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Seeing the sense in computer logic

A stint working on the shop floor convinces Bashir Mohammed to embrace the latest technology

I have finally taken the plunge and started the New Year by installing an all-singing, all-dancing computer system. I took some convincing, but was finally persuaded when my daughter visited my office and collapsed in hysterics when she saw my ancient monitor and DOS-based operating system.

The main reason I was so slow to upgrade is that I find computers are only as good as the people using them. My staff do a fantastic job, but on a busy day with a queue at the till, if they cannot immediately find what they need on the screen then they will take a short cut. So by the end of the year, according to the computer, my best-performing category was 'miscellaneous', while lots of the real stock is apparently still in the store.

Anyway, the new system comes fully operational and is very easy to use, so I should end this season with much more accurate data to work from.

The main thing, of course, is not the computer itself, but that old adage that knowledge is power. Essentially, we all want to get into the minds of customers to see what they are really thinking. The problem is that people will not necessarily say what they mean. For example, if a customer says they will come back later, this means they won't come back at all. So we must listen carefully to what our customers say, interpret what they actually mean and collate all the information for later use.

I don't usually work in my shops, as frankly my staff do a much better job. But over Christmas it was all hands to the pump, so I was in different stores most days in December. This was great for intelligence gathering. Most of what I found out was good - our customer service was praised, and my buying choices turned out to be mostly correct.

However, I did find a few things that we can do better and which I am acting on. For example, I will be doubling my order of extra-large sizes for men, particularly in classic labels. I had not appreciated how much bigger people are getting. Conversely, on womenswear we need more petite sizes - there are plenty of size-six women out there who can't find clothes to fit. I was also surprised to see that men are now more adventurous in their fashion choices, so I will look for more quirky pieces to add to our mix.

I was also interested to hear what people thought about online shopping. Several customers told me they would always visit the store, but wanted to be able to order online too. As a result, I am fully embracing the computer age with a new website. But this will complement our stores, not compete with them.

We need to embrace new technology, but it is only a tool to help us and not the answer to all our problems. The fundamentals of retailing remain the same as they have always been: know your customer and give them what they want, when they want it and at the price they want to pay.

- Bashir Mohammed is the owner of west London-based designer fashion independent American Pie.

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