River Island taps into start-up culture to accelerate innovation
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River Island taps into start-up culture to accelerate innovation

Jessica Twentyman — March 2015
UK fast-fashion retailer hooks into technology incubator to enrich customer experience across the new channel mix.

As the name implies, everything in ‘fast-fashion’ needs to happen at speed. From the moment a new style makes its catwalk debut, the race is on for the sector’s retailers to reinterpret the design, manufacture their take on it and have finished items on the racks ready for customers to browse and buy. And fast it is: a week’s turnaround for the whole process is not unheard of.
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For a technology leader, that’s an incredibly exciting — and challenging — environment in which to work, says Doug Gardner, CIO at River Island, the UK-based fashion retailer with over 350 stores across Europe, Asia and the Middle East and six online sites operating across four currencies. Change is relentless and the ability to respond at speed is of paramount importance. “In terms of technology pace, there’s retail IT; then there’s fashion retail IT; and then there’s fast-fashion retail IT,” he outlines.

The rate of innovation needed to satisfy an increasingly hyperconnected customer base that wants to shop across a mix of online and in-store channels, meanwhile, is no less brisk. For Gardner that means new technology developments have to be an active part of the business within months of their conception, not years.

Fulfilling those demands requires the creation of an innovation culture that can combine the quality and robustness of traditional IT with the pace of a start-up. “That’s what drives me,” says Gardner, “the desire to ensure that the team I develop, the partnerships we build and the innovative technologies we put in place are all extremely agile — quick to deploy, easy to change.”
Innovation wellspring

One key route to that culture for River Island comes through TrueStart, a London-based start-up accelerator program it recently joined. TrueStart’s ecosystem of retail expertise, partners, mentors and resident start-ups focuses on innovation for the retail and fashion industries and is backed by investment company TrueCapital, launched in 2013 by Matt Truman, a former Lehman Brothers retail analyst.

The collaboration will be mutually beneficial, Gardner explains. River Island executives will provide mentorship and guidance to participants in TrueStart’s six-month ‘The Collection’ program for retail-focused start-ups. In return, it will get — in TrueStart’s words — ‘preemptive’ access to fresh new ideas and technologies.

It’s not an entirely unique idea: in 2014, UK department store chain John Lewis, for example, launched its own technology incubator program – JLAB – in partnership with British technology entrepreneur Stuart Marks with similar goals in mind (see John Lewis’s journey to omni-channel retail).

Nor is this River Island’s first involvement with technology accelerator programs. The company has encountered others that promised access to hot start-ups but with little results. “In contrast, TrueStart was one of the first places we went where the approach was more serious, the filtration process much higher quality and the collaboration network stronger and wider,” says Gardner.
CX appeal

Gardner says his main goal is to identify ideas and technologies emerging from TrueStart that could help improve the customer journey at River Island — a focus that is top of the agenda for most retail CIOs (see How IT chiefs shape customer experience). But in retail, there’s the added challenge of understanding the experience shoppers have across both digital and bricks-and-mortar channels.

“We need the River Island experience to be as good and as rich [as possible], whether a customer is at home on their PC, out shopping and using a mobile app, or walking into one of our stores. It all needs to tie together,” says Gardner. “And then there’s also the question of how customers use their mobiles when they’re actually in our stores and how our staff can also use mobile technologies to engage with them.”

When it comes to that in-store experience, for example, Gardner sees technologies such as beacons and RFID tags (transmitting locally to customer smartphones) playing a much greater role in understanding how customers, staff and products all interact. Advanced RFID, in particular, could help River Island take huge steps forwards in terms of stock accuracy. In fast-fashion, that’s “paramount”, he says, in the battle to more closely match fickle, hard-to-predict customer demand with product availability.

“We need to be digital professionals with a technology background, rather than technologists moving into a more customer-facing role.”

Not all the new ideas that River Island needs will come through TrueStart. After all, Gardner stresses, new ideas and new technologies need to be able to work with a robust, back-end infrastructure of retail software. River Island, for example, uses a range of core retail application modules from Oracle. And he makes a distinction between IT platform partnerships and digital partnerships.

“The digital space is very much the battleground now,” says Gardner. “That is where we need the agility and where I see new relationships playing a bigger role. But such relationships may be shorter, with shorter payback cycles. We will rely on our robust back-end core software to be a platform into which we can plug this new stuff, use it for a time and then move on.”

And that points to the cross-fertilization of the TrueStart relationship, which will also open up opportunities for the internal River Island team to engage with “different types of IT people, more business-facing but still very technical,” says Gardner. “As a department we’re moving out of the back room. We’re dealing more with marketing, with ecommerce, with retail operations. We need to be digital professionals with a technology background, rather than technologists moving into a more customer-facing role.”
First published March 2015
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