Q&A with John Lewis

Ahead of Retail Bulletin’s AI in Retail Conference in October, I catch up with speaker Christina Garratt, automation programme leader at John Lewis, to find out more about how JLP are using technology automation to improve productivity and the customer experience.

Retail Interview

Christina Garratt
Partner & Automation Programme Lead
John Lewis & Partners

Christina joined the John Lewis Partnership as a graduate on a 3-year technology scheme and is about to celebrate her 25th anniversary.  Over the years, Christina has worked on a wide range of projects within IT and is now focussed on automation from a productivity perspective.

What projects are you working on within technology automation?
Here at John Lewis & Partners (JLP), we use technology to support improving and personalising both the customer and Partner experience. Some of the automation projects that we are working on include Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Natural Language Processing (NLP) using Machine Learning (ML) and online Chatbots, a feature of artificial intelligence (AI).

Can you tell us more about how you are using Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Think of RPA as software robotics, emulating human interaction with applications and systems. By using RPA you can cut out a lot of manual, often mundane tasks. I’m a strong advocate for using technology as an enabler to increase our efficiency and lift some of the burdens of laborious, repetitive work. HR services is a great example of where RPA can be used. You can manage workflows with automated and structured business processes which in turn increases productivity. It’s a good fit for filling in forms, capturing data or updating and processing requests.  As retailers go, we are quite mature in the RPA space, with several sophisticated automation projects live within our contact centres.

Retail is a human-driven industry where technology is an amplifier, not a replacement. What RPA offers is the opportunity to increased productivity and reduced operational costs to invest in our Partners who help make shopping fun or exciting. Our Partners are the connective tissue in the retail experience.

What about the cognitive side of process automation?
We are using NLP, driven by machine learning for interpreting text within emails.  By running intelligent routing to triage our customer enquiries, we have been able to reduce response times and positively improve the customer experience.  We are also in the early stages of using NLP for voice. AI models have come a long way. It’s become commoditised making the tech more accessible and faster to apply. Being agile has allowed us to roll out more quickly, test, learn and adapt

How are you using Chatbots?
Chatbots were something we were keen to trial at John Lewis. Initially, we are using chatbots to route customer service enquiries to quickly connect our customers to the right person or service. These projects are not simply about driving cost efficiencies but providing customers with a better, more personalised, experience and enhancing our service to them.

Do you have any advice for retailers looking at Artificial intelligence and Automation?
As retailers roll out new technologies, one area they really need to think about is the longer-term management of operations. Post-launch, live processes within these projects need a continual level of upkeep.  With NLP for example, the language will change from season to season and with the addition of new products. Your model will need to be refreshed, updated and re-trained which means investing in processes and people to keep it constantly tuned. My advice? You need to go into these projects with your eyes wide open and with a long term plan in mind.

What do you love about working in Retail?
It’s exciting to be a part of the transformation of technology within retail. As a consumer myself, the projects that I work on are easy to relate to and contextualise. I’m a ‘natural geek’ and love new gadgets, innovation and technology. I’ve been very fortunate in my career at JLP to have worked across multiple systems, departments and projects. As a result, I am constantly learning, which of course makes the job completely rewarding.