In the world of fashion, keeping ahead of current trends is vital. When last season’s red becomes the new black, you don’t want to be left in the dark. And it’s no difference whether you’re a big-name couturier, a high-street designer or the IT chief behind the UK’s largest online fashion retailer.
“Six months here is like a year in another business,” says Gary Mudie, IT director at Asos.com. “When I was told that at the interview I thought it was just internet talk, but it is so incredibly fast here.”
So fast, in fact, that in the second quarter of 2008 Asos celebrated a 95 per cent increase in sales on the same period last year, after marking an 85 per cent Q2 growth the year before. With Asos being a pureplay online retailer, confidence in robust and scalable IT systems is key to continuing this growth.
“One of the main differences between Asos and other retailers is that it’s a truly technology-led business,” says Mudie.
“Apart from the standard technology that we have to run our supply chain and logistics and distribution centres, there’s a huge amount of technology that runs our shop, which is our website. So here IT is an absolutely critical part of the business.”
And Mudie has wasted no time in kitting out Asos to prepare for continued growth over the next four or five years. Since arriving in March, he has almost doubled the headcount in his 65-strong team.
“The systems we have today take us forward for the next couple of years. What I’m putting in place are systems that will take us from three years onwards, and [eventually] to a £1bn turnover.
“We’ve got a number of initiatives that are coming out this year and we’ve just launched our new CRM system. A lot of the systems and platforms we’re putting in place are to align us for the future expansion of the business.
“The challenge now is to take it one step further and provide the framework that will allow us to grow internationally.”
As seen online
Asos was founded in June 2000 as As Seen On Screen, its USP being that if a celebrity or Sex & The City character was wearing this dress or those shoes on last night’s show, you could buy their style – or at least a cut-price replica – online.
It was a difficult time for dotcom launches, especially in fashion: the classic how-not-to-trade-online site Boo.com had closed just months earlier, but by keeping gimmicks low and quality and value high, Asos.com was soon attracting recognition, awards and, most importantly, customers.
Eight years on and the site attracts 3.4 million visitors a month. Profits rose from £2.5m in 2006/07 to £5.1m in 2007/08, with sales climbing from £42.6m to £81m in the same period. With clothing the fastest growing online sector and, according to retail analyst Verdict, the proportion of clothes bought online set to rise from four per cent in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2010, Asos is in position to expand yet further.
The company’s north London HQ is the thriving hub of the business, and although some of Mudie’s development team are housed in the West End, he is careful to include them in the IT team as a whole. The main office accommodates his business analysis and design teams, as well as the buyers who purchase the 700 or so new styles that Asos adds to its line each week.
Mudie describes the company structure as “very flat, not at all hierarchical”, and points out the ‘target wheel’ posters visible from every desk which let every staff member know what the company’s quarterly priorities are, and how each department contributes to achieving those goals.
Asos also seems a very young office very much in line with its 16-34-year-old target age group, although Mudie is keen to stress the layer of experience that chief executive Nick Robertson has installed to lead the company into its next stage.
“It is a young organisation: young, ambitious and driven. We try very hard to make sure that all employees understand the customer mindset and [try to ensure that] a lot of our team members are of the same generation,” he says.
This requirement for business-savvy staff means Mudie has to look outside the online retail sector for new employees.
“It’s not easy to find good IT staff in the pureplay environment. There’s a complete difference between traditional IT staff that have worked on in-house websites and pureplay staff, and a lot of high-street -retailers are moving into [the] online space at the moment which does make the recruitment market very competitive.
“In traditional retailing you’d look for staff that has previously worked in a retaul environment, but I’ve been a lot more flexible in terms of the areas that I search to find staff. Because of recent cutbacks there’s a lot of availability in the insurance and financial sectors, for instance.”
From rags to rags
Mudie’s own career in IT has come full circle, beginning in fashion but touching on high-street stores and the media before he returned to the rag trade earlier this year.
He started in 1991 in the distinctly un-computerised surroundings of the finance department at the Burton Group’s Evans Collection, manually processing cash accounts and payroll for group employees. A move into merchandising gave him a taste for fashion, but plans to study fashion and design were put on hold when, because of his experience across the business, he was asked to stay on and test the new IBM AS/400 systems. Before long Mudie had moved over into programming.
“I found that I had a natural flair for development so I understood logically how systems and components worked. But because I had commercial experience as well, I could bring a quicker route to market for some of the applications. From that step forward I moved into different divisions within the group, and within seven years I was heading up the whole of the [now renamed] Arcadia group’s business information solutions team.
“That taught me a lot, not so much in terms of IT projects in themselves, but of how successful technology could be within a commercial environment. My slant from that point forward has always been how to use technology to enable a business, as opposed to being instructed on a list of projects and going away and developing them. I’ve always played an active role in working with business strategy and using technology as an enabler.”
It’s a policy that’s very much in evidence at Asos, up to the point where Mudie will debate IT’s involvement in a project if other solutions are more economical.
“With decent budgets and a decent IT team you could get sidetracked if you started delivering a whole raft of things just to service your own technical desires. But I’m quite strict in terms of what we build,” he says.
“I’ll even work with the business and guide them through areas where they think they need something and they don’t. I’m not always convinced we have to do something through a technology solution if it can be done quicker manually.”
From Arcadia, Mudie was headhunted by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), where he spent 18 months managing various consultancy groups, teaching him, he says, “how to work with customers from a supplier’s perspective”.
A move to Universal Music Group kept Mudie at the cutting edge of consumer technology, as he helped the entertainment giant lay the foundations of the digital music offering that is now the cornerstone of its music sales business.
“The whole industry was very much tape-based, with master tapes flying round the world, and the CD market was starting to decline,” says Mudie of the pre-digital music business in which UMG was busy acquiring competitors and their huge back catalogues. After nine months working on consolidation strategy, Mudie found himself looking at the role of technology in the future of the entertainment industry.
“We came up with a number of initiatives to help the business stay ahead from a profit perspective, and we effectively created the first part of their digital platform.
“That gave Universal a significant edge because while the company was busy digitising its content, the competitors hadn’t even realised that this was possible. As a result, when iTunes opened, Universal was able to offer not just the latest music but also quite a deep back catalogue.”
The experience also gave Mudie an insight into how American businesses work and the challenges that come with that. It was experience he could call on when he moved to stationery retailer Paperchase, which was subsequently bought by US-based bookseller Borders.
“The problem when reporting into a US-based global CIO is that there’s often conflict when you try and get European enhancements put through because the changes you want to make are too small from their perspective. What I was working on there was essentially a model that would allow the UK business to move forward with the installation of systems that it needed for its market.”
Paperchase had just one IT staffer when Mudie arrived as a systems consultant. Within a year he had put in place a full IT strategy to help it expand its stores, and the project had immediate results.
“New store systems, financial systems, payroll systems and warehousing systems led to phenomenal growth,” he says. “Previously everything had to be replenished manually so things that nobody had realised were out of stock were now able to be replenished immediately.”
Back in fashion
The move to Asos brings Mudie full circle, and although some of the IT challenges were completely new to him, the fundamentals necessary to offer the best service to customers were very familiar.
“Paperchase uses the online world merely to drive customers into its stores, but in terms of the actual retail business it’s not that dissimilar to Asos,” he says.
“Both buy branded products and have their own in-house design team that create their own products, so there’s the same challenges around manufacturing, supply chain and logistics.”
With a new CRM system featuring automated mail handling, and delivery software which uses multiple carriers to speed up the delivery process already in place, Mudie is turning his attention to Asos’s public front-end.
The website at Asos.com is frequently updated to showcase some of the 700 new styles that go on sale each week. Most of these items have to be modelled on the company’s in-house catwalk, a studio that houses a veritable production line of digital video: clips of models showing off potential purchases are uploaded onto the site within hours. It’s a popular feature that proves that using the latest tools needn’t stray into tokenism.
But as other sites copy the catwalk idea, Mudie is looking ahead. “I’ve got a long list of enhancements to the website,” he says.
“What we’ve got to make sure we don’t do is to throw lots of gimmicks onto the page. Some companies pile sites up with links and ratings, but we’re keen to keep the site clean so customers can see what they’re getting, while adding tools to help make their journey to the selection of a product more pleasant and more efficient.
“Again they’re not gimmicky but they’re very much about taking online retailing to the next generation.”
And that’s a next generation that uses the web as its shopping mall. The company is using social networking in a bid to attract the key 16-34 year-old market, with its own 32,000-member Facebook group.
“We’re careful about using Facebook for heavy PR: some organisations do but you’ve got to be careful as people aren’t daft. It’s all about community and customers, that’s what we’re here for.”
Keeping up with all the web trends, Asos also has its own fashion blog, and community spirit is set to be enhanced further with the launch of a marketplace tool that will allow Asos users to trade second-hand clothes as well as their own designs via a dedicated section of the site.
Like its systems infrastructure, Asos.com’s content delivery strategy has to be four or five years ahead of time in order to keep ahead of the competition.
“Our take online is not just delivering to a PC at home. iPhones are becoming part of daily life, and everything is routing its way through the television at home, and it’s a question of how you integrate all this using technology to achieve that, without disturbing the customer experience. It’s all about how you make the experience more pleasant and more portable.
“What the business needs to focus on is just scale and roll-out; what we don’t need to keep doing is having IT projects delaying that growth.”