It’s no secret that retail runs on data. But as brands fight for market share in the critical Golden Quarter, predictability is this year’s most critical focus. We caught up with River Island’s CIO, Adam Warne, to discover how the retailer uses data to overcome adversity—and drive sustainability. 

A familiar name on UK highstreets, fashion retailer River Island boasts 250 stores and a significant online presence, and more recently, has extended its reach into North America through partner brands. 

But ever since its humble beginnings in a London market in 1948, River Island has dealt with significant economic and social change—not least today where the impacts of COVID-19, global recession, energy prices, and political instability have put significant pressure on its operations.

For consumers, these pressures mean many have less disposable income to spend and are making fewer impulse purchases. And as the critical Golden Quarter—that includes Black Friday and the December holidays—approaches, more retailers than ever are changing tact to gain a greater market share and acquire customers with a lower entry bar. 

Managing disruption and customer expectations through data

As Adam Warne, CIO at River Island explained, how retailers deal with disruption can be the difference between winning and losing: “As a business, we need to respond to different challenges more than ever—we can’t create plans we’re not willing to change. In fact, if we stick to our plans, it probably means we’re doing something wrong. Agility is built into our DNA.” 

Managing supply chain disruption in particular is often something that impacts retailers more during peak trading, where the name of the game for River Island is trying to predict demand while under promising and over delivering to the customer. “Predicting demand is really difficult,” said Warne. “With 250 stores, it’s not just about shipping products to customers, we also need to ensure we’ve got the right products in the right stores at the right time. There’s a lot of data and analytics powering stock level decisions behind the scenes.” 

A relentless focus on sustainability in the face of operational challenges

While River Island faces significant challenges in the months and years ahead, sustainability and corporate responsibility always come first. It’s why responding quickly to trends is a critical capability according to Warne: “We have a responsibility to ensure our supply chains are completely transparent. We know where all our raw materials and products come from. And we have a dedicated sustainability team using specialist systems to ensure we capture all that data—including information to reduce carbon emissions.” 

Optimizing operations through the power of data

Like most organizations, River Island sits on more data than ever before. But after operating through unpredictable events, understanding the quality of that data can be a significant challenge—particularly when it’s relied on to make critical decisions. 

It’s why the retailer is now ingesting more external data sources to build predictive models powered by machine learning. The move has already proved its worth for River Island, unearthing insights it could never have predicted using traditional methods. 

For example, Warne and his team analyzed customer footfall during the summer heat wave. What they found was rather than people opting for open spaces, many actively sought out shops—particularly in covered shopping centers—to escape rising temperatures. This information then fed into the retailer’s stock and staff planning, helping it deal with unexpected demand more effectively.

It’s these kinds of insights that give River Island the confidence to experiment with data in new and exciting ways. One trial involves radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, where each product has a unique reference number that can be recognized in its new stores’ “smart” changing rooms. Once scanned, customers not only have access to the same product information they’d get online, but River Island also gleans product performance insights, such as whether a product was tried on but not purchased or certain sizes regularly get swapped out. This e-commerce-style analysis in store helps influence investment decisions and even shop layout design. 

Pushing retail’s boundaries with Snowflake’s Retail Data Cloud 

By integrating multiple data sources, including external inputs with contextual relationships, River Island uses Snowflake’s Retail Data Cloud to enable its people to ask the right questions. “Snowflake’s Retail Data Cloud is creating a movement in the business around data intuitiveness,” said Warne. “It’s driving the challenger mindset where people are inquisitive—Snowflake allows us to do that.” 

“Snowflake is the center of our data strategy. We’ve a product in Snowflake that achieves all the things we need to do as a retailer. One of the big advantages is having all our data in a single place. It means we don’t have to pull data from different locations using several tools to get insights—it saves us time and money,” added Warne. 

Many of River Island’s partners also use Snowflake’s Retail Data Cloud to pool countless data sources into a single repository, supporting the retailer’s drive for speed to insight. Moreover, River Island takes an “extract, load, then transform” approach to its data, meaning data arrives on the platform faster, improving the retailer’s flexibility. 

“Retail is moving into the world of composable commerce—using the best technology for our needs, right when we need it,” said Warne. “If a certain technology is no longer fit for purpose, we want to swap it out quickly. The way Snowflake is architected means River Island can operate in that way with agility.” 

“The scalability of Snowflake’s platform has been built in from day one. Capacity and throughput at peak times aren’t something we worry about. We don’t performance test Snowflake because we’ve never had performance issues. It’s a very reliable tool that supports an exciting data strategy,” added Warne. 

Looking to the future: Delivering greater customer value through personalization

Like any leading retailer, River Island is always looking for new ways to differentiate its brand in a competitive market. Warne believes the next big trend will be offering customers greater personalization and time-saving innovations in exchange for more data. 

“People are interested in being rewarded with more personalized content in exchange for dealing with you as a brand in an identifiable way,” said Warne. “Data is at the core of powering these experiences. As a retailer with a fantastic product range that appeals to a broad customer base, we’re venturing into value-driving use cases for personalization.”