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PREVIEW Internet Retailing Expo: Interview with Simon Harrow, technology officer of Kiddicare

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In the run-up to Internet Retailing Expo, to be held at Birmingham’s NEC on March 23 and 24, we’re carrying a series of weekly interviews with speakers who will be taking part in the event. This week we speak to Simon Harrow, technology officer at nursery retailer Kiddicare, about the part technology plays in the business.

Technology is no second thought for nursery retailer Kiddicare.com – it underlies the way the business operates, says its technology officer Simon Harrow.

“We tend to view ourselves as a technology company that happens to sell baby products rather than just a retailer,” says Harrow. “Everything we do is built for technological efficiency.”

That has meant the company, founded in 1974 and now claiming the position of the UK’s largest privately-owned nursery supplier, has been early to innovate. Kiddicare, which trades both through its 60,000 sq ft Peterborough showroom and online, introduced customer reviews as early as five years ago, and now has more than 90,000 on the site. Last year it became one of the first online retailers to offer a one-hour delivery slot by text message and email.

In the past, says Harrow, the company has introduced innovations that consumers catch up with. When it first introduced customer reviews, for example, they were added at the rate of around ten a week. Now as many as 8,000 are added each month and, crucially, they are owned by the company. Video reviews are now being added to the site, as of the end of last year, and while currently only a couple a week are being loaded, Harrow is confident that that too “will come”. “We’ve not pulled it and dumped the service and technology,” he says. “We just know we need to work a little bit harder to educate consumers.”

But when the company introduced the ability to buy by mobile phone, for the first time this was an innovation that consumers were already waiting for. The first order came in just four minutes after launch. Already the mobile channel – a stripped-down Kiddicare.com site that takes less time to checkout of than the online version - accounts for between two and five per cent of daily turnover, and Harrow expects that will rise as high as 50% within the next three to five years, especially once phone technology improves to feature embedded credit cards and thus one-touch mobile shopping.

“It also answers two questions for us,” says Harrow, “‘When are you launching a catalogue?’ and ‘when are you opening more stores?’ Mobile has got around both of those issues for us because it’s in essence a digital catalogue in your back pocket. It gives us the presence on the high street. If you see a product and you have an iPhone you can download our app, scan the barcode and it will bring back our results. You can check out then and there and it will be with you next working day.”

Kiddicare’s innovations have been recognised not only with growth – it now ships between 40,000 and 50,000 orders a month - but also with industry plaudits. Recent awards include the titles of best online retailer and best nursery retailer in the 2010 Mother & Baby Awards, and, within the ecommerce industry, the prize for best customer experience in the IMRG E-commerce Awards for Excellence 2010, as well as a highly commended in the Econsultancy Innovation Awards 2010.

Harrow is clear that the secret of the company’s success with technology is its in-house development team.

“We have development in house for all of our back end systems, that allows us to be very agile in what we do and fix things very quickly. If we find a process isn’t working or we’ve had feedback from our consumers that this would be a better way of doing something, we’re able to implement it very fast.”

He says he “can’t stress enough” how important in-house development capability is. “One of the reasons we have grown to the size that we have and won the awards that we’ve won is because we’re able to make decisions and implement them,” says Harrow. “We’re not tied up in huge costs or long time-frames with external development. It’s absolutely crucial.”

Beyond this his advice to other ecommerce businesses is to invest in technologies that can scale as the business grows, and then stick with their gut feelings about the technology. “Some take years to be accepted by consumers and when they do, you’re on the forefront.”

And what of the future? This year the big thing, says Harrow, will be the social experience, in the sense of involving customers in others’ shopping experiences, through the Kiddicare community, as it generates innovations including buying guides and video reviews.

He also sees an interesting idea in the wider application of the group-buying phenomenon, as pioneered by Groupon. “What Groupon’s great at doing is attracting new customers. But what about businesses leveraging a similar technology in-house to increase repeat business? What would happen if I ran a 50% off all children’s books if 5,000 parents signed up to buy one? I think that would work, it would generate a form of social commerce where everyone would go out, talk to each other and try to come together for the greater good.”

It looks like there’s plenty of room for technological innovation at Kiddicare in the future. That should make the company an interesting one to watch.

Simon Harrow, technology officer at Kiddicare.com, will be speaking at Internet Retailing Expo’s Evolution Conference on March 24. For more details about the conference, the Expo and to register, click here.

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