“We struggle with legacy systems too”

When it comes to the big retail challenge of updating legacy systems, what springs to mind is a traditional bricks & mortar retailer, late to launching an eCommerce site, with creaking IT infrastructure and a recently implemented five-year digital transformation plan dictated by the board.

A company that does not tick any of those boxes is – an online retailer founded in 2006, selling fast-fashion to digitally-savvy millennials and Gen Zs. Last year it doubled its revenue from £295 million to £580 million, while pocketing a hefty £43.3 million in pre-tax profit.

Clearly this eCommerce success story is not singing from the same hymn sheet as many of the struggling high-street retailers today. But Boohoo’s head of IT operations, Steve Roberts, says the business still faces challenges when it comes to outdated technology.

“We have less legacy systems than most other companies because we’re a relatively new business – it’s not like the banks still running on mainframes from the ‘60s,” he says.

“For us, the word ‘legacy’ is subjective. Stuff that’s a year old can still be legacy due to the pace of the industry.”

This is a topic Roberts will be discussing at the Retail Week Tech. event in London next month, and he admits a retailer can have the newest, shiniest IT systems but still face strategic challenges - because retailers just don’t know what is around the corner.

Boohoo’s IT portfolio

Apart from Sage for accountancy, which was implemented from day one, Roberts says most other technology platforms deployed at Boohoo are under three years old and Boohoo’s 45-strong tech team ensure they choose technologies that they can swap out quickly in order to remain agile.

“We’ve taken an agile approach to source systems – let’s not build something we’re stuck with but swap it out and make it easy to get rid of as possible,” he explains.

“In terms of IT, it is a relatively painless exercise and we’re taking that approach because these days it’s really hard to do big systems,” says Roberts, who believes that if you implement SAP or Oracle you are “stuck in their world”.

In order to be able to quickly swap out systems, three people in Boohooo’s Java team spent a year building a cloud-based integration platform using open-source software. Because it uses open-source technology, Roberts says it doesn’t cost very much to run and switching out systems – like the retailer’s eCommerce replatform onto Salesforce Commerce cloud last year – is a reasonably quick process which Boohoo can control centrally.

“It means we avoid getting locked into big systems and we can cut and paste stuff when it comes to the end of its lifetime,” he explains, noting how the in-house integration system also helps the retailer scale and process more orders in peak periods.

Roberts concedes that it is easier for a newer business built on digital foundations to be so agile, but also points out how new technologies such as open source and the cloud make IT change much easier.

“Back 25 years ago it was harder to take my approach, but now there is no excuse to put in place systems and not be stuck with stuff that is hard to get rid of.”

While its open-source integration system acts as the skeleton for Boohoo’s IT, Roberts and his team choose a mixture of outsourcing and in-house development which sits on this core system.

“We’ve outsourced our eCommerce platform because in reality it is a monumental job to build,” he says. “We have our order management tool which we’ve built ourselves, but for the big stuff you can’t avoid going out to a provider. But the stuff that’s small and we can add value to it, we do ourselves, which means we have an IT application portfolio across the business which is a healthy mix of products we’ve bought and products we’ve built.”

Acquiring talent

But Roberts’ biggest worry isn’t the failure of critical systems or the cost of IT infrastructure, it’s people. Retaining staff is what keeps him up at night. And while the company may be based in the UK’s second largest technology hub, Roberts says the Manchester-based team is being “pestered” by recruiters on LinkedIn every single day.

Roberts says some retailers skimp on technology talent, believing it is more important to spend the pounds on the IT itself. “But at the end of the day, you can buy the best system in the world, but if no one in the team can use it – that’s a waste.”

He advises retailers not to be afraid of new technologies, using open source as an example. “Some people think it’s kids messing around, but there’s a lot of good software out there and you can get operational really quickly and at a reasonably low cost.”

But it hasn’t been easy for Roberts to find and retain the talent to use these emerging technology platforms. He tends to hire inexperienced people who are enthusiastic and willing to learn new systems so they can grow with the business.

And with Boohoo rubbing shoulders with the likes of the BBC, Missguided, Cisco, and many more in Manchester’s technology hub, this competition for talent may only get more challenging.

Roberts will be speaking on a panel tackling the challenge of legacy systems on Wednesday 12 September 09:50-10:30 at Retail Week Tech. event located at Printworks, London.