Nick Lansley, head of research and development at Tesco.com, has been with the retail giant for 23 years.
He says that he knew Tesco was the right fit for him when when he was approached by the company as a potential recruit while studying at Leicester Polytechnic.
“I was impressed with how Tesco was using IT to make the company more efficient. I jumped at the opportunity and Tesco was the only company I applied to in the end,” he says.
So Lansley joined the firm in 1987, working in stock logistics and overseeing distribution systems on a 12-month trainee scheme. However, with experience in programming from his studies at Leicester Polytechnic, Lansley had his sights set on the burgeoning area of PC development.
“I learned to program on some of the first PCs while I was at Leicester and I said that I wanted a career in desktop computing development rather than the mainframe,” he says.
“So they introduced me to this brand new PC development team. We were just beginning to get PCs on the desktop in 1989, and from there, I never looked back.”
It was here that Lansley began developing software for use on PCs across the company – writing for Windows servers in VisualBasic.
Then in 1994, the board of directors asked the IT department whether they had heard of the internet, which was at an embryonic stage, and suggested that a web site might be a good first step towards utilising it.
“So they began looking for someone who could write for the web and I was called up, as in my spare time I was writing CGI web pages and I absolutely loved it,” he says.
Lansley took the role, and in March 1996 flew out to San Francisco for a Microsoft conference. He returned armed with nine CDs of application software from Vermeer FrontPage that allowed him to write web sites in hours, rather than days.
“Microsoft’s technology allowed me to do what I was doing before but in about 10 hours as opposed to five or six days,” he says.
“Microsoft was delighted because I developed something called Tesco Internet Superstore with them, our first online offering. Bill Gates flew over and launched it with us in November 1996. It was the first time any FTSE 100 company had used Microsoft’s web software in that way.”
The birth of Tesco Online
Tesco’s first online home shopping service required significant creativity around development of the software because so few companies were offering a service of this sort. This meant there was little existing technology available for the retailer to use. The only brands offering home shopping via the internet were companies in the US, which delivered services by setting up large automated warehouses costing millions of dollars to build.
“We had to invent. There was nothing we could buy off the shelves and we had very little money for warehouses,” says Lansley.
“We worked out that if we were to make any money, we would have to deliver across a radius of hundreds of miles around the warehouse because only a minority of people were shopping online at the time.”
So instead, Tesco set up a model whereby the retailer delivered shopping to customers from its local stores.
“We had a situation where, in a classic town, you had Tesco on one side and the competitor on the other, and so Tesco and the competitor would be visited by the customers nearest to them. Home shopping enabled delivery to the other side of town. Of course, the store managers were delighted and we went on to build our business organically in this way.”
Since the inception of Tesco online, the retail giant has continued to innovate with technology and regularly develops its own in-house solutions, such as its supply chain management software, rather than relying on a vendor’s out-of-the-box solutions.
“If we see a vendor and we like their product, we tend to develop the product alongside them, or negotiate with them to develop it on our own,” he says.
“We take a common sense approach. If we can add to another product, we’ll take a partnership approach and the vendor can reuse what we develop."In the case of the picking software [software created to help speed up collection of goods by staff following an online order], we've created it ourselves from end to end. That's because we couldn't find any suitable technology on the market."
Development for the future
Fast-forward to 2010 and Lansley has been working as Tesco.com's head of digital for the past eight years. His role largely consists of working with the leadership team to find ways of using IT to bring efficiencies to the business, or pitching ideas based on new trends in technology.
To understand the challenges faced by Tesco's staff, he spent a lot of time picking products off the shelves for Tesco's home shopping customers to work out how the process could be improved.
"I now have the remit to go to staff in stores to make their job simpler and it has given me, as an IT geek, some insight into how the business works, which I've enjoyed," he says.
As a result, one initiative that Tesco will be introducing over the coming months is the deployment of wearable devices that provide product location information to staff when they are picking goods for home shoppers.
"Staff will be able to navigate around the store using the device, and having it on their person rather than their trolleys is beneficial because aisles can get congested, making the trolleys difficult to move," says Lansley.
"With these devices, staff can leave their trolley and pick out the product they want more quickly."
Moving forwards, Lansley is turning his focus to smartphone applications. The company has developed home shopping apps for iPhone and Nokia and is in the process of developing apps for BlackBerry and Android. The retailer also has two other apps - Tesco Store Finder and a Clubcard app - but Lansley is keen to streamline the company's efforts in the mobile app space.
"The Tesco apps each came from different areas of the business and different directions and we are now looking to consolidate. So we're going to move to three apps: transactional apps, such as those related to home shopping; banking apps; and an app for information on Tesco," he says.
The next step for Tesco is to trial a scheme that will allow customers to scan as they shop and navigate their way around stores using their iPad or iPhone. The technology will use satellite navigation-style location-based awareness and will be part of the Tesco Store Finder app.
The supermarket chain is already trialling scan-as-you-shop technology in a store in Romford, Essex, using handheld scanners developed internally. However, Lansley's department is now testing similar technology using Apple's iPads and iPhones.
"The R&D department set about deploying the same technology to an iPhone. We wanted to prove that we could do it without any real change to our checkout systems," says Lansley.
He explains that Tesco stores each have several wireless access points in the ceiling, which staff use to communicate with one another.
"If you know where the access points are, and the API [application programming interface] also knows, it could download the MAC [Media Access Control] addresses of those access points, which are the basic identifier for a location within a store.
"The API could listen to the relative signals from the access points that it can sense, and from that, work out where you are."
And so even though Lansley has spent 23 years with the company, the ever-changing technology challenges he faces mean he remains as committed as ever.