Chances are that like many UK consumers CIO UK readers will have ordered at least part of their Yuletide food and drink online. It is probable that most of that was from the well-stocked cybershelves of Tesco.com, given that it is credited as the most successful online grocery shopping service in the world.

At least some of the credit for that must go to its CTO, Jon Higgins. Higgins has been there from the start: he helped set up Tesco’s very first move online with a very simple site as far back as 1994. “That was my project as a network designer in those days,” he says.

“Think of a bulletin board online – that’s all it was – accessed by one or two interested people at universities.”

Growth spurt

What is incontrovertible is the scale of the online grocery juggernaut that is today’s online arm of this famously dominant UK retailer.

In 2006 sales rose by 32 per cent, to reach almost £1 billion, with profit up by 55 per cent to £56 million. It now has around 750,000 regular customers and up to 220,000 orders a week.

Like other online retailers such as Amazon, the company is also expanding to sell a huge variety of products beyond its original remit. Tesco’s Direct business now offers 8,000 offerings only available via the internet. That site got over 1m hits in its first three weeks of operation when it opened in September.

Dot-com victims

It is a long way from the early days of the home shopping concept, back in 1995, which Higgins also helped set up, with a special CompuServe site. “We’ve learnt an awful lot in 10 years,” is his somewhat compressed description of the intervening boom and of course, bust, for a raft of promising dot-com home delivery operations like Webvan and Peapod.

“Ultimately those guys didn’t have the kind of profitable model we have,” he says.

Higgins manages a team of some 80 developers, in a technology environment dominated by Microsoft.
Web services and .Net feature high on the technology stack – BT on hosting and internet connectivity, Dell as the hardware platform and Cisco on the network and firewall front.

Responsible role

Higgins characterises his current role and responsibility to ensure 24x7 uptime and operational efficiency of the service. “That’s something that extends to back-office systems and stores as much as the website,” he says.

He also directs a constant development drive to produce improvements on a ‘simpler, faster, cheaper’ basis – not a new mantra to this 20-year veteran of the competitive UK retail sector.

What can we expect from the website in 2007? “We are looking for new ways to make the customer experience more exciting,” he says mysteriously, before throwing out a further hint or two on the importance to the company of the “digital home”.

This will include at least some downloadable music, it turns out, as well as other non-food and drink products – even Christmas puddings, if you want to plan ahead.