Maplin’s head of IT on relaunching the business as online-only

The closure of Maplin last June was among 2018’s biggest high street casualties – in a year notable for boarded up windows. But just six months later the electronic odds and sods specialist relaunched as an online-only brand, after an unnamed investor bought its intellectual property.

“We haven’t changed Maplin, we’ve changed the model to make it more efficient and not have that massive cost base, which included 217 stores,” says Ollie Marshall, IT director at the new company. “Maplin wasn’t a fundamentally bad business, but with the economy changing and buying patterns changing, it was too challenging to be a bricks and mortar business selling those kinds of products.”

Greenfield project

Part of its reinvention was the conscious effort to start with a clean slate and new technology.

“We could have adopted legacy systems, but it made more sense to take whatever is best of breed today – compared with Maplin’s original systems which were from the 1990s.”

The business has partnered with Adobe and Magento to run its website, and is using Amazon Web Services for hosting: “Starting from scratch meant we were able to go straight to cloud and have a cloud native infrastructure. That scales much better, and hopefully provides a much better customer experience,” says Marshall.

It is also working with fraud prevention specialist Signifyd to protect transactions, as well as having developed some bespoke systems to communicate with suppliers. “We’ve made it self-service, with an online portal so our suppliers can interact with us, and we can raise issues with them without having to have loads of people on the phone and sending emails back and forth, like a lot of legacy retailers.”

Getting the brand back online in such a short space of time was a challenge. Marshall says the initial priority was getting the back office ready, having spent 60% of time so far setting up things like fraud prevention and integration.

“You can get into a hell of a mess if that’s not there. You can have the nicest website, but if you can’t get orders out, you’re in trouble.” That focus has been slightly to the detriment of speed and customer experience, he admits. “So the next big step is taking the front-end to the next level.”

Engaging customers

Because the new business came back online relatively quickly, the web traffic didn’t drop off too severely. “Google still respects a lot of the domain equity,” he says. “So we were able to re-engage a lot of ranking.” But there’s still a lot to do.

“We don’t just want to be a place where you just go to buy a product – our plan is to provide customers with quality content, including videos, and blog posts.”

The company already employs some ex-Maplin staff to speak to customers via its live chat function. Marshall says it wants to continue to build its team of experts in the next six months and populate the site with explainer videos and tutorials.

“So for example, if you were to search smart light bulbs, we’ll explain the difference between Wi-Fi, RF, bluetooth – all the different technologies. Rather than just being transactional, which is the experience you’ll get on Amazon.”

It also wants to partner with YouTubers and people who write for hobbyist magazines – offering content on areas such as how to build drones from scratch, for example.

“When we speak to customers on live chat, they are very passionate about our brand still… we have a lot of enthusiasts and tech pros. These are the type of people who care a lot more about their projects.”

By appealing to that customer base, it could gain a competitive advantage, he says. But getting the products and price right is still very important.  “Unfortunately a lot of people did have the view that Maplin was expensive. A big part of that was because the business was costly to run.”

“Now we don’t have the stores and legacy…. and we’ve aimed to set up business in a very capital light,” he says. “But suppliers also want to work with a retailer that can add value, beyond just being listed among hundreds of products on an Amazon search.”

“We still have a lot of work to do around making sure everyone knows we are back… but we think we have the right ingredients for our business model.”