Interview: John Lewis IT director Paul Coby

February has been a time of significant change within the boardrooms of the UK retail industry.

Ex-Tesco executive David Potts was appointed new CEO at Morrisons earlier this week, during a fortnight of transition that has also seen Monsoon-Accessorize boss John Browett step down from his role at the fashion retailer, and House of Fraser COO John King step up to the top job at the department store chain.

Ex-Dixons chairman John Allan has taken on the Tesco chairmanship, while former Asda exec Allan Leighton is now chairing the Co-operative Group.

Meanwhile, occurring somewhat under the radar, was a slight restructuring of the IT team at department store chain John Lewis. On 5 February, CIO Paul Coby announced his new IT directorate, comprising an IT-focused director each for operations, delivery and strategy & planning.

In an interview with Essential Retail, Coby said David Hunn (delivery), Martin Jones (operations) and Sarah Venning (strategy & planning) will report directly to him, replacing the previous system where the business operated with heads of IT.

"This puts directors who report to me on the same level in the organisation as the buying directors, merchandising directors and retail directors," he explained.

"It is a very visible sign of how the role of technology has changed within John Lewis."

Hunn and Jones joined John Lewis as graduates and have progressed up the business, but Venning was previously director of IT performance & planning at airport authority BAA, before arriving in the retail industry three years ago.

Recent research from recruitment business ReThink Retail suggested that it is becoming increasingly important for retailers to source technology talent from new and unorthodox locations as they continue to develop their innovation agendas. With Coby, who was CIO at British Airways prior to joining John Lewis, and Venning, both arriving in retail from the airline sector, can we expect more industry transfers to come?

"Transport, including airlines, went through an online/digital revolution between 2003 and 2005," said Coby.

"In British Airways the volume of tickets by number, as opposed to value, sold online went from around 10-40% over a period of two years or so. We were proud of the things we did, including inventing calendar services, self-service check-in, choose your seat and book your meals – all these sorts of things.

"As retail is going through very fast change, a lot of it stimulated by digital technology, my previous experience has helped me a little bit to see around corners. That doesn't mean you necessarily should look outside the industry [for your new talent] but I think you should be open to looking outside."

John Lewis's Christmas 2014 trading statement, which was published in January, indicated that online sales had grown by nearly 20% year-on-year, while click & collect represented 56% of all eCommerce orders during that period. Explaining how he thinks retailers should recruit new staff as technology continues to play an increasingly important role in the industry, as evidenced by John Lewis's festive sales, Coby said: "Definitely look outside, but it is important to be open to what's going on around you. That's not just in retail; that's got to be in the technology industry as a whole.

"We sit in the intersection of retail and the tech industry. Sometimes you look down the retail arm and sometimes you look down the technology arm; I think you've got to be prepared to do both."

One new technological development that has started at John Lewis since the start of 2015 has been the initial testing of a new click & collect service, run through a system provided by Localz, the recent winner of the retailer's JLAB start-up incubator scheme.

It was trialled with volunteers and staff at the company's Peter Jones store in Sloane Square, giving participants a chance to see how the beacon technology would work in terms of notifying customers about locating their click & collect parcels. Coby said the test "went well" and indicated that the technology will soon go into test mode – "probably in the Watford and Cambridge stores" – as it edges closer to being rolled out.

"I'm excited about this because you can have lots of fun running the JLAB process and the incubator, but the real acid test is in turning the idea into a test and proof of concept into a pilot and then really rolling it out," Coby remarked.

"I'm very pleased we've kept the momentum going and we are going forward on it."

The target is to place the Localz technology at the heart of the John Lewis online and fulfilment offering, with the view that it will allow consumers to make use of the location-based technology so they can choose to pick up their items from a service desk, elsewhere in the store or have the goods brought out to their vehicles.

In the past, John Lewis has sought the opinion of the customer at an early stage in the process of rolling out new systems and services, including when launching its new website back in 2013 when shoppers were given an opportunity to try the site in beta mode prior to official launch.

Although no firm strategy has yet been put in place for the introduction of the Localz click & collect service, it is expected to involve open dialogue with the general public.

Coby commented: "I never worry about customers trying things. It's important that we explain what it is and people go into it with their eyes open. We wouldn't try something that is in beta test without telling them – that's the key.

"We don't know all the answers – that's blindingly obvious! No-one has to try it, but a lot of people are very interested in it. It's about valuing customers' opinions, which is what you should be about."

Visitors to RBTE, which takes place at London's Olympia between 10-11 March, can hear more from Paul Coby on retail, technology and the customer. His keynote 'Driving market share through placing technology excellence at the heart of your omnichannel strategy' will take place at 10:10 on Wednesday 11 March.

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John Lewis