The Winter 2014 issue of Retail Technology magazine spoke exclusively to the IT director and business systems manager of UK-based fashion empire Arcadia Group about overhauling its entire electronic point-of-sale (EPoS) estate across its eight brands
Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group has partnered with UK-based PCMS Group to provide next-generation EPoS platform, card payment and managed services for its store estate of over1,650 Topshop, Topman, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Outfit, Miss Selfridge and Evans branded outlets across the UK, Ireland and the US.
Retail Technology magazine spoke to Andrew Clarke, Arcadia Group IT director and Rob Coldicott, Arcadia Group business systems manager, about the retailer’s IT strategy and the importance of this strategic group-wide project.
As the UK’s largest privately owned fashion retail group, Arcadia has long been a beacon of success among hard-pressed UK retailers, consolidating its dominant High Street presence in recent years through the significant expansion of its digital division, as well as the rapid growth of an international estate.
“We always knew there were things the business wanted IT to deliver after the EPoS roll out,” said Clarke, “like having loyalty functionality within the PoS, for example. So it has very much been seen as a foundation for the future. This was why it was so important to make sure we picked a really good product and got the roll out right.”
Introducing new functionality
Coldicott explained how the company went out to tender for new EPoS technology in autumn 2010 after the existing EPoS systems had reached end of life and began to affect the company’s ability to introduce new functionality. Coldicott said: “For this project, we were able to bring in some really good people from the business – some of whom have since moved permanently over to IT.”
He also said that this combination of IT and business involvement was one of the main reasons why the project, which encompasses all of Arcadia’s fashion stores and concessions, was completed on time and under budget.
“We worked on a fairly detailed definition phase that involved every part of the business,” he continued. “In doing so, we made it absolutely clear upfront any necessary constraints we had to work within that would enable us to deliver a system they would all be happy with.
“We said to the business, ‘we have to define the scope incredibly well now and make sure we don’t move from it in order to avoid ‘scope creep’. Part of this was to carry over all of the existing EPoS functionality, while adding in some that was new,” Coldicott explained. “We wanted to avoid getting into a massive software development project.”
Having a clearly defined scope for the IT project with the close involvement of the business also made the need for an EPoS overhaul was clear. Having grown through acquisition, the group’s inherited EPoS technology was over a decade old and maintenance overheads were increasing with the need to support a number of old operating systems.
“At the time our old EPoS was rolled out there were also no plans for global expansion, so we didn’t necessarily have the capability to add new language, currency and tax requirements easily,” he added.
Narrowing down the selection
During the selection process Arcadia narrowed its search for a replacement down to a short list of three EPoS suppliers, which included the incumbent provider. But Arcadia chose VISION BeanStore software from PCMS because, according to Coldicott, “we were keen on its Java-based technology, centralised architecture and its team”.
Other considerations included how good a fit the supplier would be with Arcadia’s culture and long-term goals. Clarke added: “When put in front of the chief executive and other people from the business, PCMS was able to showcase how BeanStore fitted with our vision on a number of levels and demonstrate a roadmap that complemented our view of retail in the coming years, as well as their commitment to ongoing managed services.”
The centralised architecture and infrastructure cited by Coldicott plays an important role in delivering back-office control to Arcadia head office. “It takes the servers out of the stores, so we can minimise downtime and continue trading,” he said. “And it allows us to serve the UK and the rest of the world from a central location.”
Given the scale of the project, the Arcadia team took a number of steps to maximise the efficiency of the roll out. The new EPoS software was piloted running on existing hardware, so users could familiarise themselves with new functions or processes before also getting to grips with new equipment too. Another step saw only managers seconded from stores to receive training on the new systems, enabling them to then pass that training on to their store staff.
It took Arcadia and its IT partners a little under a year to pilot the new EPoS software in stores across all of its brands. Following a break from this evaluation period in time for the busy 2011 Christmas and 2012 Easter trading seasons, the final roll out began in earnest in spring 2012.
The roll out programme was completed in July 2013, including all of the UK and Ireland store transitions, as well as US stores in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
Managing the systems transition
At its peak Arcadia was transitioning 50 stores a week. A key highlight was the transition of the Oxford Circus flagship store, which involved transitioning over 100 tills in one evening and training some 800 staff. Another achievement of note was the fact that, of the 1,650-plus store migration, only one had to be regressed due to a network issue, which was “a fantastic team effort by all involved,” according to Clarke.
Clarke and Coldicott also highlighted how the software development process was also designed to maximise efficiency and support the aggressive pace of the roll out. “The prevailing attitude was to get the new systems out there and to deliver new functionality as we went along, which was pretty unique in retail,” explained Steve Powell of PCMS, who worked alongside Coldicott and the rest of the Arcadia IT team to develop the PCMS software in line with the retailer’s requirements.
“Arcadia didn’t want to do any long-winded development before the roll out,” added Powell. “Instead, we worked on continual development with small, incremental releases.”
In order to manage Arcadia’s incremental software development needs, PCMS worked with the retailer’s IT team to develop what essentially acts as message-broking translation or middleware layer to abstract and carry over any customisations to any future BeanStore software upgrades without requiring any major software re-engineering.
“This enabled us to keep the basic user interface the same, as well as simplify testing,” Coldicott said. It also gave the team the opportunity to incorporate new card payment processing software into the initial discovery phase and develop its integration to form part of the new EPoS software deployment.
The project has also helped Arcadia to streamline its IT capital expenditure. In addition to the original software replacement project, Arcadia also selected PCMS to design, build and host its new EPoS and card processing systems at its secure, hosted data centres in London and Coventry – significantly reducing the retailer’s ongoing running costs versus those of its older legacy systems.
Smooth sailing implementation
Clarke commented: “If you’d told me two years ago that we’d be bang on schedule with so few glitches, I’d have bitten your hand off.” And he added: “The commitment, dedication and camaraderie of the Arcadia and PCMS team has been key to the success of the programme.”
Coldicott cited additional strategic benefits: “We’ve also been moving from Windows to Linux, and investing in new tools to manage the estate proactively, so we can know in advance of a problem before it leads to a crash. It has also helped to simplify the drivers needed to run till peripherals, for instance.”
The EPoS software development has enabled a number of operational improvements, including centralised control over promotions. A move away from inefficient manual promotional and fraud prevention processes has also seen barcoded receipts introduced to ensure returned items can always be verified against the original sales record.
Coldicott commented: “Given the number of brands we have, where some stores or concessions are located quite close together, some transactions contain items from more than one of our brands.”
And Clarke took up the point: “The increased manageability of promotions and returns was a big benefit for us, especially where we have multi-branded stores. Before, staff would have to sort through a customer’s basket at the checkout to apply any relevant promotions individually, which often meant a long and complex transaction.
“Now the EPoS software can apply promotions automatically, where the transaction time for a multi-brand purchase came down significantly.”
Now that Arcadia has the latest EPoS software running in its stores and hosted by PCMS, both Clarke and Coldicott reported that, overall, the key benefit when compared to the old system is its reliability. “We’re no longer having serious issues with tills, where they regularly had to be rebooted before,” said Clarke.
“This can have a serious effect on a smaller store’s ability to trade, where they might only have two tills. And, of course, the roll out has increased the speed of transactions. I would also cite the way it now handles refunds, the consistency it allows us to bring to our promotions, and the ease of use for staff are also key benefits.”
Coldicott added that, “the general supportability of the software and its centralised structure” were an essential reason why the project has been such a success.
Supporting international strategy
From a competitive point of view, the modern EPoS software capabilities that Arcadia is looking to exploit in future include its multilingual and multichannel characteristics. “We are looking at European destinations for new company-owned stores,” reported Clarke.
“The second part of the strategic benefits of the new EPoS is the part it has to play in laying a foundation for future multichannel or ‘omnichannel’ developments,” he continued. “When you look at what’s coming down the line for retail in general, we have to be ready to capitalise on the huge growth we’re seeing in the digital channel, for instance.
“Multichannel retailing is already here, where customers expect to order goods from anywhere – instore, online or on their smartphones.” But he added that Arcadia believes that the ultimate test will be fulfilling an order from stock already held in its stores.
“It becomes necessary to have an understanding of where stock is all over the estate,” agreed Coldicott. “That’s why we always saw the EPoS roll out as creating a strategic platform for the future. The key thing for us is being able to carry out relatively quick trials of new services or functionality in order to know where to invest.
“We’re starting to see some of those things happen, now that we have delivered a platform that is flexible enough for us to try some of them out. These tests enable us to justify upfront how to deliver that. We can try a proof of concept in three stores, say, and manage the orchestration of data and all of the back-end plumbing centrally.”
As far as Clarke is concerned, a major differentiator in today’s multichannel age of retailing is having staff who can offer valuable customer service. “This project has given us the strategic foundation we want to go multichannel,” he stated. “It positions us to be able to deliver what the business wants.
“That might be opening a number of new stores in new markets or our big aspiration, to deliver a true multichannel experience to our customers. That might be through mobile PoS, assisted selling tools like iPads that we could arm our store colleagues with, or anything that gives our customers the same view of our brands wherever they might see us.”
Clarke concluded: “The Arcadia and PCMS partnership has proven to be successful in laying the foundations for our multichannel strategy.”
This story was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of Retail Technology magazine, which came out in March. Contact us here to subscribe.