which enables you to enrich products very quickly".

"Because they are behind the Tesco grocery website, their promotions engine is probably one of the best out there. There are not many promotions that Tesco do that I won't want to do."

During a career that started at DIY retail group Kingfisher, before taking in senior roles at Argos (financial director), Tesco, MandM Direct (CEO) and B&Q (customer director), Robinson has developed a technology-led approach to retailing – an approach that, he believes, not too many senior execs in the wider industry quite yet understand.

He acknowledged that almost everything in retail has been impacted by technology in a way that will never go backwards, before suggesting the businesses that understand this will be the ones to succeed. He also identified "a generational gap" in terms of omnichannel talent that hasn't yet filtered through to the top level of the industry.

"I get phone calls all the time from people saying there's a business catching up with omnichannel and they've created a role of omnichannel director, etc.

"Obviously I'm not interested in any of those jobs, but you sit there and think 'you just don't get it'. It isn't a separate part of retail, it is the whole thing. Omnichannel is retail and using technology to understand more about your customer and serve them – that is retail now."