Signet Trading director of IT Alistair Fuller discusses how the jewellery firm is simplifying its IT...
Despite being a company that operates in the traditional world of jewellery, Signet Trading isn't afraid of taking a modern approach when it comes to its technology.
Signet Trading is the UK arm of international Signet Jewelers and owns the H Samuel, Ernest Jones and Leslie Davies brands, which trade through more than 540 stores across the country.
The company is involved in a programme to move its IT to a simpler and more responsive model designed to cope with rapid changes in the world of retail.
Speaking to silicon.com, Signet Trading's head of IT Alistair Fuller said his job is mainly helping the UK trading brands adjust to the various ways consumers are now choosing to purchase jewellery.
"Like many retailers, [Signet] is trying to embrace the multichannel world and renew its legacy applications to suit those consumer expectations," Fuller said.
Jewellery differs slightly from other retail sectors because a larger proportion of online interactions are for research purposes - before consumers go into a branch to make a purchase - rather than for buying items.
"It's one of those products that people generally like to try quite a bit. They then sometimes buy online, and we are seeing quite a reasonable, steady growth in online transactions," Fuller said.
Signet Trading therefore needs to improve the customer experience for those doing research as well as for those who are increasingly making their purchases from a PC or through other channels, such as mobile.
Bearing in mind the changing consumer environment, Signet Trading decided it needed to simplify the IT infrastructure that supports the business and find new technology partners to help with this process.
Finding the right partner and simplifying IT
Given Signet's long heritage, Fuller said it entered IT relatively early compared with newer retail businesses and so has built up a mixture of legacy systems that have created a complicated technology environment.
"We have more systems than we would choose to have but the strategy is about simplifying the number of systems that we have while at the same time making them functionally more appropriate and coping with new forms of retailing such as multichannel," Fuller said.
The other major issue facing Signet is technology sourcing, which has prompted the company to investigate new ways of working with suppliers to deliver IT services.
The company's major sourcing initiative is the Future Fit partnership with IT service company Star, which ushered in a new approach to technology suppliers. "It's making sure we move from a supplier-based relationship to a more partnership basis, with more shared risk," Fuller said.
Signet changed supplier for hosted IT services because it felt Star's scale better suited its needs. "We can see the benefit of sourcing from a supplier who is a good size for us, so they are both responsive and very proactive," Fuller said.
Fuller explained that for a company such as Star, Signet would be a more significant and therefore more valued customer than if the relationship was with a larger provider. That situation means...
...Star will be more focused on Signet's needs, more engaged with the company, able to share information and be more responsive to its requirements as a retailer.
Under the new arrangement, Star has taken over the running of datacentre operations and communications while Signet Trading's IT helpdesk is hosted by Little Fish.
Moving to cloud-flavoured hosting
Much of Signet's legacy technology - such as the seven-year-old ecommerce system - is now being run in Star's co-location facilities but increasingly, systems will be moved into Star's cloud environment or "utility virtualised platform", according to Fuller.
"So we'll replatform into a newer, faster virtualised environment progressively. So now that we're in, we've got it all in the same place. We will progressively virtualise and streamline the technology platforms," he said.
The ability to scale up services using cloud computing meant the company's ecommerce site was able to cope with peak trading during the Christmas period. "So it's been through the peak trading period successfully, which is always a challenge for any retailer," Fuller said.
Star runs numerous commoditised software-as-a-service applications from which Signet is able to pick and choose, with SharePoint and email two possibilities for the future.
"At the platform level, they've got a lot of utility, standard commoditised things that we can just use, effectively off the shelf," Fuller said.
Although Signet still runs its own email on Exchange, the work with Star - which provides a hosted version of Exchange as well as Microsoft's Office applications - means the company is looking at changing this arrangement. "The relationship with Star gives us a very realistic option of [potentially adopting] some of their uniform commoditised mail platforms," Fuller said.
"The partnership, in a way, allows us easy access to try these things out if we choose to do so. For example, we've got one or two projects that are using SharePoint as a collaboration tool for those partners engaged in those particular projects," Fuller said.
About 10 of Signet's staff are working with SharePoint, and the cloud-type environment Signet has access to via Star means experimenting with new technology carries little risk. "It allows us to spin up that service for a particular application for a particular purpose for a very short period of time," Fuller said.
Another benefit of the Future Fit project - which led to Signet Trading named as a runner-up for the Partnership Projects award at the recent Corporate IT Forum's Real IT Awards - was that it...
...made Signet review its approach to business continuity.
"It meant that we had to re-examine our business processes for continuity of service to our customers and make sure the processes were well thought out and tested in advance. So we're probably in our best state of health in terms of contingency planning that we've ever been," Fuller told silicon.com.
A pragmatic approach to public cloud
Although Signet is using elements of cloud computing, it is in "a conservative way", according to Fuller, because it's mainly within Star's hosted environment. Public cloud, in which processes and data run alongside those belonging to other companies, isn't on Signet's agenda quite yet.
The location of data is a major issue. "The biggest concern we have about public cloud offerings is where are they? We're reasonably assured about the security of data but on data protection issues we are pretty adamant that we hold most of our data. We need to know where our data is," Fuller said.
Fuller added that it makes most sense for Signet to look at cloud services from UK providers because it will then know where data is and that it's protected to the right level. "We generally wouldn't consider global cloud offerings," Fuller said.
Despite the company being cautious about running production systems in public cloud, it is making use of Amazon's EC2 for testing applications before putting them live, and Salesforce.com CRM for customer services.
The changing role of internal IT
Signet's internal IT department supports a range of legacy applications and works alongside teams focusing on enterprise architecture and system delivery. As with the work with Star, internal IT is also focusing on simplification.
"So a lot of our work at the moment is figuring out how we simplify hundreds of applications into a more cohesive, more scalable, lower cost, better function application set," Fuller said.
Most of the applications used by Signet Trading have been externally sourced and then developed by the internal team to fit the company's needs. In one case, Signet part-developed a buying and merchandising system and actually sold the resulting system back to the original supplier.
However, the customisation of technologies is becoming less commonplace at the company: "That kind of modus operandi probably worked back then - we're probably trying to be more vanilla these days," Fuller said.
The team is currently implementing a more standardised order-fulfilment system based on Microsoft technology. "We can see that, by sticking to a relatively vanilla function, we can replace several legacy systems with one order-fulfilment system," Fuller said.
What makes a good CIO in retail?
Fuller says the main role of the CIO is to make sure the IT department is in a position to improve the business.
"There's often a saying that 'you get the IT you deserve', so I think a lot of the CIO-type role is helping IT teams be much more proactive in being able to help shape the options companies have for improvement," he said.
A challenge in retail particularly is to make quick decisions about technology which take into account the long-lasting effects of the decision.
Fuller explained that IT teams can sometimes be in danger of being reactive to short-term issues rather than considering the longer term implications. "So you need to be pretty certain about the capabilities you're trying to create and that they are the right ones," he said.