Being bold and brave: River Island’s digital transformation

After a difficult couple of years, River Island is now benefitting from a new merchandising tool which has dramatically improved the retailer’s buying capabilities. River Island now has a single view of its inventory across its 320 stores, as well as its wholesale and franchised operations.

But implementation wasn’t easy, River Island’s CIO Doug Gardner, tells Essential Retail. Not only did it take longer than anticipated, the retailer ended up stopping the project completely at one point, in order to take stock; restructure its IT capabilities to become agile and run in the cloud; and start again in the right frame of mind.

After talking to Gardner, it’s refreshing to hear how a seemingly simple upgrade to one part of the business can have unknown repercussions which, for River Island, ended up changing the way the retailer approaches digital.

“The project has now been well received within the business, it helps us do multichannel planning and it was a big trigger for us to kick off a wider digital transformation project.”

Gardner says the merchandise planning refresh was a starting point, because a few years ago the retailer “couldn’t even plan what it wanted to buy”.

“So we started with that, and built in our broader digital omnichannel ambitions to compete with the pureplays, but planning is what drove the initial decision.”

Gardner says River Island chose to work with Oracle to implement its ‘Retail Merchandise Financial Planning’ tool because it wanted a vendor with “some skin in the game”.

“We wanted them to be a close partner, we didn’t want a systems integrator, we wanted Oracle right there. And they were good at downing tools and stepping away from the project and letting us re-start. It wasn’t easy when we did, but we realised we weren’t just trying to put in a decent planning system, but build a proper omnichannel business along the way.”

Being brave enough to stop

Gardner says the hardest part was admitting that the project needed to stop. “No one wants to go to the chief exec after agreeing on a budget and a timeframe. But it proved absolutely the best thing on earth,” he explains.

“It’s about being bold, being brave and making sure you’re doing the right thing. And it proved to be the health and future of the company – this true leadership allowed us to step back.”

He describes how this one project led to River Island asking some hard questions about its business. It ended up changing the company structure – the marketing director became customer director –and began working in different ways.

“The brand is 30 years old and for 29 years it has been running as a bricks and mortar business with a website, this challenged everything, but we had strong leadership from senior management who were determined to do it and do it right.”