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Dial tone

From the Editor-in-Chief

From the Editor-in-Chief

No longer are we surprised when the web ‘works’: rather we’re shocked when it does not. Ian Jindal reflects upon the need for resilience in multichannel operations.

At the turn of the century I ran Online Operations for the BBC and had the pleasure of squaring the circle between exploding adoption and use of digital services, bringing projects out of “R”, through “D” and into live, where they would bump into the audience’s insatiable demand and ever-increasing expectations.

One challenge was to marry the brand values of the BBC and their professional mastery of the TV and radio media with the realities of new digital media (web, digital tv, interactive).

A cardinal sin at the BBC is dead air time: the something’s-gone-wrong either with the programme, links or play-out. There are stories that during the height of the Cold War a submarine commander, upon surfacing, would check for BBC Radio 4 as a determinant that life in Britain had continued. Maintaining that ‘dial tone’, the certain, reliable, consistent operation, took on the importance of safeguarding a way of life.

It it this ‘dial tone’ – the reassuring certainty that all is well – that now characterises multichannel operations. In the noughties we would attribute website errors to our connection dropping, our computer malfunctioning, or the sheer flakiness of early browsers coping with flash-laden pages.

Now, however, we are shocked when digital channels don’t work, and blame the owner for the error.

Establishing ‘dial tone’ for the web was critical for commerce. The repeated, consistent, reliable and resilient operation of presentation, payment, delivery… together these underpin our confidence in online transactions.

When we add in the store and physical dimensions, however, there are additional challenges.

The recent fire at Asos illustrates the progress made in the last decade. A fire at their new distribution centre on a Friday night caused them to cease taking orders on their website and destroyed £23m of stock at cost. Much commentary covered the fragility of a single centre, yet in parallel the fire brigade praised the orderly processes in place, and no-one was hurt.

The coverage may even have been beneficial as customers were reminded how much they like the brand!

Impressively, Asos was back trading within 72 hours. This compares favourably with the Buncefield fire in 2005 which took the embryonic Asos ‘off-air’ for 5 weeks over peak trading. With the business so much larger and more complex, this recovery is impressive and shows the increased resilience and capability in the business.

Multichannel retailers of course had cause to give thanks for their stores, which could remain trading at least rather than go wholly off-air in case of disaster. Another leading retailer has shown us the importance of dial-tone with their own changes.

Marks & Spencer recently released their new dot-com multichannel platform. This was the culmination of over 3 years’ work – new order management system, new warehouse for multichannel, new PIM, new web platform, upgraded POS, staff training and store refits – all delivered on time and on budget, without dropping service availability. That’s dial tone! The risks for M&S were higher since they were moving off the proven Amazon platform and so had to re-invent everything, starting from the highest capabilities in the UK!

While we may quibble about the customer experience and the product range, the engineering and operational achievement is not to be underestimated.

Two leading retailers have illustrated that business continuity, service consistency and availability, operational management and resilience are all now requirements to sustain customer trust.

I speak regularly on UK multichannel – lit by the reflected glory of retailers who set these standards – and without exception it is the combination of retailing flair and ruthless, consistent executional capability that sets the UK apart in the minds of non-UK retailers. At Internet Retailing, we monitor how the skills required of multichannel professionals increase regularly – we need to know more, to a higher level and with greater synthesis year on year. To these skills we now have to add operational and service management since maintaining ‘dial tone’ is fundamental to maintaining consumer confidence and willingness to transact.

Finally my congratulations to Asos for winning the Best Retailer prize at the 2014 Internet Retailing Awards last month. The Judges recognised that Asos had established a robust and scalable business model that had changed industry expectations. We didn’t expect a fire to test that model, but we’re pleased that they recovered so well.

Dial tone is now a minimum competitive position for the best multichannel retailers.

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