Interview: Joules head of IT Mike Wilks

Last week saw country clothing brand Joules secure further funding to provide a platform for its international expansion plans, but it is not just global growth keeping the retailer's executive team busy this year.

An £11 million credit facility from Barclays is set to be ploughed into developing Joules' presence in North America and Europe, but will also be used to fine tune and advance the retailer's continual digital strategy as it looks to ensure customers receive a seamless service regardless of which channel they engage with the business.

One key development finalised this year was the implementation of the Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP system, which Joules' head of IT, Mike Wilks, describes as the "hearts and lungs" of the business and the "glue that holds all the systems together".

Following work with AX partner HSO, the system is now in place and Wilks is confident Joules is well down the path to becoming an integrated multichannel business as a result. This is expected, among other things, to lead the retailer towards serving shoppers with tablet devices in-store and, potentially in the future, taking transactions in the changing room and offering customers digital receipts.

Fundamental return-on-investment goals of the AX implementation revolve around improving stock management and turnover, markdown strategy and dealing with end-of-season lines. Some of the targets "look very achieveable", according to Wilks, who added the investment with HSO should "more than pay for the project" in the long-term.

"Why did we choose HSO? They came across as having credibility in the fashion space, particularly with some of their recent implementations at other companies," he said.

"We were impressed with their structured approach to building and developing the project, which gave us confidence. We are still a fairly young business and it has grown fast. There aren't a huge number of people in the business with big systems change experience, so we felt the structured approach was of real value to us."

Like most fashion retailers, the issue of dealing with product returns is a real challenge for Joules, especially as the retailer sells its goods via retail stores, a wholesale arm, a customer service channel, online and at country shows. With goods being bought in one place and customers perhaps wanting to take those products back to a different location, strong stock management becomes critical.

"There is no doubt you can lose a lot of margin and all your good sales numbers are eroded quickly is you have returns and you don't manage them properly," explained Wilks.

"If you can exchange products quickly that's a win, but if you make it hard for customers that's a loss. None of us can put our customers in a position where they don't want to come back to us. It's difficult to win customers but very easy to lose them."

The ERP investment is one of a raft of vendor partnerships recently fostered by Joules that includes the use of JDA Software-owned Red Prairie's distribution centre management system. In addition, SAP hybris technology helps run the company's eCommerce operation and Computop is used for facilitating some unique payments requirements in the German market, while Metapack is a respected delivery partner.

Unlike some retailers that often position their use of technology as key part of their public relations message, Joules has arguably been relatively limited in its experimentation with innovative customer-facing technology, but that situation is slowly evolving.

"It would be fair to say that we've been doing some catching up in the last two or three years, with founder Tom Joule's focus on building the business, which he has done incredibly successfully," noted Wilks.

"We've opened a lot of stores in recent years and built a successful web presence, and we've built on our wholesale and customer service divisons. There is an element of truth that IT investment four years ago was lagging behind, but there is a clear recognition by Tom and the board that offerings such as collect in-store are no longer differentiators, they are almost hygiene factors. They are simply things you have to do as part of being a retailer today."

Wilks acknowledges that Joules will never be a John Lewis or Marks & Spencer, which have "incredibly deep pockets" to roll out speculative, innovative projects. The key focus for the fashion brand, he says, is to offer the "best possible customer service".

"But in order to catch up you have to invest," he added.

"My financial director is like all financial directors: he doesn't want to spend money if he doesn't have to. He will if there is a reason to do so and funds are available for sensible, judicious investment in IT. Dynamics AX with HSO is the latest example of that."

In-store ordering on a tablet device is expected to be introduced in some Joules stores this summer, but what is currently missing is the mobile PED that will allow the retailer to take payments on the move. Wilks and his team are also investigating how beacons may be best utilised in shops, while the already-installed in-store Wi-Fi for customers may be leveraged to help the business better record and predict shopper behaviour.

"My retail director has real ambitions in changing room checkout and freeing staff from behind the cash desk, although there is still the challenge of cash and wrap to overcome. We are very much looking to partner with people to deliver that sort of technology."

Wilks' career to date has seen him work vendor side and as an independent consultant, as well as holding in-house retail positions at high street names such as Woolworths, BHS and River Island.

Since arriving in retail in 1990 he has experienced huge change, but it is this constant evolution he views as an attractive feature of the industry.

"I love retail; it's a great place to work," he remarked.

"If you're bored with it this week then just give it a few days and something new will come along. Retailers continually reinvent themselves and I've been lucky to work with some great people. The retail experience has kept me young, alive and interested in the world. Someone will always come up with a bright idea and off we go again."

Tom Joule has been the source of many bright ideas himself, overseeing a business that generated a revenue of just under £100 million last year. In recent times he and his fellow executives have identified technology investment as essential to preserving the retailer's future, and customers should now begin to see new tools and devices brought into stores as the company continues to grow at home and abroad.

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