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IRC 2016 INTERVIEW Richard Hewitt of M&S on using data and technology to drive innovation and growth

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Ahead of this year’s InternetRetailing Conference 2016, we’re previewing some of the key events of the conference, profiling the conference streams and interviewing speakers. This week we speak to Richard Hewitt, head of digital stores at M&S .

InternetRetailing: The panel at IRC 2016 is all about ways of using data and technology to drive innovation and business growth. Is there one particular use of technology/innovation through data that you’ve found impressive, or that you’ve worked on? What was particularly challenging about it?

Richard Hewitt, head of digital stores at M&S: People think about data in a very modern sense, but for me thinking about data distribution the first time it happens at any scale goes back almost 600 years to Gutenberg in 1458 and the printing press. We were really in that space till the latter part of the 20th century when we made a similar leap forward with the internet and the worldwide web.

Thinking about things very much more recently, around big data and predictive analytics and artificial intelligence, we’re really beginning to look at a period of real data innovation with a whole plethora of new and exciting areas. The recent ability that we’ve had to access vast amounts of data and use things like machine learning and artificial intelligence to draw out insights and information has given the potential for even relatively small businesses to have the kind of insights that would previously have taken months or very expensive consultancy to really draw out.

One of the big drivers I had for joining M&S was our big investment in specifically big data and analytics. Unlike many other large retailers, M&S seem to be taking a very serious approach to collecting data from everything through from operations to how our customers move around our stores. We believe this gives us a massive advantage in that not only can we respond but also predict what our customers and colleagues needs are throughout their experience with us. This will lead to far greater depth of customer experience and also improved tools for our customers, colleagues in their day to day work.

IR: What kind of challenges does that present?

RH: The biggest challenge I get is actually not really collecting the data but really getting into and analysing it. Previously this would have been done by banks of really smart people sitting in front of large computers with numerical degrees. These days we can use things like machine learning and artificial intelligence. I guess to a lesser degree things like crowd sourcing to really bring a great deal of analytical power to the enormous amounts of data that can be collected. The biggest challenge in the first place is actually analysing the data. Effective elements, about knowing which questions to ask. The data itself is a pretty rough tool, that you really must have a very clear requirement from it.

IR: How does M&S use the data now?

RH: We’ve been looking at some of this, against the background of a large logistics infrastructure. We do manage a large amount of our in-store availability through predictive analytics. We’re looking to do more over time.

IR: How do you see retailers’ use of technology evolving in the future? Will data continue to be even more important?

RH: Interestingly, I think the use of online data for etailers is already core to the business. My background is in the pureplay dotcom world, where we live or die by analytics. Retailers are really beginning to catch on to this now and starting to really invest heavily in technology so again here in digital stores one of the projects we’re working on at the moment is getting new digital device into the hands of our colleagues. They look to have far greater amounts of data and analytics for our day to day operations. Equally, allows us to offer customers real links between the online world and bricks and mortar world. So for example, you’ll be able now to go into a store and if there isn’t a great availability for a particular product if you talk to a customer assistant they’ll be able tell you whether that’s in stock, available online, or in a warehouse that may not be immediately available in store. I guess in terms of using data, I suspect that all retailers are going to be investing heavily in things like big data and predictive analytics. I think they need to be more reactive to customer need – in the future the capacity to have access to real time live data will be a backbone of any modern day retailer.

If we look at the ability of relatively small organisations to access cloud services and big data and software, you’re now able to have very, very powerful computing resources at a fraction of the cost of 4 or 5 years ago. The capacity of small and medium sized retailers to have very big heavy lifting analytical tools is not really a barrier any more.

IR: Do you have any advice for retailers of all sizes on how to get started, how to plan for this future of ever more data?

RH: The best advice I have is to try at a small scale and then learn. The temptation is to try to borrow the ocean to go out and look at the utopian world of two to three years away from now and plot a very straight path to go there. What we’ve found at M&S is that the real value of what we’ve learnt has been by trying things on a smaller scale, what the journey itself has been informative.

The real critical piece is the ability to hav ea vision of where you want to be, and an understanding that you’ll take small incremental steps to get there rather than a two to three-year road map. That gives you the ability to pivot as you go. We see the trading landscape can change very quickly, especially with something like Brexit where you’re immediately having to think of a very different world from the one we would have predicted two to three years ago. If you’ve committed yourself to a very large, long-term road map that doesn’t have that flexibility in it you can find it very difficult to operate at the agility of a smaller organisation. The critical piece is to have a good vision of where you’re going. Enables to pivot and work with agility to get there.

IR: Aside from your own discussion, what are you most looking forward to at the conference?

RH: The thing I’m really excited about doing is meeting other retailers facing similar challenges to the ones that we are. As a technologist, the ones that I’ve drawn out for me as being particularly interesting would be the workshops around innovation, which is very close to my heart.

Richard Hewitt, head of digital stores at M&S, will be taking part in a panel discussion in the Transform stream at IRC 2016. Technology and Data to Drive Innovation and Business Growth is at 2.35pm at the event, to be held at the Novotel Hammersmith on October 12. Click here too to find out more about the InternetRetailing Conference and sister event eDelivery Conference held on October 11, and about how to buy tickets for the events.

We have a limited number of full delegate passes to win. Each entitles the holder to access all conference tracks, post conference networking receptions, and to meals and refreshments at the event. We’re offering them to the retailers who we judge to have the best answer to the following question: what is the key ecommerce/multichannel event of the year so far, in your view? Enter by tweeting @IR_conf and @etail with your responses.

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