It was all change at the top for Crew Clothing in 2023 as the senior team departed. But the technology transformation strategy remains not only on track, but is set to accelerate in 2024.
The fashion retailer is ploughing on with the introduction of a finance system, upgrading to a more sophisticated point of sale (PoS), updating product information management (PIM) capability, and continuing to hone stock management and data reporting.
According to Richard Surman, head of IT, this is part of an evolution at Crew which began upon his arrival in the summer of 2020 when he was given the remit of bringing “strategic vision” to how technology can be used to drive business growth.
Despite private equity firm owner Brigadier Acquisition Company cutting ties with CEO David Butler and several senior executives, including head of trade Cathy Carrington Birch and head of technical Kerry Beckwith, in May last year, it is full steam ahead from a tech strategy perspective under the authority of Brigadier boss Menoshi ‘Michael’ Shina.
“Changes at the top have removed lots of red tape,” Surman says. “Michael is more heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the business, which is positive because he has some really good ideas and has a great vision for where he wants the company to be.
“It’s given me and other heads of department lots of advantages because we are effectively the leadership team – we have more visibility and have our feet at the table to make more decisions about how the business should be operating.”
Butler returned to the retail world as CEO of Weird Fish in December – and Surman commends his previous boss and wider leadership team for “doing a great job” at Crew. But he suggests the accidental senior team restructure has brought “fresh ideas and fresh initiatives” regarding the direction of the business.
Best of breed over ERP
At the heart of Surman’s strategy is finding tech partners to replace Crew’s outdated Microsoft Dynamics 2012 enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Surman made the decision that Crew didn’t need an ERP system and that introducing “best-of-breed” tech partners was the way forward.
“Crew’s business had been restricted because of IT not being capable to support it – the aging ERP system had been in place for 12 years when I arrived and it was difficult to make changes to it,” he says.
“I looked at what existing systems delivered for us and what elements of them we actually utilised. I found that we didn’t use a lot of our ERP system – just small elements, so I decided best-of-breed solutions would be more cost-effective and business beneficial.”
ERP versus best of breed is a decades-old enterprise IT dilemma, with the debate heightening in recent years in a landscape increasingly influenced by software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud-based infrastructure.
Those in support of ERP implementation argue having several different companies in the core IT stack brings integration and data-flow complexity, but Surman counters: “My challenge to that is an ERP system still has all that; it’s just in one system and it works fine until it goes wrong, bringing the same problems.”
Surman says that when problems occur using separate systems, such as outages and bugs, it affects a smaller percentage of the business because it is isolated. That’s a key reason for his no-ERP mantra.
Surman also didn’t want to be “a small fish in Microsoft’s big pond”, preferring to align with tech partners where he felt his retailer could help to shape products and services in unison. That played a major role in the company selecting PMC for PoS, Retail247 for stock management and PIM, and Workday for finance.
Another central tech cog called out by Surman is Xiatech, which connects systems and data, while the digital team are using Planning-inc’s customer data platform product to help better tailor marketing and customer communications. Torque has remained in place as Crew’s third-party logistics (3PL) provider and is already well integrated with some of the new tech products.
Business enabling tech
Describing the fundamentals of a modern-day retailer tech stack, Surman says: “Cloud-first is my principle. It needs to focus on agility to deliver what the brand needs and be capable of adapting to business change – lots of the legacy systems are too rigid. IT is no longer just an operational element of the business, it has the capability to improve and drive revenue for a retailer.”
That is the backdrop to Crew’s tech journey over the past three years, and the new tools and IT products the retailer is using have are being implemented with the business case in mind.
For instance, in the coming months, PMC should deliver the capability for Crew to allow customers to make an omnichannel transaction in store.
“It’s mixed-basket capability where a customer comes in and can buy two T-shirts, but if we don’t have the jumper size they want, they can order it – through the same transaction –and the system integrates with our website to deliver straight to the customer’s home,” Surman says. “This adds resistance to the customer journey. It’s in test and due to go live in February if testing all goes well.”
Crew reported a 22.5% year-on-year turnover increase to £101.3m for the 12 months ended 25 December 2022, according its latest financial report filing on Companies House. A key part of Crew’s sales growth in recent years has been its partnerships with UK retail stalwarts John Lewis, Next, and Marks & Spencer (M&S).
The decision to sell its goods via these third parties has helped Crew to reach new audiences, and some of the latest tech it has invested in is smoothing this process.
“We needed a solution to remove PIM from our legacy ERP, and we felt we could develop a product with Retail247,” Surman says. “Their PIM extended beyond what a standard PIM could offer us. It’s been successful and is fully integrated into our concession marketplaces, which includes Very.co.uk, and reduces a lot of time from the perspective of our staff.”
Richard Surman, Crew Clothing
Previously, Crew staff would have to download product data out of the ERP and manipulated it into the format partners required before reloading it to their systems.
“Now we are pushing product data out to all of our systems and third parties so everyone has the same data and there’s no risk of manual error – it’s the dream,” says Surman.
Crew launched on the Brands at M&S website in March 2023, marking the first partnership since the new PIM was in place.
“John Lewis integration took six months [in 2021], but M&S took two months – time to delivery was beneficial,” adds Surman. “If we want to bring on a new partner, we can now do it a lot quicker with our new technology, which is positive.”
Retail247 has also delivered a new stock management tool for Crew. 3PL Torque was previously holding stock for all the retailer’s partners across different locations without interoperability, but there is now one stock pool.
As well as meaning available stock doesn’t now sit unsold simply because the customer is requesting it through the wrong channel, there are cost benefits at play here with Crew no longer needing to take as much square footage with Torque.
“It meets our business requirements and brings a product to market that I think is quite revolutionary from a stock movement perspective,” Surman says. “The partners we’ve selected are willing to go on a journey with me and try things that benefit Crew, but also future retailers looking to take these sort of products.”
Upcoming work with Retail247 includes building digital asset management capabilities and allocation and replenishment engines – and then a purchase order module needs to be completed.
“The projects never stop,” says Surman, who adds that the Workday finance system to replace the finance module in Dynamics should be in place this summer after end-to-end testing is completed.
Pulling brands together
Shina owns other fashion brands Pringle of Scotland and Saltrock, as well as holding the licence for Ben Sherman in the UK, and Surman is currently undertaking a project to pull all these brands on to the same systems and operational IT infrastructure as Crew.
“We’re just kicking this off this year to create a group function we can bring to all the brands,” he says, adding that it allows the company scale.
“We don’t want to have a speciality in different systems. The premise of bringing them all on to the same system means the structure and reporting is consistent and we can support the business better and it won’t confuse anyone internally.”
Such a move is officially on the IT roadmap for 2024 – and with a multitude of brands requiring support, Surman sees an opportunity for him and his team to leverage better tech deals.
Tech to support the sustainability agenda, ways in which generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) can support business growth, and continually finding ways to use data to improve partnerships and the company proposition are also on the agenda in 2024.
Crew may have lost its CEO and senior team last year, but it is far from standing still.