“As New Channels Director, I led the development and launch of Asda.com, one of the first internet grocery propositions in the world”
To expand Asda’s grocery and general merchandise sales through low-cost non-store channels whilst maintaining a single seamless view of the customer relationship across different channels.
Asda, the £10bn turnover superstore operator, part of the Wal-Mart group of businesses, entered the home shopping market in 1999 by launching a product catalogue with some 2000 products available for purchase.
Iain Spence was engaged in summer of 2000 to lead the development of a truly multi-channel offering. At this time Asda had its trial home shopping system with telephone and CD ordering as noted above.
Its only web presence was a static corporate information site and Valuemad, the comparison pricing service. The Valuemad service was sold to Shopsmart in August 2000 (prior to the bursting of the pureplay dot.com bubble) making Asda a significant profit. The timeline below shows the key events in Asda becoming truly multi-channel:
Xpedior, a web development company, was engaged to develop the Asda web site, with Nucleus providing the creative designs. Design, code, test and deploy took a total of 6 months including both front-end development and back end integration. The basic steps we covered were:
What channels did we want to support, what did we want to get from them?
It was at this stage that we decided to create a seamless multi-channel offering covering web, interactive TV, telephone/catalogue. We had concerns over the future of the CD-Rom since cost of being online was decreasing, connections to the internet were getting faster and the advantages of working offline were therefore declining.
At this point we began the commercial negotiations with interactive TV operators and signed up to entry to the Open.. (now Sky Active) proprietary shopping system.
- Techniques for finding products (browsing shelves, searching, shopping by code etc)
- Mechanism for checkout
- Trolley mechanics – would it save the trolley contents? For how long?
- How would the delivery time booking system operate?
- Help system
- Account information
- Security controls
- Account registration …etc…
We selected the Broadvision Retail Commerce suite, or “toolkit” on which to build the application code. The rationale for this is merely that Wal-Mart, Asda’s parent, already owned a global licence and so the financial case was easy!
The architecture covered service level requirements, volumetrics (how many customers, online concurrency, numbers of picking locations, numbers of products etc), security, integration requirements and provided an architectural view on logical, physical and network levels.
We used site maps, storyboards, style guides, grey-line prototypes and full working prototypes to develop and communicate the user flow of the systems and the look and feel of the systems.
We also carried out usability testing using a combination of individual and group sessions, feeding back design change requirements in a rapid iterative fashion.
Development & Testing
Development was carried out by a number of partners, largely offsite. Iain’s role during this stage was to facilitate cross-partner working and manage the overall programme – planning, status management, issue & risk resolution, testing (system unit, integration, functional, performance and usability testing was carried out) etc.
After many months of late nights, we reached 5 November 2000 and the soft launch of Asda.com – both the front-end customer-facing system and the back-end content management, payment handling and related integration systems.
We deployed a team of developers on site in Arkansas, US to support the launch – since the hardware was implemented and supported from the US by Wal-Mart. The following days and weeks saw a rapid turnaround of bug fixes and tweaks, whilst we got feedback from “family and friends”, ready for a full public launch prior to Christmas.
Performance Update – Asda.com
My biggest learning from the full development cycle is this – the number one factor in web shopping site success is performance – by this I mean that the site must perform fast, securely and without crashing.
You can have a site that looks great, navigates intuitively and has fantastic content – but if it isn’t performant you’re customers will leave you. I know this to Asda’s cost! Despite our desire to add new functionality to the applications and make creative changes, our developer focus was therefore 100% on performance tuning over the first few months post-launch. Even after many releases, performance is still a huge challenge as it is for many .com retailers.
Deployment – Call Centre
In January 2001 we terminated the services of our 3rd party call centre operation and transfered the operation to a new in-house operation – a 60 seat centre using systems we developed using the above methodologies and technologies. This provided a significant financial benefit to the business as well as greater control over our service quality.
After a long, and often painful development phase, and a necessarily long soft launch phase, we finally launched our Sky Active service to the public in January 2002.
This is the most advanced interactive TV shopping application available in the UK today, delivering dynamic content via satellite and telephone to set-top boxes. Customer can order from over 10,000 products and delivery is available from over 30 stores.
The architecture we developed allows customers to shop on web, telephone or Sky using a single customer ID and PIN number. The trolley and account information are available real-time and seamlessly across all channels, so a customer could start an order on the web at work, finish it at home on Sky and then add an item on the phone on the way out in the evening. It also allows the extent of the customer relationship to be monitored and evaluated across channels, allowing Asda to provide great service to its customers.