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River Island moving IT ‘out of the back room’ with tech hub collaboration

River Island has joined start-up accelerator programme, TrueStart, to expose itself to more innovation and technology in the retail space as part of a wider charge to move IT “out of the backroom” of the company.

Speaking to The Drum, chief information officer Doug Gardner explained the role of IT at River Island has changed over the past 12 months, with his team now working more closely with the e-commerce and marketing sides of the business.

He explained the partnership with TrueStart is the next phase of this, and will see him collaborate with entrepreneurs to bring to fresh ideas to River Island's in-store experience.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to bring in new talent, move away from traditional IT and refocus to really bolster and support the in-store environment. This is a real opportunity to try and attract talent to try and rebuild [the IT] team,” he said.

Gardner will offer active mentorship and guidance to start-ups during the six-month accelerator programme in exchange for “pre-emptive, sustainable access” to new ideas as the fashion chain looks to become a “leader” in retail innovation.

“We’ve looked at a number of accelerators and innovation companies over the years but with TrueStart we’ve seen that they are really retail focused and the quality of talent we see so far made it stand out from the rest,” he added.

Start-ups to have already gone through the process include wearable tech company The Unseen and in-store retail analytics start-up Presence Orb.

While Gardner said it was too early to pinpoint specific technologies it might implement, he explained the customer base is already “very mobile orientated” so it will back ideas that make the brand more appealing and easier to engage with in-store.

“We’re seeking out technology, people and ideas in that space,” he said, adding beacons, wi-fi and enabling in-store staff with devices are just some of the areas already being explored.

River Island follows the likes of Argos, John Lewis and Tesco which have all launched their own innovation arms to try and get ahead or the curve and understand how new technologies can work for their brands.

Gardner has not ruled out the possibility of establishing an in-house tech hub, but said there is a danger that by doing so it would “create a bubble” where ideas are at risk of going stale.

“We want to engage with creative third parties so that we keep the ideas fresh. We want to avoid trying to create too much of a bubble in a company where we might use the word innovation but the ideas might become stale. TrueStart will help us keep a pulse on what is going on.”

TrueStart has dubbed the group of retail-focused start-ups 'The Collection' with applications to join open until 22 February.

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is deputy news editor at The Drum with a remit to cover the latest developments in the retail and FMCG sectors. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

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