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Online as retail theater at Harrods

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks February 22, 2018
When you're a top London tourist attraction as well as a store, doing online retailing right becomes a significant challenge.

Many people will have a preconception of Harrods – probably along the lines of it being the quintessential exposition of British in action. It is fair to suspect that many would not necessarily consider it a business operating out towards the bleeding edge of online trading.

But that carries a burden. Scott Johnson, Harrods Head of E-commerce Technology, observes that as one of the top three London visitor attractions and a business that trades on being at the pinnacle of high-end retailing, customer experience is crucial. It has to offer the ultimate in customer experience.

This is something now deep in the company’s psyche and history. Founded in 1834 as a small grocery store in London’s East End, it soon moved to Knightsbridge, a much more affluent area. By 1880 it had acquire many adjoining properties and grown significantly. In 1883 the store was completely destroyed by fire, just 19 days before Christmas. But it still managed to fulfil all its Christmas orders and ended up posting record sales for the year, something which Johnson says embedded customer experience in the corporate DNA.

Across the store itself, its airport boutiques and its website the company now has some 65 million visitors a year, many amongst the highest net-worth individuals in the world. The website is particularly important for overseas customers, so they are not obliged to come to London to shop at the store. The website, therefore, has to be amongst the best around, argues Johnson:

We’re looking to create the environment that houses the world’s best brands and sets the global standard in customer experience. We are also looking to anticipate and exceed those customers’ desires, and must ensure that we have solid foundations so that we can achieve the growth that we desire.

Retail theater

One of the problems Johnson has had to face in this is trying to transfer the customers’ in-store experience of what he calls retail theatre' over onto the website.  An example can be seen in the store's famous food halls, where the bakery department has been completely revamped and all those smells of bread and cakes baking are exploited as part of the experience. In the absence of any internet-enabled 'Smelly-Vision’ technology, getting some of this experience across on the website is the type of challenge he faces.

Taking up the challenge, Johnson and his team have started by aiming to ensure that all the brands available in the store are also available online. Before, they only had a selection of brands available on the website in order to ensure that they were presented in the right way.

Back in 2011 the website had 16 million visitors and generated around 35% of overall sales. This was despite investment in the site being, in his words, poor. There was no content management system, so any changes to the site were essentially hand-crafted. It focused mainly on selling gifts and souvenirs, and it also had no mobile interface capability. On top of that it ran on an old, unstable platform that had been customised very heavily. So step one was to re-platform the whole website.

The first phase then was a test and learn process, which Included some major steps such a re-positioning the approach of the site away from the gift basket and souvenir business, and undertaking a major redesign that created far more consistency between the website and the store. This also meant getting more of the right people in to do the job.

Johnson's team then moved on to fixing the basics, such as  putting in a proper mobile interface and redesigning the checkout process, which had been far too long and drawn out. He also needed to address problems in managing international deliveries, so it was consistent for all customers.

Lastly the team addressed content commerce – making sure more content about products was provided in ways that encouraged a better relationship between customers and the products they were looking at. This meant bringing more coherence between the website and what was in the store, for example in terms of matching promotions in the store with what was on the website.

There were suggestions that one of a packaged  'store' applications would be a good route to upgrading the system, but this idea was ditched because, being Harrods, they really didn’t want any sign of 'me too'. In addition, the complex customization required to get what Harrods required would push such solutions beyond what those packages could provide.

In the end they went for an IBM commerce platform implemented as a headless solution using RESTful APIs. Johnson explains:

We wanted to have full control of the UI so we could make changes very quickly, and we decided in the end to implement ASP.NET Core.

Problem killing

As part of that move Harrods started using Dynatrace because it was the only applications performance monitoring system that supported Microsoft’s open source ASP.NET Core web framework. The availability of Dynatrace became more important as the performance of the website – sheer speed of delivery – became an significant criterion, not least because the site redesign included much richer graphics and image content that then needed to be delivered to a mobile-first environment.

It was also required because while the original site had been built around the use of 25 design templates, the new one has over 250 design modules. Johnson says:

The modules can be bolted together in any way the designers want, so pretty much every page could look different.

The early results have, he says, been very good with, for example, five times more contents being put up on the site in any given time period. An even better measure, and one more tangible to line of business managers, is that Harrods is now getting major brands approaching the company to be included on the website. This has then attracted those vendors in to be sold in the store as well. In that respect, the website has now become a marketing lead generator for the company out to potential suppliers.

The part that Dynatrace plays in this is in monitoring how the applications are working together, for it is often in the collaboration that issues can arise. For example, an early problem almost brought the website to a halt during testing before it went live. This was triggered by what Johnson calls "garbage collection issues" caused by the way the APIs were being called. The Dynatrace tools identified where the system needed retuning and optimising for best performance.

Having seen what it could achieve the tools are now used proactively to alert the team as soon as anything starts to go wrong. A recent problem in the international checkout processes was identified as being caused by a problem in a supplier's IT systems, and the Dynatrace tools had identified it despite the supplier’s monitoring systems being unable to find any problem.

This has genuine value all round, for in the Harrods world the customers’ perceptions of any brand’s value is all important to the whole brand value chain, and any issue that tarnishes one part of that brand chain tarnishes them all. Given the line item values of many of the products sold, that constitutes real money. So sorting problems such as this quickly, regardless of where the cause lies, is all important.

To this end, Johnson is now keen to start working with Dynatrace’s new Session Replay tool that can rebuild any particular customer’s individual transactions to recreate and identify the cause of any problem they have had.


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