Regular readers of my column will know that in recent months I have been getting to grips with the world of online retail and have delved into the fantastic sector of e-commerce practised by my own company, Aurora Fashions, the parent company of Karen Millen, Coast, Oasis and Warehouse. I am proud as punch this week as Aurora Fashions has won two awards at the Retail Week Technology Awards, beating some highly innovative initiatives from other retail groups. The Aurora IT team won the 'IT Team of the Year' award for their IT performance this year which recognised the team's innovation. Aurora also won the 'EPOS Initiative of the Year' award for the Oasis mobile gift voucher initiative.
Oasis won the 'EPOS Initiative of the Year' award for its innovative thinking. Firstly, in December 2008, Oasis launched an iPhone app service for customers to access Oasis news, products, services and images to their mobile phones in an instant. This scheme won an award itself for retail initiative. Following the huge success in download numbers of this application – it achieved a return on investment within just 25 days of launching – Oasis took an even bigger e-commerce leap and was the first retailer to market mobile gift vouchers. Having tested customers' appetites for mobile phone promotions, Oasis launched an initiative allowing customers to send and be sent gift vouchers through texts. Customers can set the time they would like the voucher to be delivered to the recipient's mobile phone and the recipient can click through for more information from the site if they have a web-enabled mobile phone. The recipient then takes their mobile phone to the shop and shows the text message to redeem the voucher.
A capitalist economy means competitiveness will always emerge, and this has never been more true than in retail technology today. The success of the Oasis iPhone app highlighted the opportunity for mobile commerce to other retailers, and from here the trickle of retailers launching similar technology and initiatives has turned into a stream. In a highly competitive retail market, it is a constant challenge to stay ahead of competitors with technology.
Speaking recently, Aurora Fashions chairman Derek Lovelock described how the face of the retail landscape has been changed forever. Lovelock explained that since the advent of the internet, shoppers' buying habits have changed irreversibly. In a post-recession, internet-savvy shopping culture, a 'buy now, wear now' attitude is dominant.
"Today [the customer] is shopping in a totally different way and the web is the enabler which is allowing her to do it. Gone are the days when the shopper bought product only when the new season's ranges arrived in stores. She wants something new and she wants it when she wants it," he said.
It is necessary to move with the new shopping culture and meet the challenges it brings. In a challenging economic time in Britain and Ireland, Karen Millen is grasping the opportunity to grow internationally, which has been a key contributor to its success. It will extend its reach overseas with the launch of a new US website and US distribution centre, to provide a more effective service to this market and support business growth into North America. This base will act as a hub for direct deliveries from suppliers to destination outlets in the US without having to move goods through the UK. Benefits include speed to market, reduced freight miles and reduced costs through more efficient supply chains. This operation went live last week. Ishan Patel, strategic development director of Aurora Fashions, explains the significance of this step forward in e-commerce for Karen Millen.
"The US e-commerce market is currently serviced from the UK but to truly meet the needs of a large market with its own local nuances in a time zone stretching from minus five hours to minus 10, we are planning to set up an operation in New Jersey. The operation will be tailored using local knowledge and ensure we are more agile in meeting the needs of the North American market without attempting to dilute our global brand positioning."
It is constant reinvention and further developments in internet technology that allows retailers to capitalise on web-based opportunities. Ishan explains that it is ironic to think that the forefathers of the internet created it as a means for communication through community forums and for sharing ideas and developments, with the intent to give power to the people without money ever changing hands.
The internet was a technological invention that meshed with the hippy dream. But the nature of the beast meant that giving unlimited access for all users led to software developments, websites and social networking sites which were in constant competition to be the best there could be. Bill Gates and others like him recognised the internet as the most fruitful business opportunity available to mankind. In 1994, businesses were allowed for the first time to sell online. As they say, the rest is history.
Over 35 million people log onto the internet every day in Britain and Ireland. In 2009, Google alone made profits of $6.5bn. It is up to retailers to be innovative, engaging, interactive, and savvy enough to keep up with consumers' expectations. Oasis foresaw the retail opportunity for a mobile phone initiative. Karen Millen is successfully surging forward with international e-commerce expansion. The knowledge of the ages is gathered in our pockets, and now is the time to use it.
Not all of the ideas out there in the market will succeed. But retailers have to decide whether they want to keep up with consumer expectations and take the risks, or wait a few years and risk playing catch-up, as many did with e-commerce.
Ian Galvin is head of