Interview: Charles Tyrwhitt maintains eye for tailor-made technology

Formalwear retailer Charles Tyrwhitt is growing sales at over 20% a year and has its sights set on further international expansion in the coming 12 months, with a fourth US store scheduled to open in 2015.

From 15 shops in the UK, one outlet in France, its current trio of US stores and the wider direct mail/eCommerce business, the company generated sales of close to £160 million last year, but IT director Simon Kerry is leading a systems overhaul that aims to support the business's future ambitions and drive revenue yet further in the months ahead.

A complete ERP replacement has been the key focus since the implementation process started last year, but Kerry is also looking at ways Charles Tyrwhitt can continue to strengthen its one-view-of-the-customer approach to retailing, which senior management are very keen to perpetuate.

Last year saw the installation of Apple iPads in two of the shirt-maker's UK stores to give shoppers a chance to browse the retailer's full range of products in a bricks and mortar environment, but other opportunities may exist to maximise use of in-store mobile technology.

"While we have used iPads as brochure orientation, the key will be where you can actually add real value to that handheld terminal," Kerry told Essential Retail.

"Queue busting is an obvious one, but can you add other functionality to those tablets? From our point of view, can you use the iPad to aid the tailoring process?"

With its foundations steeped in direct mail – 70% of sales come from catalogue, eCommerce and call centre – Charles Tyrwhitt has always been a data-driven business. As the retailer has opened stores over the years, it has placed importance on asking customers for their email addresses at the point-of-sale (PoS) to ensure it receives a rounded view of its customers' purchasing behaviour.

One gap is arguably when shoppers enter a store for suit adjustments, and Kerry views tablet devices as a potential way of capturing niche details about customer requirements, which can then be used to improve service when they next return to the store.

"iPads would allow us to feed those details into our database and ensure we have all the relevant information the next time that customer shops with us," he explained.

Mobile PoS may be a project for another time, though, because the current technology-centric work at Charles Tyrwhitt involves replacing the retailer's legacy infrastructure with Microsoft Dynamics AX, delivered by tech vendor K3 Retail, which will be used to manage international sales and centralise business data.   

Kerry joined the business as IT director three years ago and admits it was clear from early systems analysis that there was much work to do. He suggested that there were problems with multiple data sources and "never getting one version of the truth", which in a multichannel retail landscape can become a big business problem.

"Systems were based on outdated technology, which was very difficult to continue developing and not scalable for a business growing at 25-30% a year, and with plans to continue on that path," he noted.

"To be able to drive sales, you need a very solid picture of what your customers are doing, when they are doing it, and how they are doing it."

The ERP implementation project started in November 2013 and is expected to span a total of 24 months. The company's finance function went live on the new system in May, while the retailer is halfway through implementing buying & merchandising, and soon to work on its retail operation.

Infrastructure changes are deemed necessary, as Charles Tyrwhitt expands its horizons on an international scale. Just two years ago it launched a dedicated Australian website, which is already generating £12 million in annual sales, and the planned New York World Trade Center store will be the business's third outlet in the Big Apple.

Further country-specific websites will surely be in the pipeline, with the retailer's founder Nick Wheeler recently suggesting that he believes Charles Tyrwhitt will be a £1 billion business, in time.

Changes to the website in the UK are also being scheduled in, with Kerry currently considering which path the business is going to take. The current website is based on a bespoke Microsoft system and the retailer must weigh up whether it wants to continue down this path or invest in a replacement web platform.

With eCommerce generating more than 50% of Charles Tyrwhitt's annual revenue, it's not a decision to take lightly.

"I think the key – when web is so important to our business – is to ensure whichever route we take, whether it is redeveloping internally or going with a third-party provider, that we don't lose the flexibility we currently have," Kerry asserted.

"Every platform will have pluses and minuses – it's about understanding what those limitations are before going into a new agreement or partnership. It's a bit like when you choose to go ERP over best of breed – with ERP you'll get one version of the truth, which is a huge benefit to most companies, but you're always going to have to compromise on one business area."

Depending on the decision made by the company, a new technology vendor could soon be partnering with Charles Tyrwhitt, joining the likes of Feefo and Piksel – which offer customer service feedback and managed data services, respectively.

In-store consumer-facing technology, however, comes in the form of digital screens that display branding messages and the iPad 'catalogues' that bring the company's full online offering into the reduced range stores. There is not necessarily a huge demand from the Charles Tyrwhitt customer demographic for much else in this area.

"One of the tricky things with us is the classic customer is late-50s and they buy formal shirts – you don't necessarily have the engagement process that you would have in the likes of Primark or Topshop, where people want to browse through a large selection.

"You are looking at a situation where customers know which size they are and they are just looking for the colours they like. As a CIO you want to do lots of exciting things, but your target audience isn't hugely open to that."

Most of the innovation at Charles Tyrwhitt, it would seem, comes in the form of digital marketing and the in-depth behind-the-scenes data work. But as in-store mobile systems become increasingly mainstream – and arguably more cost effective – there could be new technology to come at the shirt retailer's stores of the future.

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