Big Interview: Simon Kerry, CIO, Charles Tyrwhitt

Simon Kerry, CIO at Charles Tyrwhitt, was bought into the retailer nearly five years ago to replace all of the British shirt retailer’s bespoke systems, from ePOS and back-office functionalities, through to ERP and web platforms. 

Speaking to Essential Retail at the Demandware Xchange conference in Miami, Kerry explains how Charles Tyrwhitt’s legacy systems were preventing the retailer from scaling its business. 

“The upside with in-house bespoke is you can make it do anything you want,” says Kerry. “The downside is no one writes anything down. You’re always under pressure to get the next thing out, but nothing gets documented properly and then someone leaves and the next person comes along, and it takes you three or four times longer than it should do.”

One of the most significant technology replacements was the retailer’s eCommerce site, which Charles Tyrwhitt embarked on two years ago, after the back office functionalities were up and running.

Kerry describes a lengthy RFP process to find the best vendor for the job. It eventually came down to Demandware and SAP Hybris.

“We’ve been trading online since 1998, and as a direct business, over 50% of our company is online, so there’s a lot of technical capabilities and it was easier for us to pull together a comprehensive RFP,” says Kerry.

He says Charles Tyrwhitt will take around £150 million online this year alone. “That’s a big sum of money for online, you are usually talking 5-10% of a business’ turnover.”

During the RFP process, Kerry asked other retailers about their experiences with Demandware and Hybris. “We spoke to people we know, rather than the vendor’s references – they’re not going to give you a bad one,” he laughs. “Everyone we spoke to about Demandware was really pleased with it and when you hear that 10,15, 20 times, you believe it. But with Hybris we got: ‘yeah, it’s all right’.”

Kerry says Demandware was a good match for the retailer as the majority of its clients are in retail – mostly apparel – while Hybris was championing its electronics and travel customers. He also believes Demandware is the “only true on-demand platform out there”. 

So after the decision was made to partner with Demandware, Kerry’s IT team worked with the Javelin Group to remove the legacy complexity and integrate the new platform, and was live on January 19th 2016.

“We were live in the UK, US, Germany and Australia all at the same time and a testament of how well it went was we turned off our old site at 1am and turned on the new one at 3am and I took 40 people down to the pub at 2pm that same day.”

Kerry says choosing to outsource its web platform was a strategic business decision to help Charles Tyrwhitt scale. 

“My experience tells me the more bespoke you are, the less likely you are to do large technology upgrade,” he says. “The business continues forcing you to build revenue by driving functionalities, which means you are unlikely to get around to a big update to the database in the background. And seven or eight years down the line you’re so far behind you have no choice but to rebuild the whole lot, which is where we were.”

But Kerry admits Charles Tyrwhitt’s bespoke systems did give the business a competitive advantage when it comes to data. “We came from a fairly unusual place because we’ve always had a unified view of our customer,” says Kerry, noting how the bespoke systems allowed the retailer to know when customers were buying across its different channels. 

Charles Tyrwhitt has always asked in-store customers for their email address upon purchase, which becomes their unique ID. “And a lot of our customers came from catalogues, so they know we have their name and address and they’re comfortable that we know who they are.”

Kerry says all retailers want to get to a point where they have one single front-end system. “That’s where I think Demandware has it right, they have web, retail and contact centre all in one system, so you don’t have to worry about multiple systems, just fulfilment, stock and product information.”

And stock and fulfilment is the next big challenge for Charles Tyrwhitt, but not in the same way as other retailers are struggling. 

He describes how the retailer’s warehouses are set up to deliver to customers from its mail order heritage. “So replenishing our stores in the UK is not too difficult, but over the next few years when they may become 30 or 40, we have to transition our business to replenish those stores rather than our direct customers – normally it’s the other way around.”

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