Health and beauty retailer Boots is on a mission to develop a true bricks-and-clicks business, providing personalised customer journeys in its physical and online stores to become an omnichannel leader.
During the Covid-19 outbreak the iconic British brand – now part of the US-owned Walgreens Boots Alliance – saw its dot-com business grow dramatically, while maintaining a significant high street presence across the UK with its stores classified as essential retail.
Richard Corbridge, CIO at Boots UK, talks to Tech Monitor about how his team is working to match the recent success of the e-commerce business to the well-established brick and mortar estate.
Harmonising offline and online customer experiences
The UK retail industry has been slow to understand how omnichannel offerings work and, with the exception of Disney or Apple, barely any other retailer has got the concept right, says Corbridge.
“We treat customers as if they are different, depending on how they’re interacting with us,” he adds. “I think customers don’t want to feel that they are a different customer when they’re interacting with you on Black Friday buying goods online compared to walking into the store the following day.
“They want and expect – and should be able to expect – that the experience that we offer is a personalised experience, regardless of where they interact with us.”
This focus on where and how customers want to interact has contributed significantly to the demise of what not so long ago were retail empires. The pandemic was the acid test, challenging a retailer’s ability to adapt to e-commerce and the ‘Amazonisation’ of businesses.
Although many of these retailers, such Arcadia Group or Debenhams, had been in trouble for some time and their survival depended on more than implementing the right technology to their business models, there is a common denominator between “the innovators” in the retail industry. That is a relentless focus on customer experience, says Chris Weston, CIO advisor and principal at IDC EMEA.
Weston agrees with Corbridge that knowing exactly what customers want, how to fulfil their requirements, and have a consistent experience both online and in-store are some of the main differentiators between innovative businesses and those that risk being left behind.
“If your customer can’t use your app or website, they’ll go to Amazon,” says Weston. “We saw it during Black Friday, where a few websites were out of action and as you know, people only have a limited amount of patience for that.”
Putting customer feedback at the core
Customer feedback is at the core of all the changes taking place at Boots.com and the company’s shops, says Corbridge.
“The dotcom changes are all driven from customer need, customer feedback, customer desire for what they want Boots to do,” he adds. “The omnichannel experience – what technology should we be deploying into bricks and mortar stores – also comes from customer feedback.”
Corbridge draws on the example of physiotherapy, one of the services now offered online by Boots as a result of customer feedback. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Boots moved the service to a digital platform since physiotherapy can be delivered over a video link.
Similarly, the NHS 111 triage service which Boots pharmacists boosted and much of the Boots MacMillan cancer support operations were moved online based on customer feedback.
“We have moved that being based on customers identifying as being ill and not wanting to leave home,” says Corbridge. “They don’t want to be in a store, so we’ve moved that service online. I think everything in 2020 really has been, and not just for Boots, for any of us, reacting to the need to help and an ability to help the situation we’ve been in.”
Corbridge’s focus from now until July 2021 is replatforming Boots.com – to modernise it from an e-commerce perspective and with the customer experience at its core. Planned improvements include a checkout capability based on purchasing history and more personalised marketing campaigns, a project he is working on with Adobe.
“There are some key elements we are looking at as the high street reopens: what is a new Boots omnichannel-type experience where we offer that personalised view, whether you’re online at home, on your app or in the store? How do we join up all those different platforms and environments where we’re engaging with our customers? How do we remove some of the silos around a customer that is also a patient and a pharmacy customer, and how do we break down those silos in retail as well?”
The fruits of collaboration
Corbridge credits much of the impetus for the work on the close collaboration between the marketing and IT departments at Boots, which he says “is probably the best relationship I’ve ever seen that IT has with another part of the business in all the CIO roles I’ve done”.
Chief marketing officers (CMOs) and CIOs have been emerging as a powerful C-suite axis in recent years, says Corbridge, and 2021 will most likely see even more collaboration between marketing and technology leaders.
“It’s phenomenal to see how marketing is collaborating with IT and with the digital team to be truly successful in their plans for 2021.”
However, that has not always been the case and, as Corbridge points out, the IT department has a reputation of being an inward-looking part of the business. Working with marketing has the immediate effect of having to concentrate on customer needs and become customer-focused: every change has to be validated as a customer benefit first.
“Our managing director said and talked about everything we do should delight the customer and make our colleagues’ day happier,” concludes Corbridge. “It sounds a bit cheesy, but it works really well as a watchword to make sure that we’re getting this right.”