Aamir Ahmad, managing director, furniture designer and data guru at interiors chain Dwell, explains how the firm’s focus on maintaining a single customer view has been key to its growth.
MW: You are the managing director at Dwell but you also built the brand’s data systems and even design products. Can you explain?
Aamir Ahmad (AA): I am a very odd mix. I have an IT degree and then worked as a management consultant, but then I went into fashion and started my own business.
Before Dwell, I had an eye for selecting products but this is the first time I’ve been designing products from scratch. I approve every sample and design before it reaches stores. When I was about 13, I redid my family house and redecorated it goodness knows what my parents thought.
Then the geeky side of me took over for a while and now I’ve managed to merge the two sides. I programmed half of our data system. To start with, we stumbled a little but generally I think we were ahead [of other retailers in terms of thinking about multichannel retail].
When we launched, nearly eight years ago, we had one store, the website and a catalogue. We developed the whole system ourselves and were truly multichannel from day one, so we had one customer database, one product file and one stock file.
If you placed the order on the internet store, by phone or through the catalogue, we captured it and you were treated as one customer.
MW: How is data now managed at Dwell?
AA: We now have four developers working full time on the systems, but I specify everything. For us, IT systems are a reflection of how the overall business works. Before you decide what you are going to do in terms of your web platform or mobile commerce, you’ve got to make sure that works with your business plan.
So it isn’t about buying a data solution and bolting it on because these systems will determine how we run our company. That is the part I am still involved in. I don’t sit down and write code any more but I still like to go in and check the database.
MW: How do you use customer data to inform new store openings?
AA: The Dwell website and e-commerce business is obviously nationwide. We have a huge number of people who go on the site and either don’t buy at all or purchase something small, and who are in parts of the country where we don’t have stores.
So we look at the database, investigate where we have customers and that helps us decide where to put a store. When we open a store, we might have 20,000 to 30,000 people within an hour’s drive who have browsed or bought something small online. Then when we tell them we are launching a store in their area, the shop opens with a bang.
Our Bluewater Shopping Centre store doubled its budgeted [takings] in the first four weeks after opening because there was a store people could go to that they hadn’t visited before. Previously, the closest store to Bluewater was on Tottenham Court Road in central London.
Almost all our stores pay back quickly within six to nine months. Bluewater paid for itself within about two months. That was because of the marketing we put behind it, through the database and the email and web campaigns we had going at the same time.
MW: How do you encourage staff to think about your business as multichannel?
AA: The success of the Bluewater opening came from being able to integrate e-commerce with the retail part of the business, so internally a lot of this is about corporate culture. Often, the e-commerce guys and the retail guys don’t really like each other, but we are incredibly integrated.
We have perhaps 90,000 visitors a week to our website. Maybe about 1,000 or 2,000 live near Bluewater and will come and look at the store.
We have live stock [listings available online] in all our stores. As soon as a display model goes into a store, the data is updated and is live. We feed that into our [customer-facing] website, which is another skin for the same [internal] database. If you click on a product, it will list stores where it is on display. It is a subtle thing, but very powerful in terms of getting people into stores.
If someone abandons a basket on the website, we will keep it as a quote, and if they go into a store, the salesperson can pull the basket back up again if need be. If you don’t treat online and the in-store business as separate channels but instead say “we want to work together”, they will cross-fertilise.
MW: Do your back-end systems also integrate well so you can manage the brand across both physical and digital channels?
AA: Yes. A lot of retailers might have difficulty when their website doesn’t speak to their point-of-sale system. But if someone goes into our stores having placed an order online two minutes ago and they want to add something, our staff can see that and can change it for them.
Trying to map a customer’s journey through the different channels is something we have done from day one. So people will have done some research online, they will order a catalogue or go into a store. They may then get a quote and later ring the same salesperson with another question. You have to capture that process.
I can see when I’ve paid Google for a pay-per-click campaign that resulted in a sale in store; we track that all the way through. We are lucky because we started doing that from day one, so we have no legacy system to deal with. Data marketing is core to us; that is what we are about.
MW: How are you integrating mobile commerce into this strategy?
AA: We recently launched an updated m-commerce platform. When people go to the checkout page of the mobile site, they can have the contents of their basket emailed to them. It also provides a basket number that someone can look up in-store.
So customers will be able to go around the physical shop with their phone adding items and then go to a till for processing we have free wi-fi in store. So if they don’t want to buy everything via mobile phone, they can save the shopping basket and the sales staff can bring it up.
About 15% of our web browsing comes through mobiles and that seems to be growing nine months ago it was about 10%. A lot of people will mix and match [mobile, desktop and in-store] until they close a sale.
Customers can also save their basket on a smartphone, then phone up and confirm the order. We still get quite a lot of people who like to speak to someone before they hand over the cash, for example if they want to check delivery times.
MW: How does data fit in with the rest of Dwell’s marketing mix?
AA: The biggest amount of spend goes to direct mail, because that is expensive, whereas email is more or less free. Then comes press advertising, then pay per click. That isn’t necessarily a function of where the revenue comes in because of the cost of it. Our search campaigns are going well and we are generating a lot more sales for a bit more spend on search engine optimisation.
Email and search marketing are core to the business but there is only so much you can do. You have to focus your spend and look at each return separately. Almost all our marketing is cash generative, so we don’t have a problem in terms of saying ’shall we do it or not?’.
It is the mix that is important, since different people respond to different things, whether that is a catalogue landing on the doormat, an email or a text.
MW: You are very interested in data. Do you think chief executives generally understand their company’s IT systems?
AA: It is a challenge for a lot of chief executives to see that there is another skill they need to gain [to understand their data systems], but really, being a CEO is about having multiple skill-sets and being able to comprehend all aspects of your business. Typically, IT has been a black hole, however. Someone might ask for £1m to buy an IT system, but the CEO would not know how it works.
I think chief executives should know about the structure of their database and how it is managed. When an order comes through, people should know how the IT systems work, in the same way they would understand the structure of a balance sheet.
Furniture store Dwell was founded in 2003 by entrepreneur Aamir Ahmad, with one store in London’s Balham, offering “super-modern furniture but not at crazy prices”.
It now has 23 shops and on 13 September it opened its latest at Westfield Stratford, the shopping centre next to the Olympic Park in London.
Funded originally using £150,000 of his and his father’s cash, the plan is now to expand to 60 to 80 stores, although Ahmad can’t confirm a timescale for this.
Dwell secured private equity funding in April for this expansion. Ahmad says the new stores will be a mix of sizes and will appear on the high street as well as in bigger out-of-town locations.