Discussing Digital Transformation and the Future of Fashion with Ed Alford, CTO at New Look

Ed Alford, Chief Technology Officer at New Look, began his career in the oil and gas industry. Having studied aeronautical engineering at university, his first jobs were in the technology side of the oil industry, working for companies such as Enterprise Oil. He joined BP as Strategic Delivery Manager in 2004, working his way up to VP of Digital Transformation before leaving in 2019.

Ed found the oil and gas industry fascinating, being at the forefront of evolving technology and gaining insight into all areas of the field from upstream to end customer. Following a change in CEO and strategy in 2020 and seeking new challenges – Ed took a year off and then made the move to the fashion retailer New Look.

“After 28 years based in London I moved back to Scotland as I felt it was time to take a bit of time off to reflect and have a think about what I wanted to do next.  It felt right in terms of timing, from a life perspective, to go and do something completely different.  And so I ended up in the fashion world, which is I have found to be a fascinating industry.”

The Future of Fashion

In the fast moving and consumer-focused world of fashion, digital transformation is big news. Creating a seamless shopping experience whilst keeping ahead of the latest trends makes technology within the industry a unique challenge.

As well as improving the traditional online shopping experience, Ed also works to use new technology to enhance the in-store offering.

“Today, most people use their smartphones for their interaction with retailers. In our stores, I think about whether I can get the phones to act as a remote control for our customers. If they scan an item, they can bring up all the product details, and look at the sustainability credentials to see where it was made and how it got here. If it’s not in your size, you can just order it on your phone and pick it up tomorrow, or get it dropped off at home. The way that the world is moving with technology is all about ease, speed and a frictionless experience. Digital transformation for me is about enabling that, so that the end customer has an experience that is really easy and enjoyable and makes them want to come back.”

The enabling side includes thinking about the customer experience from beginning to end, and that includes things such as ensuring stores have Wi-Fi available so that customers can actually access the offerings. This also applies online, particularly with things such as social media adverts. The collation of data means that adverts can be personalised to the extent that you are shown clothes that you are going to like, in your size, and in your favourite colours – and you can buy with just a click.

Digital transformation can also be used to improve sustainability, with initiatives such as online changing rooms.

“What happens now is customers across the retail sector buy a number of items, try them on at home and perhaps send a few back. That’s something that needs addressing from a sustainability perspective. If I can create the changing room experience online, develop the tech that gets it right so that you can see online what it will look like and then when it arrives, it looks exactly the same in the mirror. That is digital transformation.”

Driving Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is not just about improving outcomes for the end customer, but also for employees and the business as a whole. One of the first projects Ed undertook when he started at New Look was to upgrade the workplace technology for employees, enabling them to work on modern kit and connect with colleagues across the business.

“It creates the mindset that you’re using tech that is at the front end of technology, instead of using antiquated kit.   It’s sometimes overlooked but it’s important to ensure your employees are using the best technology, not only because it improves productivity, but it creates the right culture that is then conveyed across to our customers”

New technologies can also be used to significantly reduce costs. As an example, at BP in 2005 there was a plan to deploy pay-at-pump technology across Europe at an estimated cost of several £100 million. Fast forward 10  years and the introduction of building an app which consumers could use to pay instead of needing to use physical technology at the pump resulted in an immense cost saving.  Cost of the App Vs Cost of the Hardware x 2000 Stores. 

Part of ensuring digital transformation is successful is appropriate communication with the board, the C-suite and employees to bring them along on the journey.   Key to communication here is simplicity.

“It needs to be simple and you need to show how technology is going to generate more value and make life better for customers. Talk about what the intent is, and what you’re trying to achieve. Show what the future is like first, and then talk about how you get there.”

Ed’s Advice

Digital transformation can be an enormous task. Depending on the project, there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done to get the technology from initial discussions to implementation. Ed’s key advice is to give your project the time it needs, rather than trying to get it done in the shortest time possible.

“Paint a picture of the future, recognise that it’s probably going to take two to three years, and then work out how you get there, versus trying to scope everything out to get it done in a year when actually, that’s pretty impossible to do.   Sometimes, organisations get caught up in the Finite Game: Scope / Timeline = more people than you can probably deploy in a year to get the work done.  This results in failure and you end up spending a year trying to fix it and then another two years transforming.  Be pragmatic, get small wins along the way, do it properly and create the Infinite Game where you are constantly digitising and transforming.”

This also helps with risk. Because digital transformation projects require a large amount of investment, being realistic about the time it will take also means that you can spread the risk over a longer period of time, and this allows you to lay the foundations first and build everything else around it.

Ed also raises the importance of picking good partners to work with on projects, to get the best value and quality.

“Partner with people, rather than treat them like suppliers, and get working with them quickly, so that you get the best price early and break ground quicker”