RS Components on pushing nimble approaches for digital transformation

Alex von Schirmeister, chief digital, technology and innovation officer at retail specialist RS Components, is on a mission to develop a world-class online experience for his firm’s customers – and creative use of digital technology sits at the heart of this change process.

Since joining RS Components in late 2015, von Schirmeister has worked with internal specialists and external partners to help transform the business. When he joined the firm after 11 years at eBay, von Schirmeister says he found a legacy retail business, wedded to waterfall processes and a conservative IT structure. 

The change during the past three years has been rapid: the perception of technology within RS Components has changed, and digital is now embedded within the business and is a key strategic lever for business growth. By embracing cloud, Agile working methods and innovation, von Schirmeister has created a flexible technology platform that allows his firm to deliver high-quality customer experiences across a mix of digital channels.

“We’ve gone from being a traditional IT shop, based around one or two suppliers and a focus on ERP, to becoming much nimbler,” he says. “What I’ve learnt is that if you want to create a successful business transformation, don’t think of digital as this big monolith that’s owned by a specific team. When you look at digital, you must look at each element of the journey individually and work on each part one by one.”

Innovation is an area where von Schirmeister has already made big strides forward. We talk at IBM’s Cloud Garage in London, where RS Components is launching a new community platform known as DesignSpark Marketplace. The platform allows start-ups and small businesses to promote, test and sell their inventions to an online community of 650,000 members. RS worked with IBM to create this new platform in just four weeks. 

“When we observed the community, we noticed many of our members have great ideas but they don’t have an outlet for their creativity – there’s no market where they can go and sell the things they create. We’ve learnt a lot from IBM about understanding how rapidly we can stand up a minimal viable product and a finished service,” says von Schirmeister, who says working with external partners helps RS Components to innovate on behalf of its customers.

“Our organisation serves engineers. I think we are leading in terms of building a relationship with the maker community, and proving we are listening and more than happy to co-invent with them. We have, not just the will, but also the tools, the capabilities and the investment to continue building out DesignSpark, to make it a natural home for our design community.”

The community-focused approach to technology implementation is one that von Schirmeister has also used in ecommerce. Three years ago, the firm treated its online business as a single entity. Today, says von Schirmeister, RS Components pays close attention to its community and breaks the digital journey of the customer into its constituent elements. 

“We analyse the separate research, finding and buying phases,” he says. “Within the buying phase there are other sub-elements, such as how do consumers sort, how do they search, how do they put products in a basket, and how do they checkout. What we’ve been doing is staffing resources against those components and, through customer-centric design, we’re working to create a world-class online experience.”

Being very close to client requirements, says von Schirmeister, is the key to customer-centric design. He says this concentration allows RS Components to establish the gap between what the firm offers today and what its clients would expect in the future. “We then work on prioritising the storylines that we need to work on and provide the tools to the Agile teams to start improving the user experience,” he says. 

Right now, most of the firm’s ecommerce efforts are focused on mobile and desktop platforms. RS Components has operations in 32 countries and ships more than 50,000 parcels to customers every day. In the future, von Schirmeister envisages developments across a range of areas, including voice-assisted applications, virtual reality headsets and in-car infotainment systems. “We must continue to think about innovating across all areas of ecommerce,” he says.