C-level briefing: Doug Gardner explains brand and customer interaction in the digital age.
Fashion. David Bowie and Madonna sang about it and the film The Devil Wears Prada lovingly satirised it.
In all its manifestations it is famed for its fixation with glamour and the new. But what does "new" mean in the 21st century, when new trends are not just in design but also in the very way business is being done?
River Island‘s CIO Doug Gardner believes that staying in fashion is about more than surface appearances.
"The mentality, especially if you’re in a fast fashion business, is very short-term," he says.
"People are always looking to the next thing and the next fashion trends, and it’s a very pacey environment."
In some ways, though, the very thing that keeps fashion relevant is holding it back from technological change, Gardner says. This short-term mentality means that making longer-term changes can be a challenge.
"I think up until fairly recently tech has been seen as something in the background. Fashion people are very much about fashion, so the people that run the businesses are very fashionable and forward-thinking types, so the technology space is not a natural one for them.
"There’s always a challenge trying to blend technology into something that is primarily about retail and fashion."
Of course, in a world that is dominated by brands and brand heritage, the shift to digital is not necessarily a natural one. After all, River Island dates back to the 1940s.
"In terms of bricks and mortar in a retail space they’re incredibly successful and know that space very well."
Gardner, who previously worked at French Connection UK, notes that this problem is far from specific to River Island.
"Trying to change in a space where both River Island and French Connection UK are family-run and had long-established ways of doing things, going through a large-scale transformation to a digital company is a common challenge also."
Where River Island, and fashion generally, differs from other industries is in the fact that it is offering more than simply the selling of products: it has its own product lines which cannot exactly be replicated by another company.
This means that it is not vulnerable to quite the same scale of disruption as say, the hospitality or taxi industries, notably subverted by Airbnb and Uber respectively.
"We are not just selling someone else’s products, or doing something that can be completely disrupted: we are creating fashion, we are creating a brand. That is our strong point and we have to continue to adapt to the opportunities around it."
There is also people’s attachment to the actual experience of entering a store to try on and purchase items of clothing.
"A few years ago people were predicting the death of the high street and saying online was going to take over and that we would never go to a shop again," says Gardner.
"Now we’re seeing the reverse happen: Amazon is opening fixed stores. A lot of the dot.coms are realising that interaction and touch-point with the customer is very important."
River Island already has experience interacting through this "touch-point" with the customer. Adapting to digital, as Gardner explains, is more about transforming this existing experience through the use of digital means.
"River Island has done a great job throughout its entire history of engaging well in that physical space with the customer.
"The advantage of the big change there is with our interaction with our customers moving on; it is no longer a static space that you walk into and look and feel, it’s a space where customers are coming in and digitally interacting with the store along with the physical side of it. Our staff are also starting to interact with customers in a different way."
Part of this process has been updating the infrastructure that the company uses across its offices and stores.
Recently the company rolled out a new Claranet managed MPLS network to serve all of its locations.
"[Previously] we had a very run-of-the-mill network into the store that was put in a very traditional way to support polling and pushing information back and forth. It was very limited bandwidth and very poor reliability, so we had a lot of connectivity issues to the stores. Because it was just polling, it wasn’t the end of the world if it failed."
While Gardner notes that there was "some disruption" due the lack of reliability, the shift to the new Claranet service was about more than simply fixing this problem: it was about "digital enablement within the store."
There is now a considerable degree of digital interaction between customers and stores. A lot of the services that River Island provides to customers are web-based.
"Internet access during store opening hours that’s incredibly reliable is now no longer a minor issue. If we don’t have connectivity we can’t properly serve the customer," says Gardner.
This comes down to some services that are important revenue streams for River Island. For example, store order and click-and-collect are both based on the web. Gardner says that around 40 percent of orders online are click and collect, so that it is crucial for that online interaction to be able to take place in-store.
"That reliability during a business day is putting pounds in the till. If those links were down we couldn’t place store order and we wouldn’t have the robust access to the click and collect systems.
"Customer satisfaction and turn-over are now dependent on them."
Additionally, a lot of River Island’s systems are now in the cloud, meaning that connectivity to core sites and systems is more important.
The customer service element extends to the company’s adoption of mobile. This is a "two-pronged" approach, says Gardner, focusing both on the customers and the staff. Customers want to use mobile to shop with the brand, while employees can use mobile to engage customers.
An example of this is in accessing real-time information about the brand that is appearing on its website and social channels.
But to River Island, according to Gardner, the move to digital is about more than just selling to customers; it is increasingly a component of how the brand wants to be seen by its customers.
"The way we’re approaching it now is looking at technology as an important part of our brand. Our customers engage with us in a very heavy way on the digital front."
In this way, IT is about more than simply the pipes ensuring everything is working; it is actually part of the company’s image.
"Fashion is about image and brand and technology is becoming very sexy," says Gardner. "Instead of being a means to an end or a piece of function, getting our technology right marries up nicely with the brand. The company has taken that on board. They are a fashion company and think about things like that."
A lot of these features of digital transformation are particular to the fashion world, but are there any lessons for other industries to learn from it?
"What digital looks like is a total transformation of the company; it’s not just swapping out a piece of technology, one for the other.
"[The lessons are] pace, speed of change, and realising that to properly adopt this you have to go through a full-scale transformation are the two things."