John Lewis IT chief Paul Coby tells Stuart Sumner how the tablet phenomenon is impacting customer service and online sales at the retail giant
This is going to be a busy year for retailer John Lewis. In common with many UK companies, it hopes to boost business on the back of the Olympics, which will bring millions of additional people into the country this summer.
John Lewis is the official department store of London 2012. Its Oxford Street and Stratford sites will be key outlets for Olympic merchandise.
But Paul Coby, CIO at John Lewis, explains that there are risks along with the opportunities. The Stratford store is right next to the Olympic Park, and travel disruption is expected during the event.
“Life will be very different and exciting for our Stratford store, which will be an iconic store for the Olympics.”
Coby says that he is making business contingency plans for the expected disruption to make sure that staff have the ability to work remotely. He is less concerned about staff at the firm’s datacentres, however, which are not in central London.
This is also a year in which consumerisation is taking hold at John Lewis. Coby has overseen a project to enable the use of staff-owned tablet devices among senior management and is looking to offer apps for employees to use in the course of their jobs.
He told Computing that cost savings are a key reason behind the decision to follow the consumerisation trend of allowing staff to use their own devices for work.
“This year is going to be challenging in terms of budgets, and spending money on fancy devices for management staff is not the right thing to do.
“Given that a lot of people have iPads, and they were absolutely flying off our shelves over Christmas, it’s an opportunity to test a bring-your-own policy – with appropriate security measures.”
The firm is also running pilot tests early this year, rolling out Cisco’s Cius tablets to customer-facing staff.
“We’re looking to test Cisco Cius tablets, allowing retail staff easier access to stock information. They’ll also be able to go to the website to show customers products that aren’t on the shelves.”
He is mindful, however, of the security risks in enabling remote devices, as they can easily be lost, or fall into the wrong hands.
“You need to be extremely careful as you’re dealing with customer data [on mobile devices], so it has to be absolutely secure. And if you’re dealing with payments remotely, you need to ensure PCI compliance.”
He is also a fan of Apple’s iPhone 4S, and especially its Siri app, which allows much of the phone’s functionality to be controlled by its owner’s voice, although there are currently no plans to deploy this around the business.
“You should ask it what the meaning of life is,” he says. “The answer changes. My favourite is, ‘Most authorities believe it’s chocolate’.”
An enterprise app store
In tandem with enabling remote devices, Coby is looking at creating a John Lewis app store where staff can download apps to help them in their work.
“We are looking at developing some apps for our partners [staff], that is the people who work here and own the business. That will have to be over John Lewis-provided kit, because if it’s going to enable them to serve customers and take payment, it has to be absolutely secure.”
But he explains that this will come after the development of apps aimed at John Lewis customers.
“About a fifth of our online orders come from tablets, which going by our sales figures are probably iPads. These days, it’s vital to consider how we can interact with our customers in the way that they want.
“At the same time our partners expect to have the modern tools to do their jobs. So yes, it’s something we’re thinking about, but we’ll develop the customer-facing apps first, then apps for our partners later.”
On the customer-facing side, John Lewis released an iPhone app before Christmas, which Coby says has proved successful in terms of the volume of downloads.