Putting the customer first and then figuring out the technology is the recipe for a successful tech project, according to the head of IT at sandwich chain EAT.
Now with more than 100 stores, the 15-year old chain has big plans around mobile payments and apps, but according to EAT’s head of IT Rene Batsford, customer expectations must come first with any tech project.
“Don’t think too much about technology – think about who the end consumer is,” Batsford told silicon.com. “That’s what I try to do at EAT.
“Think about the consumer journey and work back from that and you’ll get there. You might have some innovative products and some people think to themselves, ‘Well, how can we shoehorn this in?’. Don’t think like that: think about how you can improve it or make your products more accessible or interesting to the public and work your way back.”
“That’s why my department’s called ICT – information and communications technology. We’re not just about putting little grey boxes in and they hum away – we look after those things but absolutely we need to understand the customer first and work back and make sure that systems link all of that up,” he added.
Wave and pay
One area that EAT is keen to work on is contactless payments. Consumers have been able to pay with NFC (near-field communications) at the food chain since 2007, making EAT one of a handful of UK retailers taking contactless payments in the UK.
According to Batsford, EAT has seen 100 per cent year-on-year growth for contactless payments this year, with contactless last month accounting for 12.5 per cent of all electronic transactions.
“It’s been very successful for us,” said Batsford.
With NFC phones yet to arrive en masse, contactless payments currently involve handing over some form of bank card.
There are now more than 16 million NFC credit and debit cards in circulation in the UK, according to Batsford, who pointed out that early next year TFL will start to accept contactless payment cards on some bus routes followed by the Underground in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics.
“The Olympics is going to have vending machines that are all contactless. You’ll see more and more contactless everywhere, and the more phones [with NFC] that are out there will build up this critical mass.”
As well as payments, EAT plans to…
…use contactless for other functions including loyalty and incentives, building such functionality into a mobile app it is developing with a view to launching next Easter.
The app will incorporate services including coupons, all delivered contactlessly, according to Batsford. “[Customers] can gain loyalty points and incentives and all those sorts of things and pay at the same time – it’s one tap and it’s done,” he says.
The app, which will also enable users to check in to EAT stores via the Foursquare location service, will initially be available for Android, BlackBerry and iOS users but Batsford is keeping an eye on Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform too, with a view to supporting it in future.
To pave the way for this expansion of its contactless offerings, EAT will be upgrading its payment terminals to a converged contactless and chip-and-PIN system.
When it comes to selling contactless to the rest of the business, in Batsford’s view retail IT chiefs should make an ROI case based around reducing cash handling and increasing transaction speed: contactless transactions take less than a second compared to somewhere between five and 30 seconds for a traditional card.
Adopting contactless also gives retailers the opportunity to renegotiate transaction rates with their banks, Batsford added. “Whether it’s a flat fee or whether it’s a percentage, it’s down to you as a retailer to negotiate that,” he notes. “If you’re an early adopter [of contactless] then banks are quite keen to give [help to] the ones that participate in contactless.”
The role of the IT chief in the retail industry has become extremely important, according to Batsford, because consumer expectations of what technology can deliver have increased dramatically as smartphones and other technologies have proliferated. Customers therefore expect retailers to keep up with the tools they are using.
To this end, Batsford says EAT will be relaunching its website around Christmas time or just after – introducing an online delivery service and adding social media tie-ins to services including Facebook and Twitter. The IT chief is also keen to add in more customer-focused mechanisms, such as recommendations, customer advocacy and ratings, akin to those found on ecommerce giant Amazon’s website.
“If you’re trying to do something online you expect it to work and if it doesn’t, you just move on to the next retailer… Increasingly, consumers’ expectations are higher because the experiences they get through these different technology channels, devices, whatever, are getting more and more responsive, more and more reliable so therefore, as a retailer, you have to…
…think about the consumer the whole time.
“IT really has to understand all of that,” said Batsford.
EAT’s mobile hardware
When it comes to inhouse mobile kit, EAT has rolled out Android-powered HTC smartphones and Windows-based Acer tablets. Batsford said the company chose to go with Android smartphones because EAT uses Google Apps.
“There was a very clean, tight, neat fit between the two,” he said, adding: “The total cost of ownership with Google is better than Windows. We use Google Enterprise a lot – particularly Google Docs and all the collaboration [features]. It’s fantastic.”
EAT’s decision earlier this year to switch to Google Apps was driven by storage concerns, according to Batsford. “We felt that email was a commodity,” he said, adding: “[Google Apps has] been an absolute success – 84 per cent of our storage capacity was taken up by email and we’ve put that up into the cloud and now we’ve got about 10 times the email capacity we had before.”
On the tablet front, EAT has plumped for a Windows option, rather than staying with Android, as much of its IT system infrastructure is Microsoft-based, such as Microsoft SQL Server.
“We bought a lot of Acer Iconia W500s and they’re going down a storm – they’re really great,” Batsford said. “We like the fact you can use the keyboard as a docking station.”
Batsford has high hopes for future Microsoft mobile devices. “I really hope Microsoft get their act together with [the update to their Windows Phone OS] Mango.
“If Nokia can start building some really top-class smartphones [running Windows Phone] then I think you’ve got a very, very compelling couple of brands there and I think you’ll see a lot of businesses look at that,” he said.
The next iteration of Microsoft’s desktop OS – the as yet unreleased Windows 8 – borrows some of the user interface styling from Windows Phone. “We’re really excited about Windows 8,” Batsford said. “That looks like it’s going to be a phenomenon next year. It really does. I think that’s going to be a game changer – as long as Microsoft can get the right hardware developers [for tablets].
“If you can get something that looks as good as an iPad but actually can give you more multifunctional use. I’m not convinced that the iPad is a brilliant business device – it’s good, it’s great for watching iPlayer but realistically it can’t run Word, it can’t run Excel, it can’t run PowerPoint.
“If you asked any CIO or IT director what’s the most used business tool within the business apart from your big ERP systems and all that, it’s those three products.”
EAT uses both smartphone and tablet devices to ensure field staff have access to not just email but other business-critical data such as business intelligence, reporting and analytics tools. It is currently in the process of rolling out a reporting tool called QlikView Business Discovery platform, which will draw in data from across its business functions and slice and dice it into various visual dashboards to enable real-time analysis of business processes.
“The whole point about having a BI [business intelligence] platform that delivers fast, precise information is it’s actually like a call to action – you’re able to do something about it,” Batsford said. “If you’re in our business which is beverages and food your sales are…
…changing by the second, minute, hour, throughout the day. You might have launched a product which is a breakfast product and you want to know how that’s doing after you’ve launched it. You don’t want to know the next day – you want to know there and then.
“Business intelligence is obviously at the heart of ecommerce – because if you don’t know what’s going on you don’t know how well you’re doing.”
Other projects Batsford and his eight-strong IT team have recently put to bed include a major IT infrastructure upgrade, to ensure site-to-site failover back-up, and a virtualisation upgrade. “I introduced virtualisation quite a few years back but we’ve just upgraded that so we use products like VMware to virtualise most of our servers,” he said.
Wi-fi for customers and staff
Free customer wi-fi has also been a recent focus for EAT. “We’ve rolled wi-fi out to the majority of our stores – to customers as well,” says Batsford.
The company will also be upgrading its tills in the near future, installing Poindus POS systems which include biometric readers for security and feature large projected capacitive touchscreens.
“[These touchscreens are] the technology of choice for retailers,” Batsford said. “It’s glass which means employees can’t use implements to stab the screen with – they have to use their finger which means it’s 100 times more hard-wearing than resistive screens.”
“It almost looks like an iPad as well,” he said.
What does an IT chief need to do to be successful in today’s business world?
Don’t be afraid to shout about your successes, says Batsford, as being able to sell IT projects to executives is now a key part of the job.
It’s a good policy to benchmark projects to ensure you have clear success criteria – and then sell your successes to the rest of the business. The goal is to convince the business to keep reinvesting in IT, according to the IT chief.
“If you can get that that means that success builds in success builds in success. If IT’s just seen as an operational cost then you’ll never get those budgets that will really transform the business.”
“Too many IT projects… are not managed particularly well,” he added. “Play people to their strengths in your team – don’t stick them in goal if they’re an out and out striker.
“It’s about building relationships and supporting people as well but knowing how to run your projects and delivering them and executing them and reviewing them thereafter is really important. Then come back to the business and say, ‘Look at the ROI we got on this’.”
But not all IT work is about the numbers – there’s fun to be had too.
“My job at EAT is really about the creative side of technology,” Batsford said. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes but it’s actually creating fun, inspiring people – giving them ideas that they can then turn into reality.”