Interview: Selling toys through click & collect and the cloud

Cloud technology and click & collect services are central to the recent success enjoyed by UK-based toy retailer The Entertainer, according to the business's head of IT services Ian Pulsford.

The five weeks leading up to 27 December 2014 saw the company post a 12.2% increase in sales, or 5.5% on a like-for-like basis when excluding the impact of new store openings. Total online sales at The Entertainer rose 60% year on year during the same period, while the number of online sales collected in one of the retailer's store jumped by 81.7%.

Pulsford says the deployment of a hybris omnichannel solution, developed in association with Rackspace and its consultancy channel partner Conexus, has supported this growth and enabled a successful start to an order online, pick-up in store service. A market-leading 30-minute window for these click & collect orders is currently being rolled out across The Entertainer's UK store estate.

Last month saw the business open its 100th store, and there are plans for 15 new openings in 2015, while further research is being conducted into potential new international markets following the recent opening of a Dubai store.

Essential Retail caught up with Pulsford to hear a bit more detail about The Entertainer's plans, and to find out what technology and services the business is looking to introduce into its operations.

Essential Retail: What are the key business focus areas for The Entertainer?

Ian Pulsford: The key thing for us at the moment is the roll-out of tablet infrastructure to the stores. Every store will have Samsung tablets, Bluetooth scanners, Bluetooth PEDs and Wi-Fi printers. These units will take over from our dockable hand-held devices, and basically they will become the hub of each store.

The biggest win for us is that our whole 30-minute click & collect operation is now paperless, and we can do all the collection routine on the tablet with the customer signing on the screen. We started this last year with a small pilot, moved it into a trial and then in the latter part of last year we put it into new stores.

We took all the feedback from peak period, updated the software and put it out in February. As of last month we've started to roll it out to the other 75 stores.

We are also moving our warehouse from Swindon to a brand new purpose-built building in Banbury. It will be the single biggest investment the company makes this year – and the most important. If you haven't got somewhere from which to send out your products at Christmas, it's a bit of a problem!

The Entertainer is working with our existing supplier Norbert Dentressangle, which currently runs the Swindon warehouse but is taking over the whole contract for the new site.

ER: Why is 30-minute click & collect so important to your business?

IP: We have 100 stores but we are a small organisation, and we have to be seen to be agile and a little bit different. This is achieved through a higher level of service than other people – we pride ourselves on giving a higher level of service wherever we can, whether that's approaching people in the store, or by offering faster, more seamless click & collect.

We can't necessarily price compete with a supermarket that is just trying to flog a box alongside the bottles of wine and Christmas cake that they make their money on, so we have to compete on service.

Customers want click & collect. And if they want it, you have to offer it otherwise the customer will go elsewhere. Early on, perhaps it was our perception of what the customer wanted but now it is definitely what the customer wants. What the customer wants next, I don't know – I don't think anyone is particularly certain.

ER: How has cloud technology changed your business?

IP: From our point of view, just about everything we do is part of the cloud – it's all hosted servers and everything is being looked after 24-7. We know that should there be any issues with our servers or services that our partners will be able to assist us.

If we have an issue, whether it's with the package or the hosting or something as simple as disk space running away, we've got the facility to phone somebody who can do something about it. With Rackspace, for example, it could be that we need more disk space, so they will add more capacity to stop the servers falling down and say 'talk to the money men on Monday'.

Long gone are the days where our head office had a server or two running in a computer room which were subject to the vagaries of power loss or builders digging up the road. That's how many websites, including ours, started off – but they've evolved and become more professional.

ER: Why is this speed and agility important to The Entertainer?

IP: I imagine our company is one of the peakiest there is. We'll get to October this year and we'll have done half of our business, and between 1 November and Christmas Eve we'll do the other half. It makes a big difference to the servers you need for a website so we spend a lot of time with Rackspace, Conexus and Itim planning on how we cope with peak traffic and then we put that into place in September and test it.

ER: What are some of the secrets to The Entertainer's recent growth?

IP: It might be that we have shorter decision lines. Being privately owned you have people at the top of the business who cut through a lot of red tape and say 'I want this fixed, I want this sorted.' So the right priorities are decided.

We've also been lucky with our partners – they know what it is we want to do. We've had an iterative approach to it, so we've initially rolled out click & collect not using store stock but we've added it once we solved some of the problems.

Many of these new ideas were [multichannel director] Duncan Grant's in the first place. He's part of the Grant family that founded the business, and he is a very strong ideas man within the organisation. A lot of the ideas around 30-minute click & collect were purely his. We were all thinking two or three hours, but he said 'I want this to be industry leading and 30 minutes'. I think he wanted 15 minutes, but there is a limit!

ER: How has your technology spend evolved in recent years?

IP: The amount we're spending on technology has increased. Probably around £0.5 million of tablets are going to go out into shops over the next two months.

By putting those out there we're effectively doubling our till numbers. A lot more is being spent on not just the hardware, but the software and services that go behind it – as well as the information flow and reporting.

How far in the future can we look? I would guess if you look at the overall IT department budget that will continue to grow, but we're a growing business as we're adding more headcount, opening 15 stores this year and refitting stores. Expenses are growing everywhere, but hopefully we've got the turnover to match it.

Over the next few years the overall CAPEX on IT will be growing and hopefully the value we're getting for it is, too. The cost is coming down – you're certainly getting more power and memory for your money these days – even within hosted and data centre environments.

ER: What constitutes good retailing in 2015?

IP: Offering value to customers wherever and whenever they want it.