Examining Mr Price Group’s search to modernize

For modern CIOs, it’s essential to have a healthy balance between innovation and mainstream tech, says Kim Sim, Mr Price Group CIO. So she needs to keep tabs on the spectacular rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and its use cases, while also monitoring developments across topics that have been around for years, like big data, RFID and cybersecurity.

This ability to maintain perspective of two different worlds is critical for Sim, who inherited a highly complex legacy environment and is currently in the process of modernizing these systems.

“It’s the basic, non-sexy ‘just has to happen’ kind of stuff,” she says. “Even though this is keeping me busy, I can’t afford to not deliver when it comes to innovation and delivering on what the business’ wants and needs are.” So she’s trying to not create unwieldy technical debt while also testing out and launching new offerings.

She admits it’s often about finding symmetry between what the business wants, and what she and her team need to do to provide business architecture that’s sustainable, secure, and flexible now and into the future.

“If, in theory, we decide to expand into a different category tomorrow, we want to create an environment where we’re able to easily cater for this,” she says. “Sometimes this means putting energy and work into things that the business hasn’t necessarily asked for or that they don’t understand.”

Of e-commerce and chatbots

Two very different types of initiatives have kept Sim particularly busy in recent years. The first isn’t about emerging tech, but modernizing the business and knowing the customer.

During the pandemic, Sim and her team launched an e-commerce platform for one of their retail brands, a women’s clothing store called Miladys. The brand didn’t have any e-commerce presence before, which meant they couldn’t operate when the world went into lockdown.

“We know that the Miladys customer is more conservative, so even when restrictions eased, they were hesitant to head back into the store,” she says. So the problem they were trying to solve was finding a way to boost sales in a way that made their customers feel safe and comfortable.

Acknowledging they had to bring something to market quite quickly, the online offering had to remain “vanilla.”

“The solution we have running for the rest of the business is far more complicated but for this project, we just wanted to give them a ticket to the game,” she says. This isn’t to say the execution process was simple, however. According to Sim, building an ecommerce offering from scratch meant doing things like capturing imagery and writing product descriptions for every product, choosing a suitable approach to order fulfilment, and training in-store staff to do things they’d never done before.

“It was such a nice project in that we landed something in a very short space of time,” she says. “We were incredibly agile, made decisions quickly, had support from the top, and everybody bought into what we were trying to achieve. It was incredibly successful. Even with the cost to set this up, they were profitable in a very short space of time.” And the brand managed to maintain their customer service standards even though they were changing their ways of working.

“Even today, if you visit the Miladys website and add items to your basket but don’t check out, you’ll get a phone call asking if you need any assistance with the checkout process,” Sim adds.

The second project leverages natural language processing (NLP) enabled chatbots to digitize customer experience around some of their financial services products. Freshbots, a chatbot platform developed by customer engagement software company, Freshworks, was deployed to help the group understand and interpret customer queries, provide support, and automate routine tasks. In action, these chatbots make it simpler for customers to apply for credit, submit insurance claims, update personal and account details, and request the necessary authorization number required for a replacement card, all without ever having to speak to someone. This project was intended to reduce the workload on their customer service teams. “When customers no longer have to visit physical branches or complete lengthy paperwork, we up the efficiency of our teams and increase customer satisfaction, which is a win-win for everyone,” she says.

Back to basics

As part of this modernization journey, Sim has spent a lot of time trying to manage what the business used to be able to do and what they can do now.

“When you work with a business that’s used to legacy, you can go to the developer, as the user, and say exactly what you want,” Sim says. “They can develop things without limitations. But if you want something to be scalable and secure, you’ve got to go for a platform solution. Our strategy is all about going with off-the-shelf SaaS solutions and, as soon as you do this, there are going to be limitations, and you’ll have a lot less flexibility because you can’t break the foundations.”

This demands a massive expectation shift and a lot of change management because people could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted in the past but now that isn’t possible—at least not at the moment.

“Before you can do a lot of the more innovative stuff, you’ve got to have the foundations in place and, unfortunately, getting the foundations in place doesn’t excite anyone,” she says. “This can be a difficult reality for the business to swallow because you’re spending a lot of time and money on something that doesn’t tangibly change their day. But when you look at it from a strategic perspective, and when you look at it with a long-term vision in place, you can only get faster when the basics are in place.”

So in order to make sure that the business understands why she’s doing what she’s doing, for Sim, it comes down to managing expectations and presenting the long-term strategy so everyone can see the path, goal, and how much time it’ll take to get there. And while she might have peoples’ hands full replatforming the business, she knows she can’t keep saying no to everything else.

“We don’t have the luxury of telling the business to park all their ideas for the next five years and not ask us for anything until we’re ready to tackle new requests,” she says. “This is why I keep saying it’s like living in parallel. We have to prioritize the modernization journey while still allowing a healthy level of new product and feature deployment, as well as agility and innovation to make it happen.”

Change Management, CIO, E-commerce Services, Emerging Technology, IT Leadership