River Island CIO Doug Gardner believes a robust IT infrastructure supporting an omni-channel business strategy is "absolutely critical" for a retail chain with largely high-street heritage, and one which will lay the foundations for the company's next phase of digital transformation focused on customer interaction.
Omni-channel; despite the phraseology which emerged from its equally-vogue predecessor 'multichannel', the buzzword has proved a pretty important strategy to take. Essentially it means connectivity at all levels, to match online offerings with those in-store and bridge the gap in between - plus having the underlying infrastructure to keep the whole show running.
River Island CIO Gardner contracted London-based managed IT services firm Claranet to connect its hundreds of UK stores, introducing an enterprise MPLS system to manage and monitor every area of the network in every store, with 3G routers on hand in case of any unfortunate outages - and strategically partnered with a smaller networking vendor for the business benefits it offered the CIO.
The "small but enterprise-grade" company, Gardner explained, affords River Island a greater deal of flexibility.
"Generally I tend to look for robust companies that are a little bit smaller, where you can get a bit more of a personalised and reactive service," Gardner said. "If you deal with a giant corporate you can probably get a solid service but it's not a particularly reactive one."
Gardner said that there's one thing we know for sure, and that's that the digital economy moves quickly. "Changing out connectivity in-store, correcting problems, moving on new stores, changing services - we felt it was a much better relationship to have a small to midsize company with a robust network that was more reactive to us," Gardner said.
The international high-street retailer is known for selling affordable fast-fashion, it began life when Bernard Lewis started selling knitting wool from an east London bomb site in 1948.
Several rebranding efforts later plus a few more decades and in 1988 it settled on River Island. The company now operates hundreds of shops in the UK as well as in Ireland, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Present-day River Island couldn't be much farther than the family-run knitting shop, and indeed, it's a world away from the brand just five years ago.
"A couple of years ago, connectivity issues were problematic, but now downtime is just impossible to deal with," he said. "In the past if you lost connectivity, you couldn't use certain functions for a bit - and it's no big deal. Now we have things like store order, where if that's down, we lose the ability to take money. So it becomes much more important."
And now, tech-savvy customers are placing new stresses and strains on staff. They might be equipped with more information than the workforce, for example, because they've got the latest information on their smartphones.
Responding to this, River Island connected employees with their own Android devices, so they can match customers on trends and prices quickly.
"It's no longer command and control," Gardner said. "You don't necessarily prescribe how exactly to use something - you let staff use the tool in a more intuitive way."
Gardner said that staff have taken the basic built-in features and carried out creative work in the store - using the devices like they would in their personal lives.
"It's not a fixed, locked-down device where they can only do one, green-screen type function," he said. "We have put a lot of time into designing the new systems that are going in to look like an app, and to work in the same way.
"I just think it seems completely logical to build everything in the same way, so it's intuitive for them to find out the information to perform their job."
The next phase for River Island's digital transformation is offering customer-facing WiFi, which would allow users to connect in-store and get access to stronger features and interactions because of it.
"It's about this interaction," Gardner said. "We're seeing a very strong link between the digital and the physical in our own space - so we need a strong, reliable network."