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Russell & Bromley and MWC Partners: An Evolving and Enduring Partnership Case Study

25 May 2021

MWC Partners first started working with Russell & Bromley in 2013 to help the retailer resolve technical issues with their existing implementation of Retail-J. Since then, MWC Partners have worked on numerous IT initiatives and projects for Russell & Bromley, providing a wide range of consultancy, development and support services. This case study reviews how the partnership between the two companies has evolved and strengthened over the years as Russell & Bromley subsequently upgraded its in-store POS solution from Retail-J to Microsoft Dynamics 365, and then embarked upon a comprehensive refresh of their enterprise-wide IT infrastructure.

UK retailer Russell & Bromley has been synonymous with expert craftsmanship of fine leather goods since 1880. The brand’s sought-after handbags and shoes for men and women continue to be the definitive choice for the well-dressed, and the retailer takes pride in offering customers an engaging shopping experience with excellent customer service. With 35 UK stores, a rapidly growing online operation and its head office in Bromley, Russell & Bromley recorded total revenues in 2019 of more than £120 million.

First Engagement: Retail-J Stabilisation and Support

Russell & Bromley had deployed the Retail-J point of sale solution back in 2003, but ten years on, there was considerable frustration in the stores about the level of support being received from their existing provider and the fact that the product was no longer being updated.

Sue Graham is Russell & Bromley’s Head of IT and leads a team of 15 IT staff. She explains: “When MWC Partners were established in 2013 and started offering Retail-J professional services and support, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. We knew the team at MWC Partners and we were confident that they would be able to make a positive difference.”

In early 2014, MWC Partners were tasked with troubleshooting the software support issues that had beset the Russell & Bromley stores. As MWC Partners’ support team started to provide fixes, staff in the stores began to gain confidence in the system again. After a few weeks of focused effort, and with MWC Partners providing support on an ongoing basis, Russell & Bromley had the stable base they needed to keep going with Retail-J until a replacement POS solution could be found.

Development of New Applications

With support problems resolved, Russell & Bromley could now turn their attention to critical system enhancements that had remained unaddressed in previous years. Urgent requirements included a completely new customer loyalty application and live stock lookup functionality in the stores.

Sue consulted the team at MWC Partners about the best way to progress with these requirements: MWC Partners recommended developing stand-alone applications that could be fully integrated with Retail-J, as well as with any future replacement POS solution.

So MWC Partners proceeded to design, develop and integrate a new customer loyalty application to allocate and accumulate loyalty points to customer records based on transaction spend and purchase history; this was then followed by a stock look-up application to enable store staff to check stock availability in other stores.

Each of the solutions was relatively inexpensive and quick to develop, but once implemented, they provided Russell & Bromley with essential functionality, helping to ensure that Retail-J could remain a viable and cost-effective platform and thereby extending its useful life.

Sue Graham commented: “One of the things we like about MWC Partners is that they will often come up with simple solutions first, rather than try to sell us big projects.” She continued: “But if we select a solution from another provider, they’re OK with that. They’re happy to scale their solution and involvement to our requirements – from simply giving advice all the way through to delivering major projects.”

Independent Advice

In 2018, with many of its enterprise-wide systems coming to end of life, including the Retail-J POS, the AS/400 finance and head office system and some infrastructure systems, Russell & Bromley launched a major review of business processes and IT systems. Led by Sue and her team, the review was shaped by the idea that operational efficiencies would be gained if the business could shift its thinking away from a focus on applications to a focus on processes.

POS, finance and infrastructure systems were the first areas to be reviewed. Russell & Bromley sought independent advice and market feedback from MWC Partners about who they should approach as potential suppliers of new systems and then issued RFIs. Following a detailed evaluation process, Russell & Bromley shortlisted Microsoft Dynamics 365 as the proposed replacement enterprise-wide platform. This solution would provide a single integrated platform to replace POS, store and head office systems, and would embody Russell & Bromley’s new systems approach. But with an almost wholesale replacement of legacy applications envisaged, Sue wanted external advice and so she turned again to her trusted retail technology partner, MWC Partners.

“We find MWC Partners are a great sounding board”, Sue explained. “Their retail systems knowledge and experience are second to none and they know what’s happening in the retail technology industry. They see the bigger picture and can give an unbiased view. There’s a really high level of trust from the team here in their opinions.”

Optimising Store System Performance

The upcoming replacement of POS software also presented the ideal opportunity for Russell & Bromley to replace their legacy hardware which was performing poorly and prone to failure. Sue instructed MWC Partners to evaluate which tills were most likely to meet Russell & Bromley’s requirements in terms of size, aesthetics and performance, and MWC Partners presented a beauty parade of possible options to the Russell & Bromley retail team. Aures tills were eventually the agreed recommendation of both the Russell & Bromley retail team and of MWC Partners. MWC Partners managed procurement of all the tills from Aures and also secured a significant reduction in Russell & Bromley’s annual hardware maintenance costs.

As planned enhancements to Microsoft D365 in order to meet Russell & Bromley’s functional requirements were likely to delay the timing of the POS rollout, MWC Partners advised Russell & Bromley to proceed separately with the hardware rollout to gain the benefits of the faster and more reliable hardware platform. The approach that was agreed to minimise duplication of costs would see a stable build of Retail-J installed on the new Aures POS hardware as an interim measure, with a future disk swap-out planned to install Microsoft D365 at a later date.

Working at their test and build facility in Milton Keynes, MWC Partners’ system engineers built a gold load of Retail-J configured for the new Aures hardware, which was then loaded on to a buffer stock of POS devices ready for installation. MWC Partners’ engineers visited Russell & Bromley’s stores each night to install the hardware and initialise the system ready for trading the following day.

The new Aures hardware delivered immediate performance improvements, with far greater system availability and reliability, drastically reducing the overhead of system management and allowing store staff to focus on sales and customer service.

Sue recalled how impressed store staff had been with the rollout; “We kept hearing how professional, flexible and proactive MWC Partners’ engineers were, and how they understood the pressures of trading and the need to minimise disruption, and worked to roll out the new systems quickly and efficiently. It’s great to be able to rely on your partner knowing the result will be a job well done. They’re just so good at doing it – not just technically, but logistically too.”

Migrating Retail-J to Microsoft D365

With the new Aures hardware successfully installed in stores, and enhancements to Microsoft D365 delivered and tested, Russell & Bromley commissioned MWC Partners to start planning to migrate their POS system from Retail-J to Microsoft D365.

Upgrading enterprise systems depends on the successful migration of operational data, and so MWC Partners commenced by conducting a detailed mapping exercise between the old Retail-J solution and Microsoft D365.

MWC Partners advised Russell & Bromley to retain the Retail-J Estate Manager during the migration period so that a mixed estate of both Retail-J and Microsoft D365 POS could run simultaneously during a two-month transition. This approach, utilising Retail-J’s pre-existing integration with the AS/400 head office and finance system, would avoid the need to develop direct interfaces from Microsoft D365 POS into the soon-to-be replaced AS/400 system. It also had the advantage that the new systems could be piloted in a contained environment so that issues could be resolved before rolling out to the whole estate.

MWC Partners developed reciprocal interfaces between the Microsoft D365 server and Retail-J Estate Manager, so that all transaction data from both POS systems would be processed by the Retail-J Estate Manager. Product, price, inventory and customer data generated in Russell & Bromley’s AS/400 head office and finance system continued to be passed to the Retail-J Estate Manager to then populate Microsoft’s D365’s database. In the final phase of the migration, the link through the Retail-J Estate Manager was removed and direct interfaces implemented between Microsoft D365 and the head office AX system.

Sue Graham again: “It’s been an interesting journey, especially getting to grips with Microsoft D365, which is so vast but also so interconnected. If we change one thing in finance, that ripples all the way through the system. So we often consult with MWC Partners for their advice and to validate our approach.”

Payment Software

As part of the store systems change programme, Russell & Bromley also commissioned MWC Partners to run an evaluation process to help select new payment software. Working with Sue and her team, MWC Partners wrote an RFP and received bids from five leading payment service providers (‘PSPs’). Following a shortlisting process and presentations, Adyen were selected as the preferred provider.

At the time of the Microsoft D365 rollout, there was no existing integration between Adyen and Microsoft D365 POS, so Sue asked MWC Partners if they could develop an Adyen-Microsoft D365 payment connector as an interim solution. With previous experience of working with Adyen and with the benefit of a specialist payment connector development team, MWC Partners were able to leverage this knowledge to develop a new bespoke payment connector, ensuring that Russell & Bromley could go live with their chosen PSP.

The payment integration worked well for two years, but once Microsoft had developed its own D365-Adyen payment connector, MWC Partners suggested that it would be better for Russell & Bromley to implement Microsoft’s own Adyen connector to reduce the need for testing of the MWC Partners payment connector with each new release of Microsoft D365, and also to avoid the associated costs.

Systems Integration

A number of discrete, independent applications and systems also had to be adapted to the new Microsoft D365 environment. As part of Russell & Bromley’s migration to the new platform, MWC Partners successfully ported several of the applications they had previously developed for Retail-J, including customer loyalty and click and collect. They also implemented eSecure Systems Protect, a host intrusion protection solution originally installed to help Retail-J achieve PCI DSS compliance, alongside the new Microsoft D365 POS.

Another area requiring close attention was Russell & Bromley’s gift card scheme. MWC Partners needed to interface Russell & Bromley’s gift card balances, generated by Retail-J, to Microsoft D365. The integration included managing changes to the balances, such as redemptions, top-ups, new cards etc., while the two systems ran side-by-side, to prevent the potential for fraud. With the migration to Microsoft D365 now complete, the interfaces are no longer required.

Work still continues as Russell & Bromley looks to move forward with new functionality: together with MWC Partners, they are now looking at implementing the Givex gift card solution, which is supported by Adyen and which can be used as a payment method in stores and online.

Reflecting on the relationship, Sue said; “If I were to characterise MWC Partners, I would say that they can hold the hands of those who need it. They’re system integration enablers. They can say to clients; ‘You’ve got this new system, but you’ve still got this legacy stuff. We can help you get from where you are to where you want to be, and it won’t cost the earth.’”

“MWC Partners will absolutely be part of our future plans. Seventy-five percent of our satisfaction with MWC Partners is that the job gets done, but it’s the planning, the project management, the communication – it’s really good. It’s the whole thing. I can’t find fault with them. I really do feel that working with them is partnership. We get a lot out of it and I hope they do too.”

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