John Lewis’ technology chief reveals the trends he is looking out for at NRF’s BIG Show 2016, and discusses the retailer’s current IT strategy.

What are you keeping your eyes peeled for at NRF’s BIG Show?

NRF is a bit like Toys R Us for retailers. It’s become the global meeting place, everyone is here. You can take the temperature of where things are going. Obviously NRF is important from an IT point of view – quality vendors understand it’s about giving customers what they want.

At CES, virtual reality was hot and I’d be interested to see whether that’s the same at NRF.

What tech trends are you most excited by?

The internet of things and smart technology, in terms of what normal people will want from it, such as energy consumption in the home, or making your house more secure. It’s about focusing on that product that makes my life easier and how to connect devices. I believe there’s going to be a breakthrough with smart homes. It’s not quite there but feels like it could soon be.

“I believe there’s going to be a breakthrough with smart homes. It’s not quite there but feels like it could soon be”

Paul Coby, John Lewis

With the internet of things there are also greater opportunities for efficiencies for retailers and efficient stores and managing them much more effectively – that’s interesting. The clever bit for us is [for the smart tech] to tell you something useful.

As an IT director, what’s your biggest obsession?

Just look at what happened during the peak over the last six weeks – at John Lewis, online traffic was up 21%. Omnichannel shopping is here to stay and you can feel it continuing to grow. The really important thing is to understand it’s not about online and stores, you have you think of the business as an integrated whole.

It’s about engineering your whole business to provide customers and excite them with how they want to shop. At John Lewis they expect it to be seamless. You have to join up all those channels. You have to get yourself out of that siloed mentality.

How are you putting technology at the centre of your business?

We’re investing more than £100m over the next five years in technology. Becoming really agile and flexible is what we’ve tried to be. The growth of omnichannel shopping has come faster than we thought it would – we’re looking at it accounting for 40% by 2020. Within that you have three-lane IT:

The growth of omnichannel shopping has come faster than we thought it would

Paul Coby, John Lewis

The slow lane is the foundations. To really scale that you need very standardised, simplified foundational systems. We put in the new Oracle Ecommerce in 2013, replaced all our POS and we’re in the process of putting in a new order management system. Raunchy back-end stuff really matters, we’re re-engineering the whole supply chain – that’s foundations, you need to do that. So you have very standardised systems that enable you to do the basic things well.

The mid lane is how you use that, such as John Lewis’ loyalty programme, which has 1.6 million members. There’s no point having the big IT systems unless you use them to give people what they want.

The fast lane is innovation, because you don’t know what 2020 will look like, so experimenting with things such as the internet of things and location technology is vital.

  • Paul Coby was interviewed during the Oracle Retail Exchange in New York