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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Wagamama CIO Richard Tallboy on using tech to remain competitive

In recent weeks, retail chains Toys R Us and Maplin, which had been on UK high streets for many years, have fallen into administration, putting 5,500 jobs at risk. In addition, Italian chain Prezzo said it would close 94 stores as it struggled with poor trading, with burger chain Byron and Jamie Oliver’s restaurant business having to similarly slim down portfolios, in what seems to be a growing trend in the retail and hospitality industry.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry; Asian food chain Wagamama, which first opened in 1992 in Bloomsbury London, is still thriving today. The company had 8.2 per cent UK like-for-like sales growth in the third quarter of 2017-18, with a group turnover increasing 12.5 per cent to £72.1m. The chain, which was founded by Alan Yau, who subsequently created the Chinese restaurants Hakkasan and Yauatcha, had a 8.7 per cent UK outperformance in Q3 and has claimed to have traded ahead of the competition consistently for over three years. In fact, last year was the company’s most successful financial year since opening.

One of the critical components of their success – although not the only one – is technology.

“It’s not just about having technology in place; it’s about how you use that technology and how you drive a competitive environment,” says Wagamama CIO Richard Tallboy.

This means being able to provide both internal support to Wagamama’s employees, and providing technology that can provide better experiences for consumers, to ensure they come back again.

In order to unearth which areas the company can improve on, Tallboy looked at research which showed that the whole process of being able to leave a restaurant, from requesting a bill to paying to leaving, could take 12 minutes.

This can be a source of frustration for customers and further research showed that if the bill experience is negative, then one in four people won’t come back to the restaurant.

“You can have a fantastic meal but if it takes you 12 minutes to get a bill, that’s what you will remember and we wanted to solve this pain point in a scalable way,” Tallboy explains.

So, the company decided to build an app in partnership with Mastercard, using the Masterpass digital wallet, and integrating it with Oracle’s Simphony Point of Sale (POS) system.

“We wanted to replicate the type of experience users get from Uber and make it relevant for restaurants,” says Tallboy.

The app, dubbed wagamamago can be downloaded for iOS and Android, and allows customers to order more items from their phone, split the bill and pre-order takeaway. The main benefit however, is being able to pay for the meal automatically from the app without the need to hit a pay button. Instead, customers will be charged automatically, with the receipt emailed directly to them.

The integration with Oracle’s Simphony product is a part of the business’s strategy to move to a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment. As the company has a small IT team, Tallboy suggests that they need to rely on global companies like Oracle and Mastercard to help with major projects, and ensure they can be implemented with pace and scalability.

As Wagamama requires customers to register to use the app, will the company be using their data to target them with promotions?

“We’ll give people the option of whether they want us to market to them or not, but ultimately we’re collecting their details for the purpose of being able to facilitate their payments,” says Tallboy.

“We’re not using it for other purposes, but we will use information to make their experience more seamless in other parts of the guest journey. For example, once they register, on the app they should seamlessly be able to log on to the Wi-Fi in the restaurant,” he states.

Wagamama, which has 129 UK restaurants, also recently launched a vegetarian and vegan menu, and committed to remove seven million single use plastic straws from the business from the 22nd April and replace them with a biodegradable paper straw alternative – so not all of its initiatives are technology-based. However, technology plays a critical role in supporting the company’s overall strategy and has been vital in its recent success.