Interview: Orlebar Brown's senior IT manager Abi Somorin

Same-day delivery for online orders has been used as a differentiator by the retailers which offer it for a number of years, but it emerged at the end of April that taxi service Uber is looking to team up with a selection of luxury brands to provide the service on a wider scale.

The fast-growing mobile taxi app, which allows consumers to locate and order taxis via their smartphone and pay on mobile, has disrupted the traditional minicab industry and is reportedly planning to work with the likes of Louis Vuitton and other high-end businesses as a delivery partner. The strategy, according to the TechCrunch article from which the story materialised, is for Uber to utilise its expanding network of drivers for more than solely taxiing people around.

It sounds revolutionary – and has rightfully been portrayed as such, due to the potential shift it could cause in the wider logistics sector. But when Essential Retail caught up with Abi Somorin, senior IT manager at designer swimwear retailer Orlebar Brown, he suggested his company has been sending products to its customers via taxi for years.

"We will put a parcel in a taxi and get the product delivered to a customer's office, if they don't have time to come and collect it," Somorin explained.

It is not an overtly advertised service but the ad hoc offering highlights the flexibility that can be built into the operations at Orlebar Brown, which runs five stores in affluent parts of London and sells its ranges through concessions and via luxury e-tailers such as Net-a-Porter.

Somorin commented: "We've been doing it for years with Addison Lee. Customers walk into a store in London and assume that they can exchange an item but sometimes the right size isn't in stock, but it might be available in another store."

With a significant percentage of its customers either business or leisure travellers, the IT boss acknowledges that many of its regulars leave their shopping until the last minute and are often en route to catch a flight. With that in mind, the retailer can order a taxi service to take the product from a store where the item is in stock to a customer "wherever they are, be it a train station or at a hotel".

Personalisation in luxury retail

Anecdotal evidence suggests the luxury sector is ideally set up for offering a more personalised service than its high street retail counterparts.

Retailers operating in the luxury sector naturally tend to have lower customer footfall than high street businesses but the people who do visit these stores will typically have a higher average transaction value. This can often result in customers being more easily identified by their behaviour and thus personalised shopper-retailer relationships are formed.

High-end companies such as Burberry have been among those quick to use emerging mobile technology, like iPads in stores that have quick access to CRM systems, in order to maintain this bond with customers and provide personalised clientelling services.

Jeweller De Beers is another case of a premium player using innovative systems to personalise its shoppers' journeys. An in-store tablet app, used by the retailer since 2013 and designed by Somo, allows customers to choose diamond rings tailored to their individual needs, share designs with friends and family, and consider a digitally-curated selection prior to purchase.

Both of these companies are examples of retailers who have customers that are willing to share personal information if they believe they are receiving notable value in return, and Orlebar Brown would appear to have similar relationships with its shoppers.

"In luxury people don't object to providing their personal details; you don't have to push customers into giving you their information," Somorin explained.

"If people like a particular style they want to hear about it again."

According to Somorin, the majority of Orlebar Brown's clients live in affluent areas, such as London hot-spots Mayfair, Notting Hill and Chelsea, and/or they regularly travel for business.

The retailer, which was thrust into to the limelight in 2012 when Daniel Craig's James Bond character wore a pair of the retailer's Setter swimming trunks in Skyfall, operates stores in Notting Hill, South Kensington, Covent Garden, Mayfair and Canary Wharf, as well as pop-up stores in international markets and concessions in US department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue.

In 2011, annual revenue was around the £2 million mark, but the business has grown its top-line 100% each year, to reach £12 million at the last count. For the current financial year, sales of £18 million have been projected and the organisation is profitable.

With its roots in menswear and swimwear, Orlebar Brown is now looking at growing its business in the categories of leisurewear, womensear and childrenswear. In addition, the launch of franchise operations and concessions in affluent markets abroad – such as Hong Kong, the Caribbean and the Middle East – could be the next logical step and has been pencilled in on the business roadmap.

Software, systems and services 

For Somorin, the main day job revolves around technology, which as most retailers are finding is becoming increasingly disruptive to how they operate and serve customers. Essential Retail was talking to Somorin at NetSuite's annual SuiteWorld Conference in California earlier this month, with Orlebar Brown an advocate of the software company's OneWorld cloud-based ERP solution, which it uses to manage all of its back office functions.

The retailer has also integrated OneWorld with NetSuite Point of Sale, which Somorin says allows Orlebar Brown to better understand its customers' individual journeys no matter which channel they have shopped on; be it in-store or digitally.

"We can see who the customer is when they walk into the store, which is fantastic from a marketing perspective and from a business perspective we start to see some trends," he explained.

"Typically I don't believe in disparate systems, and I always look at the two core product sets: your customer data and product data, and being able to have full control of that and making sure it's as accurate as possible. Anything that involves breaking that data set and control up is a no-no."

With the NetSuite back-end system as a platform, the company is now looking at how it can successfully implement a buy-and-return-anywhere model to add to the click & collect service it recently launched. The retailer has also started offering its customers the chance to receive digital receipts, using a system it built in-house after Somorin was inspired by a demonstration from an external vendor specialising in that field.

Whether it is investment in behind-the-scenes technology, the launch of new customer communication channels or knowing when the time is right to send out products via special delivery in an Addison Lee taxi, Somorin argues that successful retailing is now defined by "customer experience".

According to the IT boss, retailers need to be asking themselves how easy it is for their customers to find them online and how simple is the navigation on those websites "because people's attentions spans are very short these days". He also advises that they consider questions such as "How smooth is their checkout process?" and "How do they interact with shoppers following the point of sale?".

"If there's a new store opening up how can you use your postcode database to let local customers know? When customers enter a store how do you identify them? What products have they actually purchased before, so you can offer clientelling services? It's all about the customer journey.

"I can't say this enough: who pays you? It's your customer. What do they pay you for? Your product. Get those two things right and you'll be fine."

Click below for more information:

Orlebar Brown



What’s Hot on Essential Retail?