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The Drapers Interview: The Shop Direct approach to digital domination

Ecommerce director Jonathan Wall describes Shop Direct’s journey from catalogues to mobile digital sales and artificial intelligence

Jonathan Wall

Jonathan Wall

There is a buzz in the air when Drapers arrives at Shop Direct’s bustling Liverpool headquarters at a busy lunchtime.

The lively atmosphere conveys the sense that this is a very exciting time to be part of the former mail order business, which printed its last catalogue in 2015 and has since turned its attention to digital with a steely-eyed focus.

Shop Direct, which operates e-commerce sites Littlewoods.com, Very.co.uk and Very Exclusive.co.uk, is celebrating a healthy set of financial results – its first as a pureplay etailer. Underlying pre-tax profit soared by 43% to £150.4m, driven by a strong performance from Very.co.uk and a surge in mobile transactions. Almost a two-thirds (62%) of transactions across the business were made on mobile devices, up from 56% the year before. Group sales were also up, rising 4.3% to £1.9bn.

The man behind this rise in mobile transactions is group ecommerce director Jonathan Wall, who chats to Drapers in the Cube, the company’s new 12,400 sq ft well-being space complete with juice bar, conference centre and gym. Sports-mad Wall admits the super-sized TV screens in the new facilities did come in handy for watching triathletes the Brownlee brothers take gold at this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, although he is quick to stress they are mainly used for professional purposes.

Previously CEO at online florist Flowers Direct for almost two years, Wall joined the retailer in 2010 and has seen the company go through a wave of changes since his early days in the role.

“I felt I could make a difference at Shop Direct,” he says. “We were a little bit late to online and a lot of businesses got there before us. But I could see the huge opportunity and the potential for Shop Direct to become a digital business. I’d seen that happen in my career before [at Flowers Direct] and I saw the same thing happening here, just on a vastly greater scale.”

shop direct auditorium 01

shop direct auditorium 01

Shop Direct’s new well-being space the Cube 

The company has more than made up for its late start to online, building a reputation within the industry for putting digital right at the heart of its growth strategy. Shop Direct was one of the big winners at last year’s Drapers Digital Awards, scooping gongs for Best Use of Social Media and Best Digital Team. To his surprise – although perhaps no one else’s – Wall was also named Best Digital Leader.

“Shop Direct has identified an extremely clear and transformational strategic direction,” says Drapers Digital Awards judge and Schuh head of ecommerce and customer services Sean McKee. “The organisation is focused on its strengths and is building capability in a meaningful way. Jonathan’s commitment to tested improvement to drive better performance is a fantastic example to the rest of us. He’s proving and reproving the benefit of change and that ‘failing fast’, as he calls it, is at the heart of etail competence.”

Winning big

Although proud of his personal award, Wall says the biggest triumph was seeing his team take home the award for Best Use of Social Media.

People began to see that to fail fast was really exciting

“It was amazing to win an award personally, but the most exciting thing for me was the recognition of the work we’ve been doing on social media over the past 12 to 18 months. One of the great things about winning awards is that it attracts great partners, as well as great talent. If we’re out there winning awards, it’s not only a recognition from the industry but it attracts companies such as Facebook or smaller start-ups who are doing some really interesting things.”

Mobile and personalisation have formed the cornerstones of Shop Direct’s digital approach over the past year. The company has been busy adding new features to the basic MyVery app that launched in 2014, to allow customers to shop, manage their accounts, track orders and make payments more seamlessly.

Jonathan wall  pw14681

Jonathan wall pw14681

“The great thing about an app is that you can see how customers are reviewing you. They were telling us they wanted to have features such as ‘save for later’, which we launched recently. We were one of the first retailers to offer touch ID and biometric sign-in for the app. Quite a few retailers allow customers to stay logged in without having to enter a password, but for us in a credit environment, we wanted to make sure that security was there.”

He adds: “The rest of the innovation in the last year has all been based around personalisation and how we use data. We know who our best customers are and we can build a profile of those customers and know ‘customers who are like this and look like this, want this kind of offering.’ We then go out and attract the same type of customers using the data we already have.”

I, robot

Shop Direct is also looking at the potential uses of artificial intelligence (AI) for retailers. The etailer is already developing its own algorithms, as well as working closely with several technology partners, including AI platform IBM Watson. 

“The first phase [for AI] will be a prepacked conversational user interface – or bot – for when customers just want to know where there order is. Customers will be able to click ‘where is my order?’ in the app, and it will ‘chat’ to them and let them know exactly where their order is. We’re talking to AI interfaces about building a bot that could sit in a messenger platform or Cortana [Microsoft’s online personal assistant.]”

Artificial intelligence is clearly an exciting prospect for Wall. As well as using the technology to speak to customers about their orders, he adds AI will be used to personalise customers’ journeys still further.

Everything we do is an experimentation and it’s at the heart of what we do

“If a customer is in her living room on a desktop looking at our website, the offer we show her at that point is completely different to when she’s on her mobile on a bus. We see AI as a tool to be able to say we know the customer was looking at new shoes or T-shirts on a desktop, so when she gets on the bus, the offer is relevant to what she was previously doing. Humans can’t make that decision in real time, so it’s only going to be AI that will power that.”

Failing fast

When asked which other retailers’ digital approaches he admires, Wall is unequivocal: Amazon.

“It’s boring to say, but you have to admire Amazon, partly because of the sheer size and scale of their operation and the financial success they’ve made of the business but also because they’re not afraid to make mistakes and try things, like Amazon Prime video and Amazon Web Services. You’ve got to admire that.”

Being gutsy and determined are qualities Wall has introduced to Shop Direct. He attributes the company’s digital success to the company’s culture of constant experimentation. The Liverpool head office sounds like the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of ecommerce, where Shop Direct tests 100 prospective new processes every month.

You can put a product on the homepage and see in a day or even a few hours if it will be successful

“Everything we do is an experimentation and it’s at the heart of what we do,” he says. “That’s been a big change as we transformed from catalogue to online. As a catalogue business, if you made a mistake, it stayed there for six months. It’s in print and everyone can see it. But with a website, we were able to show people that a mistake only lasted a day.

“If we put something on our homepage and the test fails, it’s literally gone within a day. The fear of failure disappeared and people were then willing to do more challenging experiments, and that was a change. People began to see that to fail fast was really exciting.”

Describing himself as a “sales person at heart”, Wall says the immediacy of ecommerce has kept him in digital roles for most of his career.

“I’m a very impatient person, as my wife will confirm, and what I love about ecommerce is the fact you don’t have to wait for a catalogue any more. You can put a product on the homepage and see in a day or even a few hours if it will be successful. The immediacy of it is what keeps me up at night thinking about what more we can do.”

In a retail landscape that is constantly changing with new technologies arriving every day, Wall stresses that successful retailers need to ensure they find the best people for the jobs: “The digital world is quite complicated and specialist. As a leader, you can be good at everything but you can’t be the best at everything. You’re only as good as the people you employ. That’s a lesson that I learnt from a mentor early on in my career and it’s stuck with me. Especially as new skills come along, we want to make sure we have the best people in the right roles.

The most important is getting someone with the right mindset

“The most important is getting someone with the right mindset. If you look at our social team now, 90% weren’t social marketers three years ago. They were just bloody good marketers who were intelligent and willing to learn.”

d685 p sp005 02 hyycuf

d685 p sp005 02 hyycuf

V by Very range 

 

Shop Direct shows no signs of slowing down. The company is riding high after the launch of its new own brand V by Very earlier this month. Wall says there is a real buzz about the new brand, which encompasses womenswear, menswear and kidswear and is priced from £12 for basic jersey tops to £200 for a premium leather jacket.

 “This is the least amount of own brands we’ve had but everyone is really excited about this one. It’s completely different in terms of design. I had an away day with my leadership team and three out of four people were wearing V by Very. I felt almost guilty I didn’t have it on.”

Although there are no sales to report yet, Shop Direct says the early signs are that its latest experiment is likely to be one of its best yet. The appliance of science, in the form of AI, could ensure that. 

 

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