How New Look is getting its senior execs on board with Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality

New Look is quickening efforts to put digital at the heart of its business, starting a five-year plan to futureproof itself for innovations in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

But before it starts its digital drive the retailer is making sure its senior execs are all singing from the same hymn sheet on what the future might look like and how it's going to get there. It’s a move indicative of New Look’s wariness of diving feet first into areas that could have no real bearing on its future value.

It’s for this reason it has hired digital agency TH_NK, which after beating the likes of Deloitte and Accenture to work with New Look, will act as a management consultant to help the retailer identify the right digital innovations for its commercial model.

Historically, New Look has been good at anticipating where it’s business needs to be and getting there on time. It benefitted from establishing an e-commerce offering early and was quick to market with mobile in comparison to its rivals.

However, speaking to The Drum, Jack Smith, digital director at New Look described its tie-up with its new agency as “resetting” to get a view of what its next big money bets need to be.

“The reality we know is that we’re operating in a disruptive environment and the world is changing around us rapidly and we went to market organisations to help us understand what that future context looks. We didn’t want to fall into the trap, like a lot of organisations do, of jumping on the next bandwagon and that bandwagon never materialising,” he said.

Brands have been making similar moves in recent years, with the likes of John Lewis setting up and internal innovation lab to introduce tech like beacons or River Island's recent partnership with a start-up accelerator to get to grips with the trends shaping the market.

However, as Smith explained, 'labs' of this ilk are often reactionary, focused on how to make something that will quickly respond to a new trend or incorporate a new piece of tech rather than shifting the course of the entire business. “What I’m keen to do is, before we start responding, is to make sure we know what the questions are that we’re trying to answer,” he said.

So ‘Future Framing’, as TH_NK has dubbed it, is about taking one step back and making sure New Look’s global executive team are all in agreement about where attentions should be focused in the longer term.

The process for getting there is relatively simple; TH_NK will conduct individual interviews with New Look’s entire board to create a pool of insights on the changes they have seen as well as visions for the future. Following those interviews, and combined with the agency’s own knowledge of the market, it will bring together a panel of third party experts each specialising in key trends identified as likely to impact the business. This group of experts along with the New Look board will then regularly meet to establish a consensus on the likelihood of these trends becoming become a reality and ultimately set a manifesto for the business’ future.

“We can concentrate our efforts on certain areas rather than give ourselves a million and one different things that we could be doing,” said Smith, adding that artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality are both topics already expected to be raised.

AI is particularly interesting for retailers, like New Look, which have been relatively good at harnessing data for personalisation - but the application tends to start and stop with emails. The difficulty in using this data to personalsie all consumer touchpoints - on and offline - is the dependency on humans to segment audiences and figure out how and what to serve each one. The opportunity with AI is to use machine learning to build out what marketers have long talked about – a single customer view.

TH_NK founder and chief executive Tarek Nseir added that if AI is an avenue explored, then New Look’s panel of industry experts could potentially include people from IBM’s Watson (leaders in the AI field) which could conceivably lead to partnerships further down the line.

“But we are some way from this,” said Smith. “It will take us a degree of time to get from 'this is the future context' to 'this is a robust plan' of how we want to start approaching this and getting into delivery mode.”

Jennifer Faull

The Drum senior reporter Jen Faull provides news and insight on the latest developments in retail and FMCG.

All by Jennifer