Specsavers is in a period of growth powered by an IT strategy aimed at producing a common customer service through global partner agreements like the services deal signed with Fujitsu Siemens Computers Infrastructure Services (FSC) in October.
The deal with FSC, established eight years ago to cover the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands, was extended in October to support Specsavers' further global expansion. The agreement effectively creates a standard deployment model for Specsavers stores the world over, and covers procurement, commissioning, installation, management and ongoing support for both hardware and software.
By producing this standard deployment model for Specsavers' IT, the FSC deal lets Specsavers open a new store in less than 11 weeks, anywhere in the world.
"We've just rolled out 100 stores in 100 working days in Australia," says Specsavers' CIO Michel Khan. "We couldn't have done that unless we had a really highly geared process. It's Specsavers-in-a-Box, a complete set of applications covering merchandising, finance and distribution. It's a global framework for expansion."
With new stores opening in Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Spain in 2008 alone, the FSC package is giving the firm a head-start on rivals. Because of varying legal, financial and healthcare requirements in the different territories, the boxed models are slightly different, but as these differences are incorporated into the systems before distribution, it doesn't delay expansion.
"I have an IT team in the UK with retail system skills. They build software, implement it and are a SWAT team that goes straight into new countries and identifies what we need to do to migrate to that country," says Khan. "The Finnish application, for instance, may be very different from the Australian application, but it does have the core Specsavers business process to service the customer."
The system means that every one of Specsavers' 1250 stores offers the same level of service and range of frames and lenses as the next. It covers every aspect of the buying process from the eye test and choosing frames to checking the availability of lenses and, down the line, issuing a reminder that your next eye test is due.
"We spent a lot of time analysing the business process before building Specsavers-in-a-Box," says Khan. "The real selling point isn't the hardware, it's the business process. We've got that right, and that's what we're delivering everywhere. Customers will get a consistent service level, and a consistent business process, whichever Specsavers they go into."
Global homogeny is also preserved by a £4.5m WAN management deal with network operator Vanco (now Reliance), signed in February for a five-year term.
The Reliance deal reassures the IT team that wherever they decide to open stores, there is a reliable telecoms infrastructure in place to connect the store up to the local supply chain and to the head office.
"They are ready and waiting for us," says Khan, who stresses the importance of economies of scale achieved through having global partners. "We've set up a framework for global growth."
Even before these deals were sealed, Specsavers' growth was far exceeding its projections. In 2005, the company's vision was to have 1000 outlets and achieve £1bn turnover by 2010. As it was, the 1000th store was opened in Roosendaal in the Netherlands in November 2007, and the £1bn mark was passed in February 2008.
For all the consistency of platforms the FSC and Reliance deals can offer, the true flexibility and significant cost savings have been achieved by Khan's adherence to open standards and open source software. The CIO says that using open standards offers greater autonomy over upgrade cycles for both software and hardware and keeps licensing costs down no matter how large the installation, two factors that make it easier and cheaper for Specsavers to expand globally at the rate it has.
"When I joined Specsavers 13 years ago we had strategic decisions to make. An open standards base gave us flexibility and some portability," says Khan.
"First of all, it gives us a lower cost of deployment. When I'm buying one piece of software, I remember that I'm buying 1000, so those open source components have actually taken out a lot of the cost of multiple deployments across the board.
"The other thing is that we can define and control our own upgrade path. We're not driven by things that have deadlines against them. We can stretch our assets better and we don't have to change our hardware as often.
"Integration and development tools are open source toolsets too, which has allowed us to bring down our development costs as well."
With rapid expansion of both high-street stores and infrastructure on the cards, support for open source moved up a gear in June 2007, when Specsavers migrated its in-store applications from Windows 2000 to Red Hat Linux.
The company had already asked open source services group Sirius to create a centralised access control model for their UK workstations and network services. Sirius proposed using the OpenLDAP directory, which was implemented with Samba networking software and the Gosa graphical management interface.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the Scalix enterprise email system, an open source competitor to Microsoft Exchange Server, which replaced the incumbent SunOne email system.
Khan admits that open source systems may not suit every enterprise, but encourages fellow IT directors to at least consider the options.
"I don't know if it suits everyone, but I would encourage people to look at it closely," he says. "There's a fear factor from the connotation that open source is a free-for-all and you don't know what you're getting, but if you examine it closely you are in a relatively tightly controlled environment that's not very different to a typical licence-fee environment. It's managed, it's supported and it's release-controlled. The real difference is the cost base.
"Most people would find some aspects of open source that would be relevant, and I'd say that a lot of applications will ultimately have open source components as that gives firms a level of flexibility and development capability that they cannot sustain in-house. Otherwise you end up with thousands of developers and a legacy environment that's difficult to migrate."
Following the in-store Red Hat roll-out, Khan admits he finds it irresistible to compare other retail systems with his own.
"I go into stores and I peer at their terminals. I did it in passport control the other-day and had a telling off," he chuckles.
Khan is certainly familiar with passport checks, with Specsavers' central operations being based on Guernsey, where the company was founded by husband-and-wife optometrists Doug and Mary Perkins 24 years ago. Specsavers is the island's largest private employer, employing 650 people out of a population of 60,000, and despite some limitations of island life, there are no plans to move IT operations or the global datacentre wholly to the UK.
"There are challenges. Guernsey is an island, so it has a finite work pool. Telecommunications links are finite too, although with the Vanco network we're able to get much more bandwidth.
"Getting on and off the island can be difficult, the fog comes in, flights are cancelled and you can be locked in for an extra day or two. The ferries can't run in bad weather either. There's no pattern to it."
Khan's central IT team is split between two bases. Thirty members of staff on Guernsey run the datacentre and provide IT support for the headquarters. Across the channel in Southampton, 120 people make up the global support team, providing business analysis and retail expertise to develop the software for each country.
In addition, each territory has a small IT unit of 10-20 people comprising a service desk team with business analysis skills and its own datacentre, which is linked back to the central systems on Guernsey. The common software and hardware components of Specsavers-in-a-Box mean that any upgrades can be pushed out of the UK hub and made live worldwide in one go.
The central datacentre itself has a combination of Fujitsu and Sun servers. There are no Fujitsu engineers on site, but the company is tied to a conventional SLA. A monitoring arrangement means Fujitsu can watch the servers and alert Khan's team to any problems. Specsavers' own staff can make minor hardware repairs, but anything more serious and Fujitsu engineers have to cross the Channel.
"If we have a major issue, Fujitsu have to fly in. So they have a challenge to meet their SLA, which is the same SLA as they'd have with a UK-based firm. But we do have a close relationship with them, which is quite important."
As well as the IT function, Khan also heads up Specsavers Aviation, a two-plane private airline that bypasses the restrictions of scheduled airlines and provides direct flights to destinations that would otherwise take a few hops to reach.
"The office in Southampton is 20 minutes from the airport. I can be in that office at 7.30am, and I can leave at 5.30 and be back home at 7.30, so I get a full day. People coming from Southampton can be in Guernsey at 9am and leave about 5.
"We can fly to Holland under our own steam and I can get to Dublin and back in a day. It gives us better use of people, time and resources."
But customers concerned that the green of Specsavers' logo isn't reflected in its environmental policies needn't be concerned -- long-time adoption of IP telephony means Khan can meet colleagues in Australia, developers in California and outsourced staff in India regularly via videoconferencing.
"Twelve years ago, when everyone else was looking in a different direction, we went for IP technology as our WAN," he recalls. "It was quite immature then, but it has stood us in good stead. It's got better and everyone's got IP today. One of the first things we do when we go to a country is to link the IP up, get the network in place and put a videoconferencing in so who-ever goes out there can meet with us easily."
Khan is in his thirteenth year at Specsavers, joining in January 1996 when the company had only 180 stores and very little in terms of a coherent IT strategy. Stores would buy their own point-of-sale systems and there was no central customer database. One of his first projects was to answer a straightforward question: 'How many customers do we have?'.
A survey established that Specsavers had six million customers, and their profiles and buying habits were stored in a database that's still going strong today, 12 years and 14 million customers later, and now feeds into a retail marketing system that sends out 250,000 letters a week.
"We're still using the same database we started 12 years ago. It's sustained its life and it has scaled," says Khan.
His achievements have not gone unnoticed in the industry. Khan was awarded the Albert Heijn Lifetime Achievement Award at the Global Retail Systems Awards in 2005, and the IT Director of the Year at the 2005 Telegraph Business Awards. Specsavers' IT team recently won the Retail Systems Award for IT team of the year, mainly thanks to Specsavers-in-a-Box and the Australian roll-out.
But whether an award is personal or for the whole IT team, Khan agrees that it reflects well on Specsavers.
"It's peer group recognition for the Specsavers IT team. It's not a one-man band, hence the team of the year award. But it does help within the industry for other people that look on Specsavers IT and see that there is something leading edge, highly skilled and sophisticated here, so I think it does help our recruitment."
Over the next 12 months, further expansion is the aim, and a follow-up to Specsavers-in-a-Box is in the pipeline in the shape of a common manufacturing process which can be implemented in each Specsavers territory to speed up the process -- and reduce the cost -- of manufacturing lenses and delivering the finished spectacles to the customer.
"We're currently working on a manufacturing-process-in-a-box," says Khan.
"That will allow us to open manufacturing plants easier elsewhere in the world as well. So we've designed the manufacturing process we need using a robotic environment to produce the lenses and deliver the product to the customer. That will be delivered sometime next year."
With the company selling 18 million pairs of glasses a year, and a revised target of 2000 stores on the horizon, the plants, like Khan, are bound to be busy.