With Boohoo buying Debenhams, and Asos acquiring Topshop, the recent land grab in the world of fashion retailers has made national headlines. But what does the integration of the digital assets of well-loved but struggling high street brands actually mean in practice?
We caught up with Head of Customer Engagement at Jitterbit, Tom Ainsworth, who has more than ten years of experience working with retail brands and architecting customer solutions. Tom shared his insights on the challenges that face those companies looking to integrate the online assets of former high-street behemoths, and how successful acquisitions could breathe new digital life into brand names like Debenhams and Topshop.
Q: What are the likely challenges Boohoo and Asos will face integrating new customer bases and stock inventories?
Organizations catalog their products in different ways. Because of the way they collate things such as seasons, colors, styles, it’s not as easy as just buying another organization and being able to integrate it directly into their own organization. For example, one company might use the color ‘Caribbean aqua’ while another may use ‘turquoise’. Asos and Boohoo might decide to let these live side by side for a while, but eventually, they will want to bring everything together—from suppliers and orders to systems and data.
Right from the get-go, the acquiring retailer should be considering how to unlock the treasure trove of data that they’ve now got access to—not just in that individual brand, but across the entire business. This is where the connectivity layer is really important. What would be really useful here is not just integration, but the creation of a “golden source” of data with the use of Master Data Management (MDM), which pulls together data sources from multiple places and converts them into one simple format, enabling the retailer to master it. It’s the process of turning the ‘Carribean aqua’ and ‘turquoise’ into a standardized option that would be applicable across all brands. Once they’ve mastered their separate IT estates using MDM and integration, they’ll have the flexibility to scale online storefronts off a single source of truth and drive efficiencies and revenue-based insight. That’s really future-proofing the business, enabling them to launch new brands, new retail platforms if and when required.
Q: What about customer loyalty systems?
The same challenge exists with loyalty systems. What’s probably missing when these acquisitions first happen is a common Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or specific loyalty platform which houses customer data. The acquiring retailers will know that, because their loyalty systems are likely to be substantially different, it’s not something that can be switched overnight. They won’t want to suddenly remove the acquired brand’s loyalty program, because of the customer insights it holds and because it keeps the acquired customers loyal and providing information.
Protecting the information stream they get from the acquired customer base is likely more important than racing to replace the program to streamline the system. They’ll look to consolidate the systems and create a ‘golden source’ of data, which they can review and start to work out which loyalty program serves them best, or what are the best bits from both that they can take out to create a brand new one.
Q: How will this impact the customer experience?
The face of retail is changing. Pre-Covid, the storefront was still the high street brands’ main showroom. People would visit a physical storefront to view, test out and try on the ranges, but would then go home and buy online—either from the brand directly, or a retailer that they trust.
But since Covid, that whole customer journey has been blown away, and is a major reason so many high street brands are now in distress. As I said, bricks and mortar stores had been downward trending anyway, becoming more showrooms instead of where sales happen. But this has sped up with the strategy of retailers shifting towards having a storefront presence online that leverages social media and the way that more and more people are servicing their ‘need for now’ by purchasing spontaneously through social platforms.
When we think about fast fashion, it’s one of the most demanding spaces because the consumer is demanding constant innovation. When they see something on social that happened yesterday, they want to buy it today and have it arrive tomorrow. In terms of product, it’s constantly changing, it’s very trends-led, so it’s one of the most demanding areas for integration.
The customer’s 360-degree view is mission-critical. But how do retailers get the 360 view across their new acquisitions? As I mentioned before, they really need to have a single vision of the data they’ve acquired. Jitterbit can facilitate the cohesion of data in partnership with an MDM: Jitterbit gathers all that information, the MDM can turn it into one simple format, then Jitterbit can take that formatted data and send it to the customer’s preferred tool for generating insights.
Q: What does success look like when it comes to complex retail integrations like these?
Everyone’s got data—that’s not the issue. The issue is very few companies have the ability to turn that data into actionable information. That’s the tricky bit and it requires careful planning and integration of multiple different solutions and platforms. But once that’s done, a retailer can access information, grow their knowledge—and when they have the knowledge they can make good decisions.
It’s also worth remembering that fast fashion retailers often have really tight margins. The more automation a business can bring to their order-to-dispatch process, the more cost they will save. So an important step will be removing as many manual processes as they can. If Boohoo and Asos integrate successfully, expect the customer to have a more seamless experience when interacting with Topshop and Debenhams.
Q: Why did Asos and Boohoo buy out these high street brands? What is the likely cause of the failures of Debenhams and Topshop?
Understanding why Debenhams and Topshop failed is really important because the last thing Asos and Boohoo want to do is to acquire these problems and bake them into their own systems.
There will be news articles out there talking about mismanagement. But there’s a strategy issue here too which I’ve seen in the past with another department store brand. That retailer struggled because they were heavily invested in long-term leases of physical infrastructure, but they didn’t match that investment or focus on building an integrated customer journey online. While both Topshop and Debenhams had a relatively sophisticated online user experience (UX), it’s likely that there wasn’t enough focus on what was going on behind the scenes—on the technical architecture behind the glossy website. So when Covid hit, the businesses would have been unable to flex its offer because the technology underpinning the business wasn't set up for an integrated, scalable journey.
I don’t want to say the UX should be the last piece, but having a good UX is great unless you click a button and nothing else happens apart from the sale. The sale is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the customer relationship. Businesses cannot maintain brand loyalty in the same way that they did in the pre-digital age, especially if they don’t have the proper omnichannel strategy or social clout. And if their digital channels aren't set up to be able to scale to meet demand, customers will go elsewhere. Boohoo and Asos understand this, it’s why their businesses are always poised to move into selling through any hot new social channel that may emerge - and ready to acquire and integrate other distressed brands whenever that opportunity arises.
The bottom line: the more personalized the interaction, the higher the conversion rate. If you can access all that data sitting in the back office or CRM system, you can create uniquely tailored offerings for your customers. But the right technology is needed to combine this data with additional online, offline, and third-party sources to create a single, dynamic customer profile. Then you can use this single view of the customer and apply AI to recommend best-fit messaging and offers across all your digital commerce interactions.
Tom Ainsworth, Head of Customer Engagement, Jitterbit