12:56 AM 20th November 2021
Saturday Essay: How Agile Technology Is Levelling Up The Northern Powerhouse Colin Neil, Managing Director for Adyen UK looks at how agile technology is levelling up the Northern Powerhouse
Ever since George Osbourne first coined the phrase ‘The Northern Powerhouse’ during a 2014 speech made in Manchester, the idea of ‘levelling up’ the region’s largest and most prosperous cities has been a driving force for the Northern economy.
Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle are just a few of the cities that are championing national consciousness, establishing themselves as leading lights for a huge range of industries that stretch from creative to tech and everything in between.
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Retail technology, in particularly, has become one of the North’s most exciting and prosperous sectors. Manchester, for example, is officially the UK’s Top Digital Tech City, with an accelerating digital ecosystem that’s worth an estimated £5 billion. Such cities are helping to bolster the region’s growing service focus. This is one of the most exciting incubators for digital commerce in the country, with many of the UK’s biggest ecommerce brands (including fast fashion icons Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Missguided) siting themselves firmly in the UK’s second-largest population centre.
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Agility is becoming the watchword for success across the North, as cities and brands double down on making the region the leading space for ecommerce development. The immense challenge that the Covid-19 pandemic posed to retailers across the globe has only accelerated this evolution. Retailers have little choice but to embrace innovative tech solutions to survive and, ultimately, thrive in a challenging economic climate.
From leveraging the latest technological advances through to massive brand partnerships, the North’s retail tech heavyweights are spearheading growth with a range of innovative strategies;
Driving digital adoption with BooHoo
Manchester-headquartered brand BooHoo is one of the UK’s largest online fast fashion brands, and has long since demonstrated its digital commerce know-how to build an ecommerce empire. In January it acquired ailing, yet beloved, high street icon, Debenhams, bringing the business into BooHoo’s portfolio in a £55m takeover.
Risky or ingenious? I’d argue the latter. Leveraging its expertise in online commerce and cutting-edge branding, BooHoo has turned the struggling department store into a fresh new online marketplace, stocking everything from high fashion to homeware. The union of one of the UK’s most recognised retail brands with one of the country’s leading digital commerce providers captured a growing share of the online retail space, while supporting the diversification of its offering from fast fashion into fast everything.
Expanding its digital footprint is key for any business looking to keep up with the competition. Covid-19, the subsequent restrictions on brick-and-mortar retailers and the change in consumer spending habits has only amplified this need. Even as high streets across the country have reopened, ecommerce’s percentage share of the UK retail market is still sitting more than 8% higher than it was in February 2020. As we approach the busiest sales period of the year, and with UK digital transactions in 2021 predicted to not only surpass but blow past the total spent online last year by as much as £10 billion, retailers big and small can learn a lot from how a merchant successfully expanded its digital footprint
Benefitting from unified platforms with Fanatics
Another business that leveraged integrations, possibly to an even greater extent, is Fanatics, a global leader in licensed sports merchandise. The business, whose UK headquarters is based in Manchester, has a long-term partnership with UEFA and was responsible for all official retail outlets at Euro 2020.
Fanatics was chosen by UEFA on the strength of its unified commerce model, and international reach. Combining agile manufacturing and supply chains with retail technology allowed it to respond quickly to the demands of supporters with custom merchandise that could change as the tournament progressed. Thanks to its unified system, Fanatics could tap into the consciousness of its customer base, pivoting quickly to offer unique items that flew off the shelves as the continent bought into football fever.
The utilisation of unified commerce and retail technology platforms by Fanatics is a great lesson for retailers in almost every marketplace. Consumer behaviour and customer desire can shift rapidly – and the businesses that take an integrated approach from their supply chains to their routes to market are always in the best position to capitalise.
Making multi-channel magic with JD Sports
The iconic Bury-based sportswear giant, JD Sports, is a great example of how multi-channel commerce can deliver immense business benefits.
The pandemic undoubtedly required all retailers to act fast and demonstrate agility if they were to survive. JD Sports was already an expert in multi-channel commerce; or, as JD’s Executive Chairman Peter Cowgill called it, ‘attention-grabbing theatre’. A potent mix of the brand’s strong look-and-feel, powerful social and commercial activations like its star-studded 2018 Christmas campaign, and an embrace of retail technology are all core to its unique brand style. This approach has resulted in great success, helping to cement the brand’s status as the top choice for sportswear and street fashion for millions of younger consumers – as well as propelling it to record results prior to the pandemic.
For a brand that counts the customer experience as one of its key USPs, the loss of in-store retail was undoubtedly a huge blow. Instead of shrinking in the face of adversity, JD adapted rapidly to take advantage of the opportunities of the ecommerce boom. Closed stores became fulfilment centres, helping to eliminate stock issues while supply chains struggled with travel restrictions. After this, the brand’s grand store reopening contributed to the retailer’s huge success amid Covid – with profits expected to smash pre-pandemic levels. This is an amazing achievement in some of the toughest retail conditions we’ve seen.
JD’s key to success has been its early embrace of the multi-channel commerce model, utilising its understanding of its customers with the latest technology to develop a robust and agile business model. For businesses in the Covid-hit economy, adaptability was king; something JD Sports was perfectly set up to implement.
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Northern Powerhouse cities were establishing the blueprint for frictionless, hassle-free consumer experiences even before the pandemic struck. The region’s host of forward-thinking retailers has leveraged the adaptability and scope that the latest platforms can provide, helping to firmly place it as the ecommerce capital of the UK.
The biggest lesson that retailers can take from these examples is, that in a retail world where agility is king, technology platforms cannot be an afterthought. The brands that saw consistent success during the pandemic were those that built technology into their business from the ground up.
Retail technology continues to form a core part of corporate strategy, influences supply chains, store designs, marketing campaigns and brand acquisitions. For any retailer looking to emulate this success, the message is clear; don’t treat retail technology as an afterthought, but make it the foundation of how you plan to build your future.