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River Island Looks to Bricks-and-Mortar to Boost Business

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British high-street retailer River Island is focusing on flagship stores and investing in technology to tie all its channels together.

Today, with more than 350 stores across the U.K., Ireland, Asia, the Middle East and mainland Europe, as well as six dedicated e-commerce sites operating in four currencies, a strong digital backbone is essential to supporting the omnichannel business. That’s why River Island recently opened an office in London’s Shoreditch region that only houses its technology team.

In fact, about a year ago the retailer announced plans to double its IT staff from 100 to 200—its careers website currently shows just seven IT vacancies—but that’s not to say it’s leaving the brick-and-mortar world.

“We’re pushing toward more flagship stores so that people can really come and enjoy that experience, and touch and see what River Island is all about,” said Doug Gardner, chief information officer, speaking in an interview on Oracle’s YouTube channel posted late last month.

“Walking into a store, touching and feeling it, and seeing all the other things that go around and support the River Island brand—you just can’t reproduce that online,” he continued. “The demands of the customer change on a daily basis. Delivering to an end-customer, not an internal customer, and also delivering very rapidly are huge challenges to an IT team.”

Gardner revealed that River Island’s omnichannel investments so far have been “very successful.”

“The simplest examples of that are things like click-and-collect and store order. When we put those in we saw a dramatic uptick in revenue, customers were able to get in stock what wasn’t on the shop floor in a very convenient way,” he said.

To nix River Island’s physical presence would be to wipe out one of its key differentiators in today’s increasingly online-only world.

“We have a huge advantage over pure-play players. They have one space to operate in and that’s the website or the mobile,” Gardner said. “So if we can take this digital journey and bring it into the store and enhance it, and also take a digital journey to our customers from our staff with devices in store, that will really enhance the customer journey.”

Founded in 1948 by Bernard Lewis and his brothers, first selling fruit and then wool, the business known as Lewis Separates had 70 stores by 1965, when it was rebranded as Chelsea Girl. It then became River Island in 1988. Stateside it’s best known for its year-long collaboration with Rihanna.

“River Island will be different than our competitors because we’re investing at the very top to change our company, change the way it works,” Gardner said. “Anybody can buy a piece of technology, anybody can integrate a piece of technology, but making the customer journey end-to-end seamless and carrying it into the store and carrying it out internationally is not just technology. If you can get it right, it can make you the most competitive company on the market.”

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