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Boots exec shares the drugstore chain’s pandemic-driven data strategy

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Boots, which is part of the Walgreens Boots Alliance, saw a 250% year-on-year online sales increase during 2020’s pandemic-induced lockdown. This shift was overseen by Boots UK CIO Richard Corbridge, who acknowledges what a huge shift the move to ecommerce and online fulfillment was for a business that completed most of its customer interactions through a network of 2,500 brick-and-mortar stores.

Now, as the U.K. emerges from lockdown, Corbridge is working to turn this rapid online growth into a long-term competitive advantage. As part of the Boots UK executive team, he explains how he’s using data and technology to develop personalized services for the company’s customers, whether they’re in-store or online.

VentureBeat: What’s the context for the rapid change in business operations during the past 18 months?

Richard Corbridge: When lockdown was in place, we had to think about how we moved everything that Boots offers in-store online. So that was about moving from one big warehouse to micro-fulfillment centers and onto what we call hybrid stores, where we were literally taking stuff off the shelves and packing boxes and sending them to customers. People’s buying habits changed massively during lockdown, so that led to much bigger baskets every time they shopped online because they’d managed to get a delivery slot. The behavior change was fascinating — and we’ve used technology to help us deal with that transformation.

VentureBeat: What kind of relationships do you have with your external providers?

Corbridge: We do have a really complicated set of suppliers. So Walgreens Boots Alliance has a super-huge deal with Microsoft — lots of the transformation stuff that we’re running is with Microsoft. We get a lot of tech from IBM, so they provide basket and checkout capability, they provide the infrastructure for our sites and some functionality within the site itself. Then we’ve outsourced run ops to TCS. We also work with Cognizant on a lot of new developments, new product delivery, as well as Adobe and Merkel for marketing technology.

VentureBeat: What are your current priorities — you’ve just re-platformed Boots.com?

Corbridge: To do this, we’ve moved from old IBM tin to IBM cloud. We’ve moving to new basket, new checkout, and new fraud capability. We’ve moved the front end of the website to Adobe Experience Manager. We’ve moved the backend ecommerce site to WebSphere Commerce 9. We’ve implemented Adobe’s martech suite for personalization and customer journeys, including email, social, and mobile capability. We’re also working toward approving the plan for a new Boots app and starting the work, which means making sure that nothing breaks, nothing falls over. Now the U.K. high street has some normality returning, we’re supporting a much higher level of footfall in stores, and our colleagues, who have been away from the shop for a while, which causes a higher IT support volume. So we’re touching everything — and it’s all very cross-dependent as a set of projects and programs, but it’s massively exciting.

VentureBeat: What are you looking to create in the next couple of years?

Corbridge: An omnichannel experience for customers, where we’re talking about the Boots app being truly representative of the Boots store, and vice versa. So if you’re sat at home, when you’re looking on Boots.com, you see something you want, you walk into the store, the colleague knows that you’ve walked into the store, that you’re looking for something in particular, and they can help you with that. Next time you’re looking at the Boots app, it knows that you’ve spoken to a colleague. It’s about joining up that brick-and-mortar and online experience and the mass-personalization piece, trying to offer you a more personalized journey through Boots, whether you’re in-store or not.

VentureBeat: How are you looking to use technology and data to push the company into new areas?

Corbridge: There are so many things that you go to a hospital for, such as pre-ops and testing, that could be done in a Boots store. And we have the capability to do that, with virtual capability that has really come into its own during the COVID-19 crisis — we can connect to clinicians that we couldn’t connect to before and do an awful lot more. You can see a physiotherapist now online at Boots, and the customer feedback from that is very positive. So it shows that there are so many ways that we can dive into the broader health care journey. We want people to know they can get health care advice from us — and not just from a pharmacist in-store, but also online.

VentureBeat: How are you making the most of the data?

Corbridge: The mass personalization part of what we’re doing is largely a data play, so we’re working with Adobe and Merkel to create mass-personalized versions of the website. That means that when you land on Boots.com, the site knows what you last looked at, what you bought, and what interests you have, particularly as we move away from cookies and the law around collecting information from consumers, yet still being able to personalize the website to you, rather than taking a generic position. So there’s a lot of work in that area.

VentureBeat: What does that work on data mean in terms of working with other organizations?

Corbridge: We are definitely considering how we capture customer patient consent to allow you to decide how to join up your health journey with your retail journey, and where you see benefit in that — what does that look like? And then conversations with the NHS and some providers. Boots has information about your prescriptions, your pattern of picking up prescriptions, and your return for picking up prescriptions — how can that feed into an NHS record around efficacy and your own capability to self-care?

VentureBeat: What’s the best way to take advantage of data?

Corbridge: It’s like a reinforcing of the consent issue that the NHS has, which is, “We want to do stuff with data. So let’s make sure we ask the person. Let’s make sure they understand what the risk is, but let’s make sure they understand what the benefit is to them of us doing stuff with their data.” As a retailer, if we ask for the consent of a customer who has a prescription that they pick up regularly and explain to them what we’re going to do, then most people will consent because it’s a service we’re offering, as opposed to selling data to some madcap schemes. We’re saying, “We want your consent to link your data inside Boots so we can offer you a better service and a better journey.”

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