N Brown CTO Tim Price says the retailer has taken a leap into digital transformation, with innovation at the forefront of its strategy in order to make the organisation think like a technology company.

Speaking at the 2017 CIO Summit in London, Price discussed the organisation's transformation, digitisation, and how it was working with startups to facilitate innovation.

"We are a tech company, not a retailer," he said. "This is a key culture change I'm trying to embody into the IT squads, and actually the business squads too. We're a tech company that designs fashion, sells clothes and lends to customers - that's a huge change for us."

Price said that Manchester-based N Brown, best known for its brands Simply Be, JD Williams and Jacamo, had turned to the cloud to underpin its transformation agenda.

"We took a bold digital transformation step when we introduced the cloud," he said. "IBM helped us with that. Effectively we created a cloud, we run it on IBM Softlayer. That allowed us to then handle increasing capacity.

"We can now spin up servers in 15 minutes; that's game changing from where we were with mainframe tech."

The CTO said that N Brown completely shifted from its traditional business strategy and chose to drive innovation in a way that helps the online retailer stand out from its competitors.

"How we thought to do that is really drive traffic online. We've moved away from the catalogues; we're now 69% online and that's a huge shift for us in the last few years; 71% is through mobile devices," Price said.

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Innovation strategy

Price, who joined N Brown in September 2014 and reports to COO Andy Haywood, shared how he led the company to digital innovation by helping to find key areas of the business that needed transformation and the development of mobile apps in its transition to digital and online channels.

"In our innovation hub, I challenged our team to disrupt everything we do. One thing we needed to tackle was our clearance stores, when costly old stock goes out. The innovation team came up with the of trying eBay. I encouraged innovation to bend the rules," Price said.

The CTO said how investing in mobile channels had been a big win for the organisation. He said: "One example is mobile app. Last year, amazingly for a retailer we still didn't have a mobile app, because we thought our mobile web experience was good enough.

"The innovation took eight weeks, which I think is amazing for a mobile app and it was built with none of the features of the website.

"If you can imagine our website has got loads of cool features that encourages all to buy and convert. It's a very basic mobile app and we thought it wouldn't work, but we thought wrong. Customers love the apps, the rich experience and bought more with fewer features," he said.

Digitisation

Price revealed that this was just the beginning, he said that the company's motto was to keep trying and testing and "if it works, then productionise it and then invest".

The race to innovation is not about starting and stopping but to keep going, Price explained. "We're doing something with chatbots now, rather than customers calling into the call centre, how I can get a chatbot with a little bit of AI?

"Actually understanding what the customer wants and answering from an FAQ list that the agents look at anyway," he said. "My vision here is, while our customers are loading the dishwasher at home they could 'Alexa' what's in their basket.

"Take it to the next step with a bit of AI integration and we are doing this. You can start to learn what you like, your preferences, what sizes you've returned, what sizes you keep and what fits well. Therefore, through Alexa we can recommend clothes without you seeing them," he added.

The former Cable & Wireless CTO said that N Brown was also working with startups in an innovation accelerator programme to solve some of the board and executive leadership's biggest business challenges.

"Our next innovation and probably my proudest one is JD Works, where effectively we go to our board and say this year, what are your six problems," Price said.

"Fit is key for us as a website retailer, we take these problems and we push them to a startup community we use, including the Department of International Trade. What we then do is get lots of startups, or similar companies coming back to us of how they can start to solve them."

Working with startups

Despite the challenges of working with startups, Price encourages businesses to take the leap and try it for themselves. He also shared the benefits that working with startups could have on companies.

"We had 80 startups come back. The innovation team filter them and then we were on a Dragons' Den-style day, with 20 pitches, each lasting five minutes each to the board and us - it's really exciting. That should help the startup to often shape their products with what an enterprise like ours really needs," he said.

"At the end of it, they've really come on leaps and bounds with their products and we get access to the earliest tech that we didn't even think we needed. Out of this we actually went with three partners. One was amazing - digitising fashion and samples.

"Part of our buying process is we'll get fabrics coming in from Asia, but if you digitise it, we can do it in days and if we digitise your fabric or samples, later on you can digitise it on the website and we can start looking with virtual avatars around fit and finish. You can use augmented realities to see how it looks on you in the mirror. It's hugely advantageous and in cost saving for us and our customers."

The CTO shared that by driving innovation thinking of testing and learning the company has been able to identify what works and what doesn't.

"In 12 months we discovered customers love apps, even if they're not as good as the website," he said. "That's really key for us, because we all thought our features were key to sell. We're now investing massively in apps and our vision is of our billion plus revenue.

"Some £300 million will come alone from apps in a couple of years, that's a whole new channel out of nowhere. Anything and everything can be disrupted."