Posted on April 30, 2019 by staff

How N Brown became a digital business


Everyone is looking at the real-time information being displayed on the giant flatscreen TVs in the operations centre.

The screens are awash with graphs, numbers and different colours showing everything from website speed, customer location and trading figures. From a distance the rising blocks look like a Manhattan skyline.

In the world of eCommerce, time is money. A split-second delay in page uploads will cause a drop in conversion rates.

Everyone in the business has the same access to the information so they can take immediate steps to rectify any problem. Welcome to the modern world of online fashion retailer N Brown.

While the retail graveyard is full of established businesses who failed to embrace technology, the FTSE-listed N Brown Group has successfully transitioned from a catalogue-based business to an online retailer.

Last week online fashion group boohoo posted revenues of £856.9 million – a 48 per cent increase from the previous year. The last time I saw wall-mounted flat screen TVs gushing out real-time information like at N Brown I was sitting in the office of boohoo’s co-founder Mahmud Kamani.

This is the world of modern retail with its data insight teams, mobile technology, apps, VR and AR and the imminent arrival of 5G.

Sitting opposite me in the interview room at N Brown’s head office in central Manchester are chief information officer Adam Warne and director of technology Tim Price. Warne previously spent 10 years at AO World.

N Brown’s success is built on the back of brands including JD Williams, High & Mighty, Jacamo and Simply Be. The business dates back around 150 years but the seismic change has happened much more recently.

Warne explains: “The big shift has happened in the last five years and we’re now on the verge of being an 80 per cent online business. Of that 80 per cent another 80 per cent are all using mobile devices to shop with us.”

Around a fifth of N Brown’s 2,000 staff are now working in technology. Under the watch of its previous CEO Angela Spindler, N Brown steered away from shopping catalogues to become a digital business – because its ageing customer base was dying.

“Are we a technology company that does retail or are we a retailer that is actually built with technology?” asks Warne before answering his own question. “I still think we will always be a retailer with technology at its heart.”

In 2018 N Brown decided to shut down 20 stores as it focused its efforts online. Warne says: “We decided it wasn’t right for the business we wanted to be, which is fundamentally a digital business.

“We are 150 years old and our oldest bit of software that runs is from 1978 so we have a rich history of technology in the business. It’s just a different type of technology.

“For us it’s how can we bring better technologies in that benefit the customer? How can we take the next level of experience to our customers to make it easier and faster to shop with us?”

With this is mind, N Brown started investing in apps with the launch of a prototype two years ago. N Brown’s director of technology Tim Price picks up the story.

“The thought was we probably didn’t need one because our websites were good enough but we did an MVP (minimum viable product) with some small seed capital and the early signs were it outperformed our website,” he says. “Our customers preferred shopping on an app.”

N Brown now has a ‘squad’ of 18 people working on their apps. Warne says: “We’re trying to create an app that is not just a shopping platform. We’re going to put our latest summer adverts there. Give the user a reason to go there and engage with content.”

The big change on the horizon is 5G technology and the opportunities it creates.

Warne says: “We’re optimising now for 3G and 4G. We’re trying to make images smaller and easier to download but roll forward a few years, what if everyone is on 5G and we can have massively detailed images?

“It’s about creating something that is flexible so that when technology lands in the consumer’s hand we can flex our technology to deliver a better experience for the consumer.

“It’s all about content. I think 5G unlocks a lot of potential to deliver a much better experience to customers and it probably changes some of the things that we do as a business.”

N Brown is currently doing pilots with VR and AR technology and Warne believes that some of the technology will be best suited to 5G networks.

He explains: “We’ve recently invested in a state-of-the-art photography studio that takes 360 degree images of products and the models. We can even animate on the website.

“On today’s networks it’s probably the wrong thing. When the customer has 5G why not have the listing page of products where everything is moving?”

Another priority for N Brown is interpreting data to personalise the customer offer.

Warne says: “We are a data rich business but we have to be insight rich as well. We have to turn that data into something we can use for the benefit of the customers.

“Lots of people talk about personalisation. I think the people who personalise well are the people who are going to win.”