Let’s face it technology can be a real pain. It costs a fortune to implement and then it never really does what you want it to do.
Retailers have had their fair share of pain over the years from being over-sold the next big thing that’s been hyped to the hilt – only for it to not be flavour of the month a few weeks after installation.
The sector has certainly changed dramatically over the last decade-and-a-half since the emergence of the internet and up have sprung a lot of new operators who have had more of their psyche based in the technology than retailer camp. They’ve had an IT mindset rather than an old school trading mentality.
Ask them whether they are retailers or technology companies? And they invariably plump for the latter. Among this breed is Farfetch.com. It was very interesting to hear a presentation a little while back at the Internet Retailing Conference when David Lindsay, senior VP of technology at Farfetch.com, ran through his thinking on how to survive the onward march of technology.
For starters he reckons you need to own the important elements: “If it is a key to your business then own it. It’s easier to keep your own system up to date. Partner for the bits you’re not confident in doing. Integration will always be hard and expensive but then it always is and you’ll [ultimately] own it.”
However, he warns that building an infrastructure in-house inevitably leads to a “monolithic structure” being created. This is what Farfetch.com spawned and led Lindsay and his team to replace it over the past three years with a more modular system (a SOA – Service Oriented Architecture – approach for those interested). “This involves little services that can function separately,” he explains.
The idea is that he tries to predict the “time of death” of each component and is then able to kill it off and start building a new module from scratch without affecting the rest of the modular structure. “It enables a continued relevance through perpetual iterations. We liberate the front-end from the back-end and integrate through middleware (using APIs) that determine what data is sent and what is expected between the modules. This is the main advantage of doing IT yourself. It’s massively liberating,” says Lindsay.
But for all this to work, he says: “You need to love your technology team. They can shut your site down, and make it work better. Treat them as artists. Give them their own space and let them work their own hours.”
These are lessons that should be mulled over not just by retailers who like to be called technology companies but also retailers who regard themselves as retailers. Whatever you want to call yourself, technology is absolutely vital to success and has to be handled as such.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider