Investing in technology and innovation is similar to being good at clay pigeon shooting

Adam Warne was appointed Chief Information Officer at the family-run, multichannel fashion brand, River Island, which has a presence in over 125 worldwide markets, in October 2021.

At this year’s IRX & eDX, taking place on 24 & 25 May at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, in River Island’s 75th year, he will be talking about championing the pace of change to thrive in unpredictable environments.

Here, Adam shares some insights he will be discussing at the event. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You have been in your current role as CIO at River Island since October 2021 – what attracted you to the organisation?

River Island is now a 75-year-old business that has evolved through many brand refreshes, including Lewis Separates, Chelsea Girl, Style Man, and River Island. And yet it has a good, loyal customer base. Plus, it is incredibly ambitious. I was looking for a retailer that had physical shops and international aspirations.

We’ve been a physical business for far longer than a digital business – we are multichannel now – but we can move quickly, and innovation is encouraged. For instance, since 2010, River Island has transformed from being a business that sells everything through shops to now being shops, with a presence in North America, a franchise in the Middle East, a digital marketplace, and more. It’s immensely more complex than a dozen years ago, but also an exciting opportunity.

Not many people are aware, but River Island is a family-run business. It has never sought external investment, which means it’s really fast-paced and exhilarating, partly because there is regular face time with key stakeholders. The person who started it all, Bernard Lewis – or Mr Bernard, as we call him – turned 97 in February, but until Christmas came into the office and inspired us all with his passion and ambition.

Q: How would you assess the retail landscape today?

During the pandemic, everyone – including the British Retail Consortium – predicted that there was no coming back from internet shopping. But what we are seeing now is the inverse of that. There has been a massive resurgence in physical shopping, because we don’t want to let go of that experience. We enjoy it, so River Island needs to focus on online and offline customer engagement.

The mistake some retailers – and businesses in other industries – often make is thinking that customers have either digital or physical preferences. The reality is that we shop on whichever platform suits us at the time.

Q: How has the organisation innovated to improve customer experience?

We have researched to learn more about our typical customers and looked to innovate around their wants and needs. For example, until recently, we used to say that our typical customer was a 32-year-old female with a partner and a couple of children. Now, though, we need to understand different personas and the nuances between womenswear and menswear offerings.

Something we trialed last year showed that an elevated customer experience would generate interest. We launched three so-called River Studios shops that offered a slightly better service than in River Island, because the staff were more experienced. We are still learning lessons from that experiment, but we will continue with River Studios as it was so successful.

We have trialed other things, such as self-serve checkouts, like at Decathlon. Some 70% of people choose them over fixed checkouts with staff. We have also introduced smart fitting rooms. All the clothes are fitted with radio-frequency identification tags, and on the fitting-room screen, you can press a button for different sizes to be brought to you by staff. It also recommends other products that would go well with what is being tried on, even if only available online. This innovation is driving an increase in order value. More than that, we are seeing the digital and physical worlds blend more.

Q: You will discuss how to cope with the pace of change in retail at IRX – why should people attend your session?

In 2023, retailers must battle in a ‘VUCA’ world – an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. However, while that may alarm some leaders, quite a bit is relatively predictable – if you know where to find the breadcrumb trail.

Investing in innovation in technology to improve customer experience – whether online or digital – is like being good at clay pigeon shooting. If you aim directly for the clay, you will miss it every time. But if you work out the likely trajectory and shoot just a little ahead, then you will have more success.

At IRX, I’ll be helping participants work out what three metres in front of the clay looks like, and providing some tips and techniques to determine where that clay will be at any time. I’ll also talk about creating suitable mechanisms and team structures to leverage that insight.

I’ve been to IRX a few times, and it’s always great. Unfortunately, many people became “head down” during the pandemic. In other words, they were primarily focused on keeping the business running. As a result, many of us lost the “head up” approach that is influential, inspiring, and important for innovation. Every time I go to IRX, I have at least half a dozen “head up” moments, whether hearing from some of the speakers or chatting with the software vendors.

More than ever, you don’t know what you don’t know, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, former United States Secretary of Defense. Ultimately, IRX is a unique opportunity to think more broadly about the art of the possible in retail. Often I will meet someone I have a good connection with, and we will share a problem over coffee. I always leave IRX thinking the world is not as bad as I thought.

Adam is speaking a IRX & eDX 2023 in a session titled Championing the pace of change in your business to withstand the economic landscape. IRX & eDX take place at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on 24 & 25 May. Register – for free – here