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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.

House of Fraser CIO Julian Burnett on benefitting from big data in-store

When Julian Burnett joined UK retailer House of Fraser back in October 2015, he was hired to be a chief information officer (CIO). But, as with many others in similar positions, including Debenham’s CIO Angela Morrison, his role has since expanded and Burnett is now also the executive director of the House of Fraser supply chain.

The additional responsibilities being given to IT leaders should come as no surprise, as Burnett explains that three quarters of the company’s transformation journey is enabled through digital and technology investment, a common theme among many businesses embarking on business change programmes. There is a particular focus at House of Fraser in improving the company’s distribution and logistics operation, and Burnett suggests that by the middle of this year the company is shifting to have a ‘channel agnostic operation’.

“We think that it’s probably one of the first times a major multi-channel retailer with the history we have will have arrived at a point where we don’t worry about the cost differential between online and in-store retailing,” he says.

Burnett says his position, like many technology leaders, has been brought to the front and centre of the business as a result of the transformational effect of technology and the exploitation of data at scale.

Key to data exploitation at House of Fraser has been a business intelligence programme with the aim of streamlining the use of data to be more effective.

“When I arrived, we were creating a vast amount of information on a daily basis which was consumed across the organisation, and we also had a very large number of direct access users at our data warehouse, and my conclusion was that we were immature in how we were exploiting the data available,” Burnett says.

He wanted to move away from producing 18,000 reports a day to a point where his staff had more precise information at their fingertips, and so a BI programme was put into place using MicroStrategy 10.

“Using the visualisation from MicroStrategy, we were trying to shift their mindsets. So rather than having a lot of dense output, we wanted to create visual feeds that would enable [our employees] to narrow down their enquiries, so that they can then take action with the information they get in response,” says Burnett.

He believes that this would be a move away from what retailers have tended to use in the past to make predictions – a mix of history and instinct.

“This is dumb, it’s the same as shares – don’t let history define your future,” he added.

Going a step further, House of Fraser is looking at predictive analytics capabilities, and areas such as price optimisation and the use of machine learning to improve the way the company sets prices and discount rates on products.

Bringing this knowledge to the retail store

There is a vast amount of data that House of Fraser – and retailers in general  – get when a consumer visits their website.

“We know where you’ve come from, how you’ve arrived, what you’ve looked at, what you’ve spent more time looking at, your clickstream and we’re able to then follow you once you’ve left through various re-marketing techniques,” says Burnett.

But this same level of data isn’t available in-store for retailers to exploit.

House of Fraser has worked with Cisco to implement a new mesh network in all of its stores that provides it with connectivity but also acts as an access point structure for public Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections and is equipped with Beacon technology.

“We’re using that to gather the signatures of mobile devices – not the person – so we’re able to detect an active mobile device in our store and build up a picture over time of our customers moving around in the space and we’re overlaying that with the space plans we have in all of our stores to see how customers are interacting with the products,” he says.

While this isn’t as accurate as the data gathered online, it still gives the retailer a better idea of how best to set up its retail shops and which product areas consumers are spending more time looking at.

The data is captured using Cisco’s technology and then uploaded onto Microsoft’s Azure Cloud platform. Then, House of Fraser uses MicroStrategy’s visualisation technology to get a clear understanding of any patterns or trends.