John Lewis looks to cloud to keep pace with retail tech changes

John Lewis aims to increase its use of cloud services in order to simplify its IT infrastructure and deal with the growing data demands seen throughout the retail sector.


John Lewis aims to increase its use of cloud services in order to simplify its IT infrastructure and deal with the growing data demands seen throughout the retail sector.

Speaking at the Retail Business Technology Expo in London, the retail giant's head of IT architecture, Julian Burnett, said that the company is one of many having to come to terms with the masses of data being generated across its operations.

“Retailers are awash with [data],” he said. “But how do we make any sense of it? How do we bring to bear some of the value that is locked into the data we have?

He continued: “Big data is a big hype, but an organisation like John Lewis - and any other retailer - needs to get its head around how we bring together large amounts of structured and unstructured data in a quick and effective manner, in order to generate some level of insight for how to best serve our customers, and how to best select our products.”

Burnett said that retailers have witnessed widespread technological change in recent years in terms of customer facing systems.  John Lewis has been relatively successful in this area, with its multi-channel sales approach such as click and collect services and mobile platforms helping to increase online sales.

New innovations being trialled by the company that are likely to further increase the amount of customer data being generated. Burnett pointed to a trial of a 'magic mirror' augmented reality system involving the creation of a huge database of digital content, while a system to passively 'pinpoint' customers in store to allow better planning of the retail space, is being looked at. John Lewis is also looking into the use of mobile payment platforms and digital wallets, though the company is currently hedging its bets on implementation of any particular system.

Aside from in-store and customer facing technologies, Burnett pointed to the “complex” operation involved in supporting 30,000 staff throughout its organisation which are dependent on IT systems.  

In order to keep up with the technological changes, he said that John Lewis would look to move away from traditional IT hardware procurement, with an increasing focus on implementing cloud services where possible.

For example, Burnett revealed that John Lewis has been looking to implement Google Apps for enterprise collaboration software in the cloud.

“We are in trial at the moment with Google Apps, to replace a lot of email and calendaring, and more importantly collaborative applications on the Google Apps platform,” he said.

Burnett envisages greater use of cloud systems for a wide range of applications in future, allowing for more agility within the business.

“As an organisation in retail the pace of change we are facing is so dramatic that our ability to respond as an IT function makes it all but impossible for us to use the traditional model of acquiring IT assets; putting them all together, sticking them in the data centre and making them available for software solutions to sit on,” he said. “Having the ability to scale up capacity within infrastructure is of incredible value to us.”

In addition, with services from infrastructure providers such as Windows Azure or Amazon Web Services, there is greater flexibility in terms of on-premise hardware requirements.

“Right down the bottom of the stack, we don't need to own anything. Our technology infrastructure need not be ours,” he said.

“Increasingly we are looking to move a lot of our IT investment outside the perimeter of our data centres, so that we don't have the hassle of owning and maintaining the tin and wire that runs our business. So we are looking at a number of these organisations and the technology and innovations they provide to do that for us.”

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