Like so many companies over the past year and half, Ralph Lauren has had its resilience tested as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It had to shut down stores and offices, and had to advance efforts to better interact with customers and associates alike, safely.
Fortunately for the company, Janet Sherlock, who has been the chief information officer of Ralph Lauren for the past four years, initiated a number of initiatives that gave the company a leg up. Her purview is such that she has unusual influence for a CIO. She runs strategy and overall management of all of the technology including design conceptualization through to the point when products are distributed to either wholesale partners, the company’s stores, or directly to the company’s consumers. Her team is also responsible for store technology and the full ecosystem of in-product management and user experience. Additionally, Sherlock oversees all global digital platforms, marketing technology, data analytics, and data science. All of this is on top of global infrastructure, cybersecurity, IT risk, compliance, and privacy.
Among the fortuitous programs that were in place prior to the pandemic that aided the company’s transition during the pandemic was a hybrid flexible work arrangement called Flex Place. Upon this foundation, Sherlock’s team rapidly rolled out virtual appointment booking. Her team had already made significant progress on curbside pickup for customers. Completing its rollout ensured that the company could still do business through stores even if customers were unable or less willing to go in them.
“I think our biggest shift left efforts was probably in virtual stores,” said Sherlock. “We had been considering our approach to virtual stores before Covid hit but that was something that we pulled forward very quickly and aggressively. Our stores were such masterpieces, and the experience is so unique, we felt it was important to offer the world of Ralph Lauren to our customers, even if they couldn’t physically visit our stores.” Her team rolled out a rich virtual store experience and quickly integrated it with the company’s e-commerce platform so that customers could purchase certain products via hotspots directly from their virtual experience. “At this point, we have seven different virtual store experiences, and are continuing to build on the capabilities that we have in our virtual store environment,” noted Sherlock.
One of the thornier issues that Sherlock and team had to grapple with how to assist Ralph Lauren’s design and merchandising teams, each of whom relied and thrived on in-person collaboration. Sherlock’s team set up a design collaboration platform for them to use, and it proved to be a silver lining of the pandemic inasmuch as the teams developed new ways to work and collaborate. Now the design and merchandising teams anticipate an ability to continue to work both in person and virtually, adding flexibility to their work routines.
Another process that the company took for granted had to be done in person was the product approval process, which traditionally relied on in-person meetings to discuss milestones related to lines, styles, and fit approvals. It was long assumed that those involved had to be able to physically see and touch the material in order to make decisions. “We were able to leverage our 3D product development for the approval process, which also had the side benefit of streamlining the process,” said Sherlock. “We [also] had to create online experiences to replicate and replace our showroom visits, and support different virtual ordering processes for our wholesale partners.”
As Sherlock contemplated the future, she noted three strategic priorities: experiences, data, and automation. The overarching benefit of these foci should be greater nimbleness for the company. The experiences center around creating a variety of customer journeys and allowing customers to engage in the ways that best suit them rather than dictating how they shop and purchase products from Ralph Lauren. “Everything is interoperable between our online, our [marketing technology] and our in-store capabilities are blended together so we can create seamless experiences and we have some really cool ones planned for the future,” noted Sherlock.
Next, she believes data strategy will be a critical area of focus. “We’re being very deliberate about the overall data strategy for the core elements of data, things like our product data, our digital assets, our customer data, thinking strategically about where they’re stored, how they’re accessed and leveraged, how they’re maintained,” said Sherlock. “[This will impact not only] data analytics, but [it will allow Ralph Lauren] to serve up on a real-time basis things like personalization, real-time actions, real-time decision-making…Then, of course, it leads to our capabilities in advanced analytics and data science, which for us is a major area of emphasis and focus.” She refers to IT as the “connective tissue” of the enterprise relative to data, and that this is a discipline that will lead to better collaboration across the traditional silos of the company.
Sherlock believes that greater degrees of automation will improve the efficiency of all that IT delivers while further modernizing the practices of the company to better compete in the digital age. Sherlock and her team have implemented a variety of changes that have overturned decades of inherited wisdom about how business can be done, providing new benefits along the way. Necessity is the mother of invention, it is said, and many inventions have been created due to the necessities that the pandemic has driven.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.