Big Interview: Head of digital at Saltrock, Richie Jones

Head of digital and marketing at Saltrock, Richie Jones, has only been with the company seven months, but in that time he has led the fashion retailer's digital transformation culminating in a complete overhaul of its website and back-end infrastructure.

Many retailers thinking of embarking on a digital transformation project the size of Saltrock's would consider outsourcing it to a systems integrator or large traditional IT company. But not the laid-back surfwear retailer which is still run by its founders who started out selling T-shirts out of the back of a VW Van in the late '80s.

Laid-back surfers

No, founders and brothers, Ross and Angus Thomson, instead headhunted Jones from EWM Group – his second digital and multichannel transformation project – enlisting him to the Saltrock board, bringing his expertise of small retail-specific technology vendors with him.

While Jones is a surfer himself, he had acclimatised to the corporate way of life and on joining Saltrock the most refreshing and enjoyable aspect of the job was being allowed to move quickly without having to wait for corporate contracts to be signed off.

"I'm very laid back, but working for some very full-on corporate companies, one of my challenges at Saltrock was I couldn't believe how different it was - we make decisions and move quickly," he tells Essential eCommerce.

When Jones joined, a relaunch of the ten-year-old website was on the cards. The first step was getting to grips with the retailer's legacy systems and terminating old contracts.

"It was incredible, there was a box making a strange whirring noise in the corner of the room which was driving the whole business," he says.

Rip and replace

Saltrock firstly replaced its obsolete Fashion Master stock control system and replaced it with Futura. This, integrated into the web platform built by Docnet, enables the retailer to tie up its online business with the point-of-sale and tills in store – allowing for real time visibility of stock and click & collect services which will launch later this year.

"We have full visibility of where stock is and where it's moving to," he says. "And we're about to switch our in-house warehouse capability to a third party [Seko] which will give us massive scalability at peak demand."

"Having experienced Black Friday last year, falling behind by many days, combined with the launch of our TV ads in Q4 – we need the high capacity."

In the six months it took to launch he enlisted eight new digital technology companies to transform Saltrock into a modern multichannel retailer, and it is now prepared to launch internationally through its new online platform.

One such vendor is Qubit which uses big data to personalise eCommerce websites for shoppers, by cleverly figuring out the consumer's gender, age and historic shopping behaviours.

"We're going to use this to drive them to free shipping thresholds, as well as serving products based on the local weather conditions, which surprisingly does drive conversion," he explains.

Another vendor, Nosto, uses an algorithm to provide recommendations for shoppers based what is already in their basket.

Rather than using one provider, Jones is a fan of exploring the market and choosing several software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors instead, some of which he has worked with before.

"It's my third digital transformation project in recent years, I tend to drag around the vendors with me," he laughs.

"Adobe Creative Cloud claims to do a lot of this, but I'm just not seeing a good SI SaaS approach from one provider which is really nailing it," he explains. "We're also getting better value by mixing them up, and with companies like Oracle, they have massive margins and often take a percentage of sales – you're just signing your life away for a couple of years."

He also says smaller vendors work on an ROI model, meaning the vendors have to work really hard to satisfy their retail customers.

Jones is also a fan of content marketing, noting companies like BooHoo who are expertly funnelling customers into purchase through appropriate content.

"So the old days of eCommerce being purely transactional are numbered, this has the scary impact on conversion rates, as users come to eCommerce sites to view content and not always buy but ultimately the life time value (LTV) of the customer goes up."

In-store technology

But the transformation project was not just about eCommerce, the Saltrock stores have been digitally overhauled as well. Saltrock currently has 40 stores, with plans to increase this to 80 next year, and its till systems have all been upgraded to allow web services such as order-from-store and click & collect which will launch early next year.

"Click & collect could go live sooner, but the retail teams in store have already had quite a bit of change and there's the complexities of creating storage areas ahead of the Christmas peak, so we thought it would be best to do it in January."

Despite having full visibility of stock, Jones says click & collect orders will not be fulfilled from store, instead shipped in the more traditional way – from warehouse to store.

"In the future we can do that, but we're keeping it simple for now," he says. "The challenge is some lines are web online, but there is eventually future capability there."

And with the retailer's endless aisle solution, this hopefully will be less of a problem when the shop assistants have the power of iPads at their fingertips at the beginning of next year.

"They will be able to take some of the load if there's a big queue in the store as customers can pay through the device and it's an opportunity for an upsell – that's when it becomes truly multichannel," adds Jones.

Strangely enough, with many different technologies being integrated at the same time, the biggest pain point for the project was with the Royal Mail. "We print the labels in the warehouse and getting quality signed off took seven weeks – otherwise we would have been live sooner."

And his favourite part of the journey? "Speed," he answers. "The speed we got the design and architecture signed off [from the board] was really quick and effortless."

And while the board have been laid back and happy to let Jones get on with his job, he's well aware he will have to keep proving that the transformation has been worth it.

"The thing that keeps me up at night is that with all digital transformation projects after year one there is a massive year-on-year spike – and from the board's view, how do you maintain that momentum? Once you've gone beyond international, what's next? I've had it in other roles and it's tricky when you get to year three."

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This article has been amended slightly (2 March) from the original published in January to reflect Jones' involvement in the RBTE conference. He will be speaking on 10 March at 13:40 in the eCommerce Theatre, talking about the lessons learnt from Saltrock's digital transformation.

To attend RBTE 9-10 March for free, click here.