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Williams-Sonoma takes West Elm UK live

Williams-Sonoma takes West Elm UK live
Wednesday May 14 2014

US homewares retailer discusses the IT implications of expanding into new geographies just as it launches West Elm online in the UK

A year on from announcing a strategic deal to acquire new technology in support of international expansion, retailer Williams-Sonoma yesterday took the UK site of its West Elm home furnishings brand live.

The UK site launch marks the culmination of the retailer's international expansion strategy, which began in earnest when it took on new retail business management systems from cloud-based software provider NetSuite.

The high-end American homewares, furnishings, speciality foods and toiletries retail firm has worked closely with the software vendor to grow its brand presence in Australia and the UK by opening a series of stores and local e-commerce websites.

Williams-Sonoma operates nearly 600 stores worldwide through its own name Home and Pottery Barn, West Elm, Rejuvenation and PBteen brands. Posting revenues of over $4 billion (£2.4bn) last year, the company began looking at overseas expansion despite already licensing franchise operations in the Middle East.

Owning the business and brand 

Rob Bogan, Williams-Sonoma vice president, explained that while the franchise business was successful, the company wanted more control over its expansion overseas. "We felt the time was right but wanted to move quickly," he told delegates attending the NetSuite annual conference in San Jose yesterday.

"We have a domestic IT system in the US and looked at that for the expansion," he explained. "But it was made up of best-of-breed, industry grade strength systems that would take a long time to make international and cost so much we wouldn't see profitability for a long time."

Looking for an alternative cost-effective retail IT management system that was capable of scaling with the company's ambitious expansion plans, Bogan described the search as one for "retail in a box".

"We didn't want to have to spend $20m upgrading any system we'd bought only a few years later, nor did we want to have buy all new systems — we wanted to reuse what we had already got in terms of digital asset management and content management systems," he said.  

Reusing existing digital assets

With heavy domestic investment in product photography to support its e-commerce and marketing operations, for example, the company needed a system that would enable it to create workflows that allowed it to integrate these assets directly into the new overseas operations. 

Another key consideration was the ability to integrate with its head office instance of Lawson [Infor] enterprise resource planning and financial accounting software.

Bogan said his team found most of the functionality they needed in NetSuite. "We definitely embraced the platform," he explained. "And we achieved the Lawson integration for significantly less than with on-premise solutions." 

As a measure of success, he added that the retailer was able to enter its new target markets, opening the new stores and launching four new local e-commerce sites within 100 days. 

He called out the particular capabilities of the cloud-based suite to offer rapid e-commerce development and readymade point-of-sale (PoS) systems that enabled localised payment integration through specialist NetSuite partner, CyberSource

Tying the back to the front end

Having initially rolled out the retailer's e-commerce presence using NetSuite's Site Builder tool, it moved over to the more advanced SuiteCommerce package to pair the enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and financial accounting functions of core software package with its customer-facing online and PoS front end.

"We used Site Builder to get up and running quickly but, now we can include more advanced features like responsive presentation depending on device, we're where we want to be," explained Bogan. "We also launched our registry, which is a big thing for us the US but NetSuite didn't have. Now they do.

"We also use NetSuite PoS fully integrated into the ERP and e-commerce systems to look up inventory instore and hold it for the customer."  

Refining technology support

In terms of lessons learned and next steps, Bogan said the new systems helped to expose process and operational improvements around inventory management and replenishment. 

But many of the issues Williams-Sonoma had to overcome in its first international foray into Australia had a lot more to do with the cultural differences, time zones and understanding the local nuances of customer demand.

"We learned that moving to a cloud solution you have to crawl, walk and then run," he concluded. "This year we'll have more new stores and go-lives. There's also more functionality we need. 

"The reporting is very transactional, where we are going to look at more BI [business intelligence] and analytics so we can slice and dice our data, and I will be looking at the NetSuite ecosystem for that."

Tagged as: Williams-Sonoma | West Elm | homeware | store | online | digital | asset | content | e-commmerce | ERP | CRM | financials | PoS | Lawson | CyberSource | NetSuite