Big Interview: Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

The impact of digital and multichannel caught 60-year-old high street retailer, River Island, by surprise.

"The impact of multichannel is a tiny blip on the company's history, but it has been just such a fast change," says River Island's CIO, Doug Gardner.

"We never properly prepared ourselves on how we would plan and execute these channels," he explains, saying the journey to digital has been difficult after being thrown a "curveball" over the last few years.

But River Island is now digitally transforming its business from the inside out – looking at both the back-end infrastructure which powers the retailer, all the way to the customer-facing digital products it uses to engage with shoppers.

Speaking at an Oracle customer event in Amsterdam last week, Gardner tells Essential eCommerce that while online is important, the physical connection with the customer is still integral to the retailer. "We don't want customers to use their mobile devices on a dodgy 3G connection in our stores for a little piece of information, part of the transformation is connecting the systems and merging the store with the customer application."

A true ambassador for the River Island brand, wearing ripped jeans and a stylish jacket, Gardner explains if a customer puts something in their online basket and then comes into the store, the retailer should be able to send an alert to their mobile to inform them the item they want is in stock.

"Customers no longer accept if you do something on a desktop, that you can't continue that journey on an app," he says. "There's some incredible pieces of technology launched in a matter of days across the globe, and our customers can't understand why they can't have that same functionality in River Island."

Customer touch points

Gardner thinks the biggest digital change is all about the mobile. "It is just rapidly moving towards that as the only vehicle people will use to shop," he says. "And that's also where all of the technology is being developed –every day your entire life revolves around mobile and that's the most important shift were having to jump on."

But in order to give customers a great experience online and via mobile, Gardner has embarked on a digital transformation of all the back-end systems and infrastructure needed to support this new era of retailing.

Infrastructure development

One such project has been the trialling of RFID tags to improve stock accuracy, in hopes it will improve fulfilment and increase sales.

"RFID has been one of the long suffering technologies which has been the answer to every problem on earth for the last ten years," says Gardner. "But the biggest problem was cost – it was very expensive and now like all technologies, it's gone through a couple of iterations and is becoming quite cheap."

Gardner explains that a few years back, RFID tagging was only worthwhile for large ticket items like TVs, because the cost per tag was relatively low compared to the cost of the TV.

"But when you start inserting them into fast fashion items where the margins are tiny, cost was prohibitive."

Now RFID is cheaper, River Island is looking to introduce the technology to improve stock accuracy, which again, a few years ago, was not as important as it is today.

"When you look internally, if you mess up, you mess up and it doesn't have the same impact, but if you start giving the customers visibility of what's in stock and what's not, and they come in and see those figures aren't correct, it has a massive negative impact on the customer.

"So you have to either build in such big buffers to make sure you have the stock, or get the stock deadly accurate," he explains.

River Island is six months into a trial of RFID embedded in the security tags of its products, but Gardner hopes in the medium to long term the technology will be incorporated into the swing tag during factory production at source.

This allows River Island to understand what stock is where along the supply chain, and helps store managers conduct inventories in a couple of hours. The next step is understanding where the product is down to feet and metres, so if a customer comes in looking for a top and there is only one in store, the staff can find out where exactly it is.

"We have things on mannequins and changing rooms and because it's fast fashion, there's stuff in and out and when it's done, it's done. It's not like the Gap with a continuation line which always has 20 in stock, we only have five of something in the store and if three are being tried on, that has an impact on our ability to fulfil from that store."

River Island is already looking at solutions to know if a product is on the shop floor or in the changing rooms, by scanning the clothes customers want to try on using RFID readers.

RFID will also improve the retailer's click & collect offering, which currently has a 9pm cut-off for next day delivery to store from its Milton Keynes warehouse, which is free of charge for customers.

"But the next generation is to be able to pick from store, or for store A to get stock from store B or C," he explains, saying that the accuracy of stock will help save money when fulfilling orders. "But we're quite a way off picking from store, we really have to have the RFID working to have the accuracy and we need to put some software in which sits in the middle to help orchestrate the orders."

He says the initial RFID trial has led to an uptake in sales. "So we know by having accurate stock figures that means you get better replenishment."

Back-end supporting systems

While Gardner is looking to roll out the technology, there is still a lot of work to be done on the back-end supporting systems. At the moment, the retailer is working with Oracle to support its back-end infrastructure, using the Oracle Commerce product which provides search and optimisations solutions. Gardner says he uses Oracle because it develops solid products which provide a platform for its planning systems and core merchandising.

"It's a good solid platform for our core multichannel business, which allows us to just get on with things without huge modifications and to focus on the stuff which really touches the customers."

Gardner describes how Oracle is keeping River Island's back-end infrastructure ticking over, which allows the technology team to develop bespoke solutions for the applications the customer does interact with.

"For our digital customer touchpoints we're looking at bespoking a lot of stuff and having a lot more control, so we're going for very boutique-style companies to get that agility," he says, referring to start-up programmes like TrueStart of which he takes part in to search for new innovative technologies.

"Bespoke is what makes a difference in the digital space – it's highly competitive, but you can be unique and win, but you have to keep on top of the speed of change," he explains.

But all this digital change is not happening quite fast enough for Gardner. "I'm impatient, but the frustration and excitement links together. The fact we're trying to change everything and compete in a space where if you don't compete, you don't get moving really quickly and go out of business, is very exciting. But also at the same time it's very frustrating, as you have to build to try and move fast in an industry that traditionally moves relatively slow."

The skills gap

One way Gardner wants to really get to grips with the speed of change is by hiring more people. He intends to double the size of his tech and IT department from 100 to 200 in the next couple of years, but is concerned about the skills gap facing the UK and how he will fill that quota.

"It's a competitive marketplace, we have to make sure people realise how good it is to work for River Island and how interesting the projects are."

As a privately-owned business, Gardner admits the company has not traditionally spoken a lot about how it runs its business. But he says there is a culture change going on at River Island and he is using this as an opportunity to try and attract more people to the brand in a highly competitive jobs market.

"People in the digital space want to know they're making a difference, they're working on interesting projects they'll develop themselves and that we're investing in them properly," he explains, saying how traditional recruitment methods are falling by the wayside.

Previously IT director at French Connection before moving to River Island four years ago, Gardner says he likes the emotional connection to family-run businesses. "You have that direct connection to the owners and the ability to make decisions really rapidly."

Gardner also describes how exciting it is working in fashion – even if he is working in IT.

"The most exciting part of my job, is when I get up every day and go to work for a fashion company, I don't think I'd be that bouncing around if I worked for Dulux Paints or anything like that, but being part of a fast-fashion business is fun."

Comparing the traditionally discreet River Island to other digital retailers who have talked a lot about how they're working with start-ups and cool technologies, Gardner says a lot of companies are looking for bespoke services because they are "a bit stale and stiff".

"They need a bit of sparkle added to their companies to make them look cool, but we've already got that in bucket-loads – we don't have to try and be trendy, because we are."

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