N Brown Group has transformed into an online retailer, based on a ‘digital first’ mind-set, agility, and innovation. Part of the transformation was to improve consumer credit capabilities, enhance merchandise planning, and transform financial systems – underpinned by a new digital platform enabled by IBM® Cloud™ technologies.
Retail apparel consumers have shifted dramatically to online, mobile and tablet purchasing. Could N Brown Group support this new business model and unlock huge potential growth of its fashion brands?
By implementing Oracle and business management solutions, hosted on the IBM Cloud for Oracle Solutions, N Brown Group transformed business processes to support omnichannel operations.
While in the past printed catalogues formed the core of N Brown Group’s business, the retail market has moved dramatically to online purchasing. N Brown Group is capturing these new and changing shoppers and has become a leading specialist-fit fashion online retailer for many niche consumer segments.
As the company transformed its digital offerings, it became clear that the existing systems in the on-premise data centre, and the lack of back-office integration, were a potential roadblock to further growth. These systems had worked reliably for many years, yet they could not offer the agility, scalability or control to keep pace with the evolving online market.
David Giles, Head of Service and Infrastructure at N Brown Group, explains: “Our existing systems and on-site data centre had served the business well, but they were technically and functionally holding us back. We had a host of separate, unintegrated systems for finance, procurement and business management, and the IT department had to be involved every time we wanted to update our website. This made it especially difficult for the business to react quickly to unforeseen spikes in demand. IT staff also spent a great deal of time maintaining in-house infrastructure, leaving them with little time for innovation.
“N Brown Group has moved from a catalo-centric company to a modern online retailer. Our strategic business transformation program moved the company to a truly ‘digital first’ mind-set based on agility and innovation. We recognized that to succeed in a changing world we had to create new platforms to open up new opportunities and increase our overall efficiency and flexibility.”
To turn its transformation vision into reality, N Brown Group realized that it was not sufficient simply to introduce digital steps to replace existing processes; the company looked for true digital reinvention of the business.
David Giles says: “Our approach was to adopt best-in-class applications for digital, retail, finance, and merchandising. Oracle applications fit the bill perfectly; we knew it would enable us to bring our capabilities up to a more global industry standard.”
Rather than implement the Oracle solutions on-premises, the company began looking for a partner who could deliver the new applications as managed cloud services.
“We realized that cloud services were the best way to support our growth requirements and create a truly scalable, agile business platform. Cloud services in the overall marketplace are still maturing, so we needed a partner who recognized this and would grow and adapt with us. IBM offered a successful mix: an excellent range of cloud services, a true partnership that leveraged these evolving services, and a compelling commercial offer.
“IBM Cloud for Oracle Solutions provided us with a proven set of industry leading applications, on a platform-as-a-service model, which we knew would satisfy our requirements for performance, reliability and maintenance. IBM also delivered infrastructure-as-a-service on the IBM Cloud [formerly SoftLayer®], integrated with our existing legacy systems – giving us the benefits of the latest datacentre technology while enabling us to continue to gain value from our past investment.”
Working with IBM, N Brown Group took a phased approach to implementation. Initially, it implemented a new financial platform to integrate back-office processes using Oracle Fusion Finance and Oracle Fusion Procurement. The company engaged IBM Services to deliver this critical first stage of the project. IBM Services was responsible for all aspects of the design and build, data migration, and much of the testing, in addition to training employees to use the new platform.
The solution depends on IBM Cloud for Oracle Solutions, designed for enterprises running complex Oracle environments.
“We learned a lot from the first implementation phase,” continues David Giles, “Both technically and culturally. Equipped with that knowledge, we proceeded into more customer-impacting areas, deploying the enabling digital platform, and subsequently a merchandise planning application based on Oracle Retail Demand Forecasting. To begin with, we only launched the digital platform for a single European brand, yet it was so successful that we soon expanded it to cover multiple brands across the United Kingdom and United States.
“As you’d expect with such a game-changing program there were a number of complexities along the way, particularly as N Brown Group’s requirements were constantly evolving throughout the project. IBM came to the table with the right partnership attitude and integrated extremely well with our in-house specialists, so that together we could overcome any challenges that arose. IBM become a trusted decision-maker, helping us find the best route for our business.”
N Brown has achieved its goal of becoming an online retailer with a modern, agile digital platform. Back-office integration enables staff to work more efficiently, and the IT department can focus on innovation. The IBM hybrid cloud strategy supports the flexibility requirements of digital platforms, confirms David Giles: “By establishing industry standard platforms we are prepared for the future, able to respond to change in the retail space more quickly, and overcome business obstacles across all brands and geographies.
“Oracle and IBM have helped us achieve greatly improved levels of control and agility. Gone are the days of putting in requests to IT for every website update; now, the digital platform is in the hands of the business users, and they can deploy promotions or pricing changes as soon as they spot an opportunity. The digital platform supports tens of thousands of online orders each day.”
With IBM managing the infrastructure and Oracle applications on the cloud, and business users handling the digital channel, the IT department is free to focus on adding value to the business. David Giles comments, “In practical terms, we have moved IT from administration to innovation.”
The benefits of the managed service approach extend further still. Now that managing the IT environment has become an operational instead of a capital expense, the company can carry out far more intelligent investment management. Additionally, with its infrastructure hosted on the cloud, the business is enjoying unparalleled scalability. The IBM Cloud for Oracle Solutions also offers greatly enhanced dev-ops productivity, with the ability to develop, experiment and iterate at speed.
David Giles explains: “In the past, if we needed to scale up to support a surge in demand, we would have to purchase additional physical hardware, a time-consuming and expensive approach. If we want to scale up to support a surge in demand, we can simply contact IBM and they increase our capacity at the push of a button and we pay only for what we need. This is especially useful in a business such as fashion, which experiences regular, seasonal peaks in trade.”
“IBM was a true partner throughout this project,” concludes David Giles. “With assistance and cloud hosting from IBM we are taking advantage of the Oracle applications to successfully drive sales in a hugely competitive online market.”
The N Brown Group (link resides outside of ibm.com) specializes in ‘fashion that fits’ through its key retail brands JD Williams, Simply Be and Jacamo, and its specialist brands such as Figleaves and House of Bath. The group operates internationally, generating annual revenues of GBP 888 million and profits of GBP 81 million (FY17).
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