Executive Insights
The Interface

Sainsbury’s Tech: powering the UK’s no. 1 multi-brand & multi-channel retailer

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Let’s meet the team behind Sainsbury’s Tech: a brand-new technology division delivering integrated tech solutions across all Sainsbury’s brands and channels…

Sainsbury’s is a beloved British institution with a long-standing reputation for quality and service, at fair prices, from its 1,400-plus UK stores for 150 years. From a butter shop on Drury Lane, the retailer now has a stable of several other equally lauded household names: Argos, Nectar, TU Clothing, Sainsbury’s Bank, and Habitat in the modern-day incarnation of the business.

But existing within a highly disruptive and competitive market, Sainsbury’s challenge, shared by many large-scale enterprises, is how to escape the confines of a traditional structure, formed from its well-defined, successful brands, and nimbly provide a unified customer experience that allows it to meet its competitors head on, many of whom are born from the digital sphere. How can processes be accelerated, data pooled, and the customer experience enhanced across a number of brands?

This transformation is a business-wide challenge but one in which technology is the primary catalyst and engine for change. Responsibility for technology across all of Sainsbury’s’ brands lies with Group CIO, Phil Jordan, a man who has overseen massive transformations at the likes of Telefónica and Vodafone. Jordan is the driving force behind Sainsbury’s Tech, a brand-new technology division delivering integrated tech solutions across all Sainsbury’s brands and channels.

“I’ve brought a different industry and global perspective,” Jordan says of his time working in telecoms through Europe and Latin America, “…and with that perspective, a more data and digitally-driven vision of ‘retail tech’.” When the chance to work for a mighty British brand came up, Jordan was intrigued. “I’ve always been fascinated by Retail. I think it’s the most exciting sector, where brilliant technology in the hands of brilliant people can really differentiate.”

From Sainsbury’s Holborn headquarters in the heart of London, Jordan explains, “I hadn’t really thought about joining a supermarket when I was in telecoms, but the more I met the people, the more I understood the journey of the business and its scale, and the potential power of our multiple brands and multiple channels, the more interested I became. Sainsbury’s has an incredible heritage, 150 years old this year with a rich history of innovation in food quality, products and ethical and effective supply chains.

“Sainsbury’s continues to be a tech innovator from the first self-service stores, first manned and then automated checkout and then more recently the first to do mobile scan-and-pay in the UK.”

As to the comparison between his past and present industries, Jordan reflects: “There are some obvious differences in margin, scale and international footprint but there are equally some interesting parallels. Telecoms companies have had to face the fact that building and owning a network creates a real barrier to entry but increasingly doesn’t differentiate.

“It is great customer data, that drives insight and personalised services that run on those networks, that makes the difference. This is not that different to the shops for a retailer where differentiation is increasingly about the speed, convenience and personalised experience of shopping with us that customers want, wherever and whenever they choose to shop with us: online or in one or our stores,” he explains.

Another of the most significant contrasts between Jordan’s previous employers and Sainsbury’s is the ‘view of the customer’.

“Sainsbury’s has an obsession for customers whereas I think the big telecoms companies struggle at times,” he says. “They are typically B2B, B2C, wholesale businesses and the definition of customer becomes a little generic and abstract. There is nothing abstract about 26 million customers a week choosing Sainsbury’s or our role to influence and facilitate the way people shop, directly affecting lives and supporting the communities we serve.”

Indeed, it is the customer who lies at the heart of Sainsbury’s Tech, the new division headed up by Jordan to provide the multi-brand, multichannel capability that delivers a seamless journey through its different brands.

“I think one of the things we realised quite quickly is that we want to build technology that is multi-brand and also democratises the data in our business so we can always see a customer in 360 degrees irrespective of brand or channel. The fastest way to get there was to move our technologists from the brands and form them into a new progressive tech organisation that could build the capability that delivers our vision. This is Sainsbury’s Tech.”  Jordan explains, “Everything we do is anchored around ‘What would our customers think of this?’”

Jordan’s focus now is to “take great brands that operate brilliantly in a loosely coupled eco-system and form a world-class, multi-brand, multi-channel shopping experience”.

“What we really want is for customers to fulfil all their shopping missions with Sainsbury’s in a seamless, personalised way that uses our understanding about what they want, where they like to shop and what’s important to them,” he explains.

“We have a passion for making our customers’  lives easier, to make Sainsbury’s a place where people love to shop, and this is why we are bringing the technology functions, systems and data together as Sainsbury’s Tech and building the systems and data capability that powers the UK’s no.1 multi-brand, multi-channel digital retail ecosystem.”

It is clear Jordan and the Sainsbury’s Board see Sainsbury’s Tech as critical to engineering the transformation of Sainsbury’s. “If you haven’t already transformed to be digital, you’re not going to survive much longer. Retail Businesses that weren’t fast enough to develop a great Digital Experience in and out of physical stores are going under at a rate of knots.

“Now it’s about data capability built on those automated and real time processes of a digital business and how quickly you can turn insight into action. How quickly you can adapt the customer experience based on personalisation. That’s why we’ve put so much emphasis on data in this business and encouraging our colleagues to be actively analytical in all aspects of their roles.” And Jordan is swift to dismiss any suggestion that Sainsbury’s isn’t ready for this transformation,

“If you are still prospering as a business after 150 years, 37 prime ministers, six kings and queens, you must have innovation in your DNA and a culture of experimental curiosity.” Jordan points to data as the answer to understanding customers when creating a compelling and attractive proposition. “How do you use the data to understand the customers and to make yourselves compelling when it’s no longer simply a question of selling a network or opening a shop near to someone?” he asks.

“When you look at the way people shop, and the different missions they have, whether they’re shopping for food or for general merchandise, there are many life events that join it together. We know pet owners, so why can’t we be useful in helping you shop for pet food, pet accessories or pet insurance?

“All these examples are out there to help people live their lives better. Wouldn’t it be useful if somebody could help you join some of these separate missions together, help you shop what you need at the right value and in doing so, reward you for your loyalty.”

“I believe we have the most exciting dataset in the country,” Jordan enthuses.

“Through the lens of Nectar, and our digital channels we know a lot about our own customers’ loyalty, shopping behaviour, preference, taste, buying patterns, and when you consider the scale of our customer base, it’s a really interesting view of the way the British public lives.

“We want to put all the data to work in making it useful for customers in living their lives, whether that’s joining our shopping missions or starting to anticipate need, so we can make offers when they’re useful. There’s value for customers in that, and there’s obviously value for us as well. This only happens as we democratise it across our business and therefore applying data science techniques to it is critical.

“We are actively exploiting all types of data science, whether that’s algorithms and feature engineering, machine learning, or other approaches: this is Sainsbury’s Tech.”

Turning data into insight is not only for customers of Sainsbury’s Tech; it also builds on one of the first things that attracted Jordan to the retail industry: the opportunity to differentiate, “by putting brilliant technology into the hands of brilliant people”. A unified capability & team “Sainsbury’s Tech is all about giving customers great experiences, ​leveraging data like a start-up but at a scale they can’t offer while fostering a culture of experimental curiosity,” says Jordan. Sainsbury’s Tech faces an obvious initial cultural challenge in amalgamating two divisions from Sainsbury’s and Argos that have different cultures.

“Rather than make anybody feel that we were merging or trying to assimilate one into the other, we thought it was really important that we created something different and new. So, we’ve taken the technology and IT teams out of all our retail brands and formed a capability-based organisation orchestrated around three distinct multi-brand product engineering functions… Digital; “Incorporating every piece of technology our customers can touch, whether that’s an instore self-checkout or the web, an app, or the E-commerce channel. We are putting all that together to make that as seamless, simplified and elegant for our customers as possible in our eco-system. Our Digital CTO is Tom Tang”.

Retail; “Bringing together all the technology capabilities used by our colleagues and partners in executing processes and decisions in the commercial, supply chain, logistics and retail functions of our businesses. Our Retail CTO is John Elliot.”

Corporate; “Focusing on all the technology capability required for our corporate functions that power an increasingly single and integrated business with the foundations and enablers of IT such as infrastructure and platform engineering. The Corporate CTO is Richard Newsome.”

Sainsbury’s Tech has also combined other key activities that span the brands; Service Operations; “We have put all our service operations together to leverage best practice, drive synergy and to ensure that we always show up consistently for customers. Martin Taylor is the Director of Service Operations.”

Technology Business Management; “We have created Technology Business Management as the glue between all elements of Sainsbury’s Tech and to drive the transformation, with a real focus on partners, programs, plans as well as the community and capabilities that are at the heart of our team. Antony Cromb is the Head of Technology Business Management. The vital areas of Data/Analytics and Information Security were previously transformed into multi-brand functions and form part of the Sainsbury’s Tech leadership team. These two areas are led respectively by: Data and Analytics; Chief Data and Analytics Officer (CDAO), Helen Hunter Information Security; Chief InfoSec Officer (CISO), Munawar Valiji.

Meet the Sainsbury’s Tech Leadership Team

Tom Tang, Digital CTO “Digital is customer facing and customer focused. If you look at our websites: Argos, Tu Clothing or Groceries Online; the mobile stores, or you look at the in-store tills, these things are by far the most customer-facing and impactful. In a nutshell, delivery of digital customer experiences is now within the digital technology remit. Supporting Clodagh Moriarty, our Group Chief Digital Officer, we are putting all our energy into a shift from delivering depth of the experience end-to-end, to a breadth of experience, that’s more customer focused and front facing: more centred on our thinking in the round about the Sainsbury’s customer whether they’re shopping at Argos, Habitat, Sainsbury’s or Sainsbury’s Bank. Our goal is to move from very brand specific customer journeys to a more rounded customer journey and experience across Sainsbury’s as a multi-brand, multi-channel retailer.”

John Elliot, Retail CTO “Sainsbury’s Tech is about us delivering the technology and the data that really helps us serve our customers in the best possible way. Customers increasingly want to shop with us whenever and however they need to. Technology really needs to be present and adaptive to our customer needs. Everyone in the Retail Tech CTO domain is focused on the magic of designing, ranging, sourcing, buying, distributing, delivering and presenting the volume of product we offer. For me, what’s really exciting is seeing how technology can help revolutionise this industry and make a contribution to the communities we serve, with digital and data capabilities.”

Richard Newsome, Corporate CTO “I’m accountable for the delivery of technical solutions through to a number of parts of the business that are absolutely at the centre of the way we’re structured going forward. For example, HR, finance, marketing, customer management centres, property and facilities. I think the real excitement about Sainsbury’s Tech, both for the business and for the colleagues who work for us, is to provide opportunities to deploy their technical skills across problems, which cross every one of our channels and brands. Whether that be putting technology in the hands of our customers, whether it’s putting great technology in the hands of our colleagues, whether it’s exploiting our fantastic data assets. Sainsbury’s Tech is a place where every colleague has the opportunity to make a purposeful contribution. If you take the rate of change in the technology sector and the rate of change in retail and put those two things together, you pretty well get constant change. The challenge for us is to make sure that we’re not just responding to that rate of change but are actually in the vanguard of enabling the company to move even more quickly towards a very digital multi-channel, multi-brand future.”

Martin Taylor, Director of Service Operations “It’s technology that is driving successful retailers. Our customers are enjoying services from us, whether they’re shopping in the store, or ordering online and then collecting in store, or receiving a delivery at home. Our tech impacts people’s homes and lives, so we are passionate about providing both the colleague and the customer the tools to fulfil their needs in the simplest and most convenient way.   Service Operations is exciting because it’s always on: 365 days a year, 24/7, and this underpins everything from our online services to our logistics systems that enable the lorries to go and replenish stores. We pride ourselves on anticipating, understanding and resolving anything that could disrupt our customer experience.”

Antony Cromb, Head of Technology Business Management “As we seek to develop world class, multi-brand capabilities, we know tremendously talented colleagues, with pockets of real genius, are constrained if they’re hard-wired to the brands. Prior to Sainsbury’s Tech, the brilliant solutions we delivered for customers were achieved despite, not because of, the way we were organised. Sainsbury’s Tech allows us to flexibly appoint our best people on the business’ top priorities and develop our people. My team sits at the centre of Sainsbury’s Tech, taking a view across the division, driving the transformation to create a brilliant tech team to help Sainsbury’s win. I’m accountable for division-wide supplier and software asset management; and the tech people agenda at large; planning and portfolio management; and the Technical Programme Management of our most complex, multi-team enabled outcomes.”

Helen Hunter, Chief Data Officer “Think for a second about the amount of data our business throws off, having the UK’s largest loyalty scheme, a really significant online operation, the 5th largest clothing business in the UK, a bank, hundreds of stores, thousands of colleagues, and millions of customers. My job is to catch and collate this data and turn it into information which is accessible for colleagues across the business; and then to explore creative ways to make that data serve our business differently; ultimately improving what we do for our customers. Sainsbury’s is an actively analytical culture. We’re constantly asking ourselves: how can we put our data to work to help us address the biggest opportunities we’ve got in the business? How can we use data to change the way we make decisions?”

And on being part of Sainsbury’s Tech rather than the functions you might usually find in an analytics and reporting team, Hunter says, “One of the most exciting things about being a data professional in these times is the fundamental disruption driven by cloud; the separation of storage and compute and what this means for our ability to manipulate data at scale. Being part of Sainsbury’s Tech is fabulous, because it means our data and machine learning engineers are part of a much bigger engineering community, and there’s so much more scope and breadth for those individuals to build T-shaped careers and really flourish in the high challenge, high support environment that exists within Sainsbury’s Tech.”

Munawar Valiji, Chief Information Security Officer: “Turning data into insight is all about creating an offer that makes our customers’ lives easier. We can only achieve this if we put their privacy and security at the heart of everything. The Sainsbury’s Tech Infosec team is a fantastic group of professionals; passionate security experts, technologists and data experts who have a common purpose and vision to get the job done. They want to be known for making a difference in a time where the industry is going through phenomenal changes.”

Partners

Partners play a critical and pivotal role in the creation and operation of Sainsbury’s Tech and the eco-system it operates within.

“What distinguishes partners from suppliers is,” according to Jordan, “that partners get to do the tough stuff with us. By nature, they’re multi-year, wide-ranging and complex relationships and have to be built on a strong foundation. Otherwise you tend to find it fractures really quickly.” “Partners like Snowflake are supporting us as we rebuild our data ecosystem in the cloud to get right at the heart of our strategy: of knowing our customers better than everybody else. “Telefónica O2, have been alongside Sainsbury’s for the past two years as it shifted its wide area networks, local area networks, WiFi and mobile through to Telefónica.

“AWS have been critical in helping Sainsbury’s deliver its ‘cloud first’ strategy with “real successes in moving many products and services to the cloud with fantastic performance, cost and resilience impact. “Partners like NCR are a long-standing collaborator with Sainsbury’s on front-of-store technology capabilities, such as tills and the SmartShop application. It is the collaboration and partnering with some of these major enterprises that has helped steer Sainsbury’s Tech. “We rely on TCS  for the global footprint and industrial strength in providing robust world class infrastructure and application operations. “Then there’s Accenture who continue to be at the heart of our application management and development plans in many parts of the business.

“In short, partners have a huge role to play in our continued success. And those that are prepared to commit to and invest in the relationship and the Sainsbury’s business, will find us willing to do likewise for them,” Jordan explains. The biggest challenge Making any changes while you continue to trade intensively is hard and the transformation from brand to capability at Sainsbury’s is significant.

“The operational intensity of serving millions of customers, filling shops every day and trading as one of the UK’s largest Digital Retailers in the most competitive retail markets in the world whilst driving a major structural change is a great challenge and one we are excited to take on as a leadership team,” Jordan explains. Sainsbury’s Tech officially went live this month although it was operating back in July.

“Now, we’re able to say, ‘We’re here! This is Sainsbury’s Tech.’ And more importantly than anything, we can start recruiting and encouraging talent to Sainsbury’s Tech,” Jordan enthuses. “I genuinely think, if you’re a technologist, retail is an unbelievable place to practise your trade. It’s where technology really is touched by everybody in the country and Sainsbury’s Tech is the power that will propel Sainsbury’s into the UK’s no.1 multi-brand retail business. It doesn’t get any better than this!”

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