UK clothing retailer Crew Clothing is using Couchbase’s open source, distributed ‘NoSQL’ database to offer shoppers a till-less experience.
The software is the technological basis of a new fully mobile sales solution based on Android tablets that now lets staff serve customers from anywhere on the shop floor. Over 100 of its stores are using the tech, with (as of August 2022) 56,000 transactions successfully being processed in this way.
The project initially began to just support ‘pop up’ and one-off events, but it has been so successful, says the company’s Head of IT Richard Surman, that it is now a core part of the retailer’s shopping experience.
Surman - who has extensive UK retail experience at Oasis, Warehouse and Paperchase - sees the use of NoSQL as an important part of what he was brought on board to achieve: a complete overhaul of the whole IT infrastructure and operations at the business. He says:
Crew wanted somebody to come in that they could have confidence in, ensuring that we could operate effectively, that we had the right systems in place to support the planned sales growth of the business and all the additional partners that we plan to bring on.
His first challenge once in post, he says, was to revive the brand’s appearance outside of the traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, which had been suspended during the first waves of the COVID-19 lockdowns. He explains:
I needed to help us bolster our websites, but we also wanted to get the brand name back out there: we were going to tennis events and events like the Henley Regatta.
The idea was that we were going to put in some pop up shops in these spaces so that we could sell our products, but we obviously needed to do it quickly and efficiently. Plus we knew we might need to keep enforcing social distancing.
Given that he was given this business need in February 2021 but was also told the first such roadshows needed to be ready for May, time was obviously tight. However, Crew worked with implementation partner Paul Mason Consultancy in order to make his deadline.
The solution being implemented was a mobile selling platform that didn’t need to have as much functionality as Crew’s existing electronic point of sales systems.
Retail stores typically use tills that have a physical network connected and tend to take up a lot of space as a result. As Surman sums it up, the idea would be to be able to deploy something mobile that either customers or selling agents could use easily and effectively, and which the team could pick up and put into another event a couple of days later.
At the same time, all sales data would have to be securely and accurately reported back to central Crew Clothing systems - and ideally, also integrate with its existing point of sales (PoS) environment for futureproofing.
Surman says he reached out to several suppliers and existing partners to get help with such a system, but the only one who could meet this timeframe was the chosen service partner, who used NoSQL technology. He says:
We sat together and in 12 weeks designed and installed a mobile selling platform from scratch that is not just perfect for us to sell at events, but also could have all of our products and promotional activity on to ensure that we can sell effectively on the day.
The system combines tablet and database functionality. On the hardware side, a range of functions are used by Crew staffers, ranging from scanning clothing or shoe wear barcodes with the onboard camera, to a Wi-Fi PDQ card terminal to take the payment from the customer. Payments can be made through Chip and PIN, or using contactless via a range of popular consumer payment apps, such as Apple and Google Pay.
That’s all complemented at the back end, says Surman, by the high processing speed of his non-traditional database, which he says makes “old fashioned databases” seem “a bit clunky” in comparison, and gives the retailer much more real-time capability.
What sealed the deal for the business, however, was that sales agents needed next to no training on this new way of digital selling - and that the Crew customer base took to it very quickly as well. He explains:
All of the directors and senior staff that went to the events to see the tablets in action were really impressed with both the solution and how quickly we could sell to people - it was a real queue-busting product.
Surman was also able to quickly show that at the back end, sales reports from field events could also be generated much more rapidly than before, when overnight had been standard. He says:
With the new solution it's real time, so we know what we're selling within a few minutes of it being put in a customer’s basket - which is really positive for us as a business, because we now know we are running low on stock of this item, so we need to get some more out tomorrow.
A wider roll-out
Having proved itself so quickly on the road, Crew Clothing management decided to embrace the tablet-NoSQL combination as part of a wider ‘store of the future’ approach within its existing store processes.
That took work, Surman stresses, as it was one thing to do this well at three or four pop ups, and another to be sure it could consistently work at 100-plus branches.
Security was a key consideration of this scale-up work, he adds - but all targets were met, and the new store-wide till-less system was ready for September 2021. He says:
At the end of that month it was live in one store - but now 85% of our transactions are going through the mobile sending solution, the other 15% through the till system, which is still in place for cash and gift cards.
As things stand now, one year on, Surman is now moving to be able to support cash payments with the devices, as well as gift cards. The company has a target of being a device-only seller before Crew and the rest of the retail market go into Black Friday peak trading in November.
That will help the company on several fronts, he states, from being able to increase the amount of physical space in-store for more goods, by reducing what had previously been allocated to tills. The hope is to also introduce new payment features, which could include customer self-service.
This approach also benefits Crew’s IT function, as store till support has effectively been eliminated. Problems that used to require an engineer visit to work on a physical kit, now just mean building a replacement tablet and getting it shipped out.
Next steps for this use of NoSQL, he concludes, will be to integrate the new sales system with the company’s website, as well as linking back-end customer data to give sales assistants customer history on-site, which should help improve Crew’s customer experience.
Summing up, Surman says:
I think we've delivered a state-of-the-art effective mobile selling platform that delivers a robust and forward thinking solution for our business, and which shows the innovation Crew prides itself in, too.