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Case study 16 May 2023 (ITpro)

For staff at Crew Clothing, traditional point-of-sale (PoS) tills had, over the years, become restrictive – holding back sales activities and future growth.

"As technology moves on, people get frustrated with the speed at which things happen, and the nuances of areas of the system that tend to go wrong," says Richard Surman, head of IT at the coast-inspired casualwear chain. Surman was brought in around the time of the first COVID-19 lockdown to "come up with a strategic IT direction". 

Going mobile, partly inspired by free-roaming Apple Store layouts, has already seen costs reduce, the customer experience improve, and agility rise, he says.

The business faced a 13% revenue decline in 2021, when COVID-19 was at its peak and retail moved largely online. Now, the company has more than 100 stores and reported a 40% growth in sales last year to £82.7 million. It predicts further expansion in the future.

Working with IT partner PMC over 12 weeks, the London-headquartered retailer developed a cloud-enabled Android app-and-tablet-based sales solution integrated with Crew's card payment provider, enabling staff to serve customers as and where needed, he says.

"Staff log in, press a button, scan the barcode, press 'total', job done. You pay for the products and away you go," says Surman. "The key was to make it really easy – and it was quick to develop because, basically, we had a set number of products we wanted to sell."  

Joining Crew Clothing in July 2020, Surman is responsible for providing business-critical IT services for a user base encompassing more than 150 head office staff and more than 100 retail outlets distributed throughout the UK.

Front-end architecture with e-basket functionality was coded by PMC to 'talk' to a Couchbase database layer, with both elements integrated into a Splunk-based reporting platform.

All stores can view all sales transactions, customer capture information, e-receipt percentage versus physical printed receipts, average basket value, and more, with sales data fed in real-time into the Microsoft-driven enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

Data is updated at the endpoint tablets within ten or 15 seconds, helping ensure sales efficiency and accurate inventory management on the fly, Surman says. If the internet goes down or devices can't talk to central systems, the setup itself "flips over" to offline mode. 

Staff can still transact business as usual, using 4G SIM-enabled card machines, he says. He warns that Crew was not "completely sold" on the idea initially, however. But Surman knew he could showcase it at various Crew-sponsored summer sporting events, such as Henley Regatta and with the Lawn Tennis Association.

"It was really successful at those events. No failures, no issues, store staff at the events loved it, as did our directors that went along," he explains. "So we moved on, broadening the remit to ensure we could deliver it to our store environment."

Other "curveballs" did occur, Surman admits. The company's card payment provider pulled out, which meant deploying an entirely new card payment solution as well as building out their promotion engine for faster product scanning and access to the customer database.

"PMC, again working with Couchbase, delivered quick, seamless integration with our existing systems and a great store-staff experience," Surman says.

Integrating with the existing, legacy ERP platform was the biggest tech challenge. Surman now says he wishes he'd invested more time on that interface before go-live, even with relatively clean, easy-to-load data.

"We spent three months manually loading sales into the system," he says. "We devised a slick process for doing it but obviously that time could have been better spent doing something else."

Store staff and IT now free to innovate

Hardware costs are now "a hell of a lot cheaper", Surman reveals, noting that physical cash registers and equipment have long been costly and time-consuming to manage and maintain. "We no longer need a hardware support function for store staff, and the IT cost of setting up a new store is about 65% lower. "Transactions are about 45% faster than our old till system."

Customers now rarely need to queue except at "crazy" times like Black Friday or Christmas, meaning fewer lost sales when customers can't or don't wish to wait in line to make their purchases. Surman says. "This gives us a lot more time with the customers as well."

That includes his 13 IT staff who, freed from laborious hardware management, have time to work proactively with other departments, visiting stores or coming up with innovations. ...

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