In June 2009, women's fashion start-up Mint Velvet engaged Retail Assist as its outsourced IT partner. Mint Velvet's exacting brief was that all IT systems, software/hardware, infrastructure and communications had to be fully operational for go-live on 1st October so the retailer could run a fully multi-channel business from day one. Retail Assist was tasked with delivering a fully operational infrastructure from scratch, across the head office, logistics hub in Milton Keynes, two solus stores, and 14 House of Fraser concessions.
Business challenge tight commercial deadlines
Explains Mint Velvet's Commercial Director, Stuart Grant: "If our deadline had been missed, it would have been impossible to trade in House of Fraser stores. Failure, just being a little late, wasn't an option. We'd have had to defer launch until Jan/Feb, losing up to six months' trading."
As a start-up, Mint Velvet was simultaneously locating and hiring new personnel at multiple levels, working on design and merchandising of new ranges, establishing key channels and choosing sites. Limited availability of senior personnel meant that empowerment of the project team, led by Retail Assist, was critical.
Stuart Grant observes: "Retail Assist led the whole project. They were the specialists with a proven record, so we outsourced to them. In terms of project governance, we set clear requirements and agreed the process. Retail Assist was then empowered to take it all forward."
The process rapidly planning the optimum solution
First, Retail Assist recommended systems flexible enough for all requirements, including head office and warehouse, systems integration across the supply chain with e-commerce, store systems and 14 concessions.
The optimum mix of software and applications was identified to meet all business, retail and operational criteria:
Merret for merchandising management, supply chain, warehousing integrated with partner solution Infinity PoS
Implementation and design by BT Fresca of FrescaCommerce Express e-commerce platform, with proven stability and ease of integration between Merret/Fresca to share product/pricing information, pass sales data back to Merret, and send fulfilment data to the logistics centre
Remote access solution from Cisco for staff to access services via laptops
MS head office infrastructure including Exchange, file and print, and Outlook Web Access
Remote management of web site usage, mail scanning, verification
Warehouse physical setup, creating a working office space, implementing RF network
Mint Velvet Non-Executive Director, Chris Inman, comments: "We started with a blank sheet and met Retail Assist. From then, we'd established the merchandising system by taking Merret 'out-of-the-box' and we'd set up head office systems, in just six weeks. Incredible."
The solution and new business - starts to take shape
Retail Assist managed solus store openings and designed and delivered extensive support services including:
1st line support - dedicated Service Desk
2nd line support for Infinity PoS via the expert Store Systems team
2nd line Merret support via a dedicated Applications team
3rd line support for software and applications
Operational support for all devices including the head office server infrastructure
The project is delivered - on time and under budget
Despite the pressure and the scale of the undertaking, the team delivered - on time and for 17% less than the original budget a powerful, scalable, multi-channel merchandising system and fully transactional website, founded on a robust end-to-end retail IT and communications infrastructure.
Implementation was phased:
Head office/distribution hub (end-to-end merchandising and supply chain system) from July-August including build/configuration of the IBM System i hardware
Website/e-commerce, integration with Merret/fulfilment by end September
Integration with POS, all systems ready in stores/concessions by 1st October
Comments Stuart Grant: "In terms of timescales, this is the sort of project you'd be lucky to complete in nine months. By approaching things in the way we did, we completed it in three months. We weren't just talking about a few stores: this was a fully operational business, including warehousing, head office, all infrastructure, all e-commerce. What really set the project apart was the aggressive pace at which things had to happen. Working with Retail Assist and using Merret made that possible."
Trading exceeds expectations
Mint Velvet's first three months' trading exceeded expectations and the company rapidly expanded, with Retail Assist project managing further implementations. The systems accommodated a second wave of openings in Spring that doubled the size of the business (20 additional House of Fraser concessions, three concessions in Fenwick, an outlet in an independent store). One year on, Mint Velvet was able to impress the industry by reporting sales in excess of 10m. Autumn/Winter saw Mint Velvet trading in 62 outlets after expanding into John Lewis in the UK and Menarys and Arnotts in Ireland. The existing IT infrastructure made this growth seamless across the varied solus, concession and shop in shop trading formats.
Partnership recognised by industry awards
The exceptional nature of the Mint Velvet launch meant that both they and Retail Assist quickly gained industry recognition. The partnership was awarded 'Project Implementation of the Year' at the annual Retail Week Technology Awards, and was shortlisted in the 'IT Project of the Year' category at the Retail Systems Awards.
Mint Velvet had only 3 months to prepare for market launch, to exploit a critical House of Fraser partnership, open solus stores, and launch an e-commerce site, all in time for the Autumn/Winter season
All IT systems, software/hardware, infrastructure and communications had to be operational for a 1st October go-live, so the retailer could run a multi-channel business from day one.
Retail Assist recommended delivering business-critical IT as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) managed solution.
The partnership delivered a complete solution in three months and under budget, to support both the initial market launch and a growing business.
Retail processes, infrastructure, equipment and support with integrated merchandising, supply chain, warehousing, store POS, e-commerce and fulfilment were all catered for.
Mint Velvet launched successfully, emerging as a credible, fully formed, fully operational retailer.
The solution allowed Mint Velvet to easily open second and third waves of stores. With a platform scalable for growth, no radical changes were needed.
One year on, Mint Velvet is an inspiration for new retailers. Already an award-winning business, sales will top 10m in its first full trading year.