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Internet Retailing 2010: Interview with Giles Delafeld, Blacks Leisure Group

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Welcome to the latest in a series of previews ahead of our annual conference, Internet Retailing 2010.

This week we speak to Giles Delafeld, group ecommerce director at Blacks Leisure Group. Delafeld joined Blacks Leisure Group from DSGi in 2008. He joined the group three months into a turnaround phase led by chief executive Neil Gillis that aims to take the business back into profitability. Since then, the ecommerce division, which runs the Blacks and Millets websites, has reversed its decline and moved into profit.

When Giles Delafeld joined Blacks Leisure Group in April 2008 he had quite a surprise. Just nine weeks into the new financial year, the ecommerce division was already trading 20% behind the previous year’s figures – and that was a year in which the ecommerce division made a loss of more than £1m. “I couldn’t get over the fact that we had an internet business that was declining,” says Delafeld.

Over the coming weeks and months the full extent of the problem emerged. Delafeld found, for example, that about 12% of the time the ‘add to basket’ button on the product pages didn’t work, while stock availability was unclear. The call centre was run from London’s Docklands – one of the most expensive places in the country – and use of a third-party logistics service tied up stock off the site and made forecasting difficult.

“Initially I’d been thinking we’d take a strategic approach, get the strategy right then look for the right ecommerce platform to migrate to,” says Delafeld. “But in actual fact that business was struggling so much with the technology that I woke up every week with a different technical problem with our website that nobody knew how to fix. One day I’d wake up and none of the products had any imagery. The next day all prices had reverted to zero. Luckily that coincided with stock availability not working either.”

Clearly something had to change – and fast. The solution Delafeld came up with was to build a new interim platform for both Millets and Blacks. That was up and running within 12 weeks, launching on December 22 2008, a fast turnaround, but effectively just missing the Christmas rush.

However, the new website immediately made a difference, and since then the business has developed fast. A purpose-built, in-house photographic studio has cut the time taken to get product images on site by about three weeks, while logistics has also been taken in-house, giving the advantage of being able to ringfence web stock virtually while it’s still stored in the same space as that destined for stores. The call centre function has also been moved in-house.

The Blacks website has now been relaunched, with an emphasis on the customer experience that has led to a 20% increase in conversions. Features now include product attribute filtering, the ability to shop by brand, improved product content and imagery, along with navigation and search. Customer feedback is reflected in the site. Future developments will include functionality to crosssell products on the Blacks website, and video presentations that explain the technical aspects of equipment and clothing, thereby helping groups such as mountain climbers make informed decisions. Millets will also see its website relaunched in the near future.

By the end of year in February 2009, like-for-like ecommerce growth was flat but in the year ended February 2010, growth was 85% up and profits were good.

So where does it go now? Delafeld says there will be continuous improvements to the sites, and adds: “There’s no doubt I see our business as one that should absolutely be multichannel. Let’s face it, many retail businesses have multiple channels and aren’t necessarily an integrated multichannel experience. But we have more than 300 stores across the country so it entirely makes sense to leverage those stores to enable order online and collect in store as well as order in store and have delivered to the store for collection or to home.”

A first step in that direction was taken this summer, with Millets’ buy online, collect at Glastonbury service. It’s a service that Delafeld saw as a key way to reconnect with a younger, festival-going audience that may not immediately think of Millets for its camping requirements. Demand was higher than expected, and no customers were left disappointed. The experience also gave the team valuable insights into this part of the market, “All in all,” he says, “it was a fantastic success and therefore as a result it’s something we’ll see more of. We’ll certainly do it again net year and will probably do it for other events as well.”

So what key steps have made the difference between a declining ecommerce business and a successful one?

Delafeld sums it up thus: “Really it was about focusing on costs, on having the right people to do the right things and execution – really making sure our execution was not at all rushed. So many online businesses think that being fast means dynamic and I tend to disagree with that. I think there is something often in being fast but I think you can do both: be fast but make sure the quality is there as well.”

Giles Delafeld will take part in the panel discussion at the end of Track One, Captivating the Consumer at Internet Retailing 2010. The event is held on October 12 in London. To find out more about the conference or to reserve a place, click here.

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