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Doug Gardner on turning River Island into a 'digitally led' retailer

By Vivian Hendriksz


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London - River Island has certainly come a long way since it opened its first store in an east London bombsite in 1948. Currently one of the UK’s leading high-street fashion brands, River Island's ability to evolve with the changing times has ensured the retailer continues to thrive. However, one thing that has not changed in its six decade existence is its dedication to bringing the latest fashion to the masses, which is why the family-owned business has invested heavily in technology and is transforming itself into a digital first retailer.

A photo posted by River Island (@riverisland) on

In honour of River Island's ten-year anniversary in the Netherlands, FashionUnited travelled to London to meet with their Chief Information Officer, Doug Gardner, who explains why River Island is placing technology at the core of its strategy and how retail is being driven by the shift to the digital world while sharing his vision of the future of fast fashion.

"The way we live these days is being driven by digital"

Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

"The way we live these days is being driven by digital,"says Gardner, who joined the team at River Island close to five years ago from French Connection. "But that is what is also driving our sales. We are seeing digital sales moving more rapidly, every year our digital channels count for a bigger percentage of our total sales. Our commitment to becoming the leading digital retailer stems from what we see we should do, as well as the broader view of how people in general tend to live their daily lives now and going on into the future."

Ensuring River Island becomes one of the leading retail pioneers in the digital field has been no easy task, but it’s one that Gardner has taken in his stride. Over the past year the fashion retailer has invested heavily in revamping its infrastructure, digital tools and technologies. In addition, River Island recently opened its new dedicated tech office in Shoreditch and reformed its IT team in an effort to ensure the entire company becomes more digitally focused and driven.

"There are a lot of times when I am asked about what cool technology other retailers are using - with particular focus on the digital space - and I always reply that we don't really look at what other retailers are doing for inspiration," he adds with a smile. Instead, Gardner looks to technical companies, such as Uber, Snapchat and Google, who are leading the way in the digital world for inspiration on how to improve River Island’s daily operations and strengthen its business.

A photo posted by River Island (@riverisland) on

"If I look at Uber which everyone uses - it may not have a direct impact on retail or our business per say - but it changes the way people expect to live. They expect to just get out of their cab without paying directly. It's changing the way that we all think. Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify - they are all have impacted retail." For example, consumers are no longer satisfied with just a physical or online store, according to Gardner, as they demand a full omni-channel experience from retailers.

"Retailers can no longer expect to approach consumers on single touch point platforms - a website or a store - as it has become a very entwined and integrated experience"

Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

"It is absolutely critical for our business that we weave digital into our company. But we also have to bring that experience into the physical aspect as well," Gardner continues. "So we have a bigger challenge than some retailers who function purely online." Although it was not all that long ago that River Island first launched its e-commerce platform and later on its mobile app, the retail market has changed rapidly within the span of five years, which is why Gardner took the plunge and switched River Island’s website to Amazon web services, moved everything to the cloud, implemented agile and decided to retool their entire base of tools.

“We have spent a huge amount of time investing in technology. It is a huge transformation for us, but we hit a grind lock with our old structure and tooling. We had developed all these things which were done well and worked well, but at some point you have to start afresh to create a new solid foundation for the future, so we’ve put in these new foundations, plumbing and electrics and now we are rebuilt.” Gardner, alongside River Island’s CEO, Ben Lewis, see this shift as an investment for the future of the company to ensure they come out stronger than before.

However, Gardner does not only look to Uber, Snapchat and Spotify for inspiration. He also sees them as a form of competition in terms of attracting the right talent and developing new technologies, for both in stores and online. “The way that we look at our stores is changing dramatically. The Uber approach may not quite yet be there in store, but the way people shop has changed. We are so impatient, we are so used to getting things when we want. When you walk into a store now and there is a big queue, people simply don’t accept that any more. They do not understand how they can shop online and make a purchase in 2 seconds, but have to wait 2 hours to do the same in store.”

“Other retailers are focusing on the individual use of tech, like a new app, while we are building an organization that is coming to compete with the likes of Uber or Spotify for talent”

Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

Gardner foresees this shift leading to a number of physical changes in store as well. “Some of the most important tech elements in retail are in store,” he notes, highlighting that technology will lead to a change for both retailers and customers alike. “From a customer’s standpoint it’s really about taking that digital into the store. It means if you are running an app or a mobile website, then your experienced is enhanced when you walk in store, and not necessarily with virtual reality or 3D headsets or anything like that, but with great simple things.”

A photo posted by River Island (@riverisland) on

For example, having the relevant technology in place so that when a customer walks into a River Island store to pick-up a click & collect parcel, the RI app on their mobile recognises that the person has entered the store and asks if the customer wishes to collect their parcel. The app then sends the message to the collection point in-store, where the parcel is ready, waiting to be collected. “It’s about efficiencies,” stresses Gardner.

This seamless use of technology has also been expanded to River Island’s staff in store who have been kitted with hand held Motorola MC40 devices and can access the company’s back office system from the mobile device. “We changed our approach and designed things for our staff in the exact way we design things for our consumers. This is a big trend within the tech world, I don’t know why we would not put the same effort in UX and design for our staff assistance that we do for our customers.” Gardner adds they needed virtually zero store training to teach staff how to use the new devices and the shift has given staff more flexibility when it comes to overseeing the store floor.

“When it comes to digital awareness we now have our staff at the same level as our customer, which is great. Now we can use technology to take it to the next level. We are doing things like mobile points of sale in stores, we are trialling it in certain stores, and it’s doing really well.” For example, in River Island’s store in Liverpool, customers can check-out immediately a pair of shoes from the footwear section, an additional customer service which does not add any store overhead or staff.

“It's just that extra bonus and our staff say customers respond really well when we offer it.” Another service River Island is currently trialling in certain locations is over the phone orders, when a customer rings up to see if a certain item is in stock. “It’s all these technologies that allow us to offer some really great customer services, enhancing the overall customer experience. That’s where I see tech in store playing a key role and it’s all the stuff around it that’s interesting. The RFID to get the accuracy of the stocks, it’s having the wifi in the store so we can identify the customer and provide them much better customer service.

“I think it’s more of a focus on great customer service that will drive the next wave of technology in store”

Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

At the moment River Island does not have any plans to introduce other technologies in store, such as virtual reality, augmented reality or ibeacons, as Gardner does not see a very strong correlation between their brand as a fast-fashion retailer and other sectors using this technology. “VR is nice, but I think that it depends on your brand. If you are a car manufacturer and you let people put a headset on at home to have a detailed look through your car - then that’s great. But if you are fast-fashion retailer, it’s a difficult one. I don’t know if people use a VR headset to look at fashion, when they like to be able touch it and feel it and already have an incredible experience online.”

A photo posted by River Island (@riverisland) on

He also foresees technology in-store to drive the shift in the role the physical store plays, as technology can help smaller stores present their full range digitally to customers. “It may be in the form of having tablets attached to the wall showing the rest of the collection, or linking app’s to the in-store option and showing the rest of the range in a simple overview. It’s about being able to use the technology is a very simple and natural way to extend the range.” Gardner also foresees this type of in-store tech fuelling customer expectations of fast-fashion retailers.

“It is driving people’s expectations of speed. If I stand back and look at how we are positioned, the fact that fast has always been part of our DNA, sets us up quite well for the world of technology being fast. Maybe if you are slow-fashion, then you might have more of a shock trying to deal with what is going on, but our DNA is to chop and change and react very quickly to the fashion market. We built an organisation that can interpret the season’s key trends and deliver these to our consumer as fast as possible. Our focus is to now build a technology organisation to ensure we can run our entire business in the same way. How good your tech is a huge part of how successful you are as a retailer,” points out Gardner.

“If you have really cool fashion designs, but outdated technology the two will not work side by side”

Doug Gardner, CIO, River Island

Photos: Doug Gardner and Shoreditch office, Courtesy of River lsland

doug gardner
River Island