Paul Smith IT chief Lee Bingham ahead of insourcing trend

Pre- and post-London Olympics the world has been covered in British design. Union Jacks, the original Alec Issigonis Minis and the Rolling Stones seem to appear on T-shirts, bags, posters and other accessories no matter where in the world you are. But this is no new Cool Britannia boom – British company Paul Smith has been championing home-grown design and has become a world leader in fashion, design and retail since its iconic founder formed his company in Nottingham in the late 1960s and opened his first shop in 1970.

Lee Bingham heads IT at Paul Smith and if we hadn't met him before our interview at the company's London base he would have been difficult to pick out. Dressed immaculately in the timeless style of his employers, Bingham aligns sartorially with his colleagues in the trendy office just outside Covent Garden.

Just days before we meet Bingham The Economist reported that shopping centres are "well suited to the digital age" and wrote this insight with the new Trinity Leeds shopping centre as the article's backdrop. It seems British retail has not been out of the headlines and daily online chatter for a second in 2013, whether it's because of horsemeat being sold as beef, John Lewis remaining the darling of the sector or the predicted demise of the High Street.

Paul Smith is predominantly a wholesale fashion business to the tune of 70% of its turnover, with its distinctive shops in the retail arm – including a forthcoming branch at Trinity Leeds – accounting for 30%. The global power of the Paul Smith brand means over 1200 worldwide employees.

Bingham explains that the company is responsible for every part of the process except the manufacturing: design, pattern cutting, printing, fabric procurement and distribution are managed in-house by the Paul Smith business. The majority of the manufacturing takes place in Italy or in one of a small number of selected factories in the Far East.

"The top and bottom ends of the market has been protected. If you are brand-centric and have a loyal base of customers you are protected," Bingham responds to a question on the building of the new shopping centre. The Economist's sentiment that these shopping centres are well suited to today's digital age is also something Bingham and Paul Smith agree with and have seen the results of.

"It's about focal points of interest, so it's about picking the right locations. It is very much around the Paul Smith experience," he says of the importance of traditional stores.

"There is a changing face around how people shop. As a brand we are focused on the experience and the business is very well known for that.


"E-commerce is our primary route to market and that has been a significant change for Paul Smith. And recently the balanced tipped to e-commerce away from our best shops.

Paul Smith head of IT Lee Bingham

"We were resistant to e-commerce at first as there was concern as to whether a luxury brand would work online, for example selling a £1,000 suit. But e-commerce has very quickly become our biggest point of investment and sales, and now we have a strategy to in-source our web development.

"For IT, the importance of the customer data means it's all about CRM and trying to consolidate it all," he says of his team's role in the changing retail world. Bingham doesn't for a minute pretend that the internet and e-commerce is the silver bullet for his business or the sector, but it is clear that Paul Smith is now reaping the benefits of five years of investment in e-commerce and a constant strategy to align its online shopping and in-store experiences.

Assessing the state of today's retail market, Bingham recognises that retail is a long-standing business that is now shifting according to the change in consumer habits, but emphasises that certain aspects of the Paul Smith business must remain constant despite the change in customer behaviour.

"Paul Smith has always said the customer is number one, so the in-store and online experience are very aligned and I think we have always been good at that," he says.

Unlike a lot of market watchers, Bingham is direct and honest about the true cost of doing business online.

"Retailing in any form is expensive and I don't know if that has always been known. We had a number of years where the e-commerce numbers seemed really good, but today when you compare e-commerce to the right shop the cost difference between both is there or thereabouts." Search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay per-click (PPC) advertising, as well as the ongoing operating technology costs, have levelled the difference for a business the size of Paul Smith.