Big Interview: House of Fraser on becoming a next-gen department store

Retail IT decision makers cannot afford to forget legacy technology systems as they embrace digital services, says Julian Burnett, CIO at House of Fraser.

Burnett is helping to create what he describes as the next-generation department store through the adoption of digital technology. As well as the role of CIO, Burnett is responsible for overall business transformation and supply chain improvement at the retail giant.

Since taking up his position in October 2015, Burnett has used key technologies – such as business intelligence, cloud computing and supply chain automation – to help create a platform for lasting organisational change at House of Fraser. Yet while new technology is crucial to his work, he recognises that existing systems remain crucial – and he advises other retail CIOs to approach digital transformation with care.

“Recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Burnett. “Unless you’re in an incredibly lucky position, you live with old systems and new services simultaneously. Your approach to managing and investing in technology must recognise that large-scale change must sit alongside continuous small-scale change.”

Logistics and supply chain

In terms of the supply chain, Burnett has helped his firm consolidate its logistics operations through XPO and to reduce its reliance on as many as 13 outbound dispatch providers to just a single supplier, Yodel. The firm will also implement a new operating model in its distribution centres through 2018 and is working with specialist provider Dematic to introduce various technological components, including voice-controlled and automated picking.

“Having an approach as a CIO that can accommodate the old and new worlds simultaneously in an environment where you’ve got brittle legacy technologies and shiny, digital technologies is quite a tough combination of things to orchestrate,” he says. “But it must be done. I’ve seen organisations in other parts of retail that have not managed to achieve that balance between structural change and continuous, agile change.”

Replatform and data

Burnett inherited the re-platforming of the firm’s £600 million eCommerce operations when he joined House of Fraser. Burnett has turned the previously struggling initiative around and delivered a selection of packaged technologies on top of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform.

He has also focused on big data, having found employees were unable to turn the huge amount of information they collected into useful insights for the business. Burnett has led the introduction of nGenBI, the retailer’s analytics initiative, and has managed the roll-out of business intelligence (BI) tool MicroStrategy 10, which uses interactive dashboards to transform the way employees consume data.

“You must be aware of the importance of data – you must know where it resides and you must place governance controls around information,” says Burnett, reflecting on best practice advice for other retail CIOs. “You must also have the tools to use data in both operational and transformational mode. In our organisation, we’re asking everyone to step into change mode. Familiarity with the tools that people use in their operational lives is useful.”

Having previously held IT leadership roles at both John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, Burnett is now using his experience to drive further change at another British retail institution. He recognises that the potential power of digital transformation is significant. Yet while digital-led change can create a big improvement in customer service, he advises other IT leaders to remember that enterprise systems can have a similarly large impact on experiences.

"Don’t overlook your colleagues"

Burnett is currently implementing a new electronic point of sale (EPOS) system. He says there can be a deep-rooted belief amongst retailers that internal systems, like EPOS, are less important in terms of investment in the digital age than customer-facing services. However, Burnett says this belief is misguided – EPOS, after all, helps the business serve its customers.

“Don’t overlook your colleagues – they’re the people that make your business what it is. I think there’s a tendency in retail to over-invest in customer-facing technology at the expense of systems that help internal users. I’ve tried to strike a balance,” he says, offering advice to other IT leaders looking to embrace digital transformation.

“Make choices that are balanced and backed with evidence. Have a go is my best advice to CIOs – there should be no fear in taking advantage of new and emerging technologies, so long as you can direct that at areas of improvement and investment that are both customer-facing and colleague-facing,”