Halfords currently have 465 stores, 400 autocentres and 80 vans in the UK and Ireland, with over 10,000 employees. They sell car and bike equipment, and offer all associated products, support and services, from repairs and MOTs to insurance.
Just before the pandemic, Halfords had completed a crucial stage in their ongoing digital transformation—the launch of a new website.
Eighteen months ago Halfords launched their new internal strategy: to inspire and support a lifetime love of motoring and cycling in their customers. They wanted to do this by bringing the different parts of their business together through a seamless digital experience.
But that’s easier said than done. We spoke to Halfords’ Group IT Director, Neil Holden, about their digital transformation journey, the impact of Covid-19, and where they are today as a result.
“Before we embarked on this programme we had separate websites for separate businesses—for garages, retail and performance cycling. The first challenge was to bring our garage services business and our retail product business together through halfords.com, a single platform that would then curate products and services in the right way for customers.”
And that brought up many challenges: “The mechanics of it—back-end reconciliation of mixed baskets, shared baskets, things like order number and formats for the different businesses—was all pretty challenging.”
Neil explained that the front end aspect of moving to Salesforce Commerce Cloud was probably the most straightforward part of the whole program, and the UX and development of that went really well. The issues Halfords had were more in the backend, and implementing a brand new API integration platform at the same time which added a lot of complexity and effort.
From a technology viewpoint, Halfords is now in a great position to execute on their new strategy. But it was a long road to get where they are today. It involved moving from a large legacy estate, significant technical debt and reactive troubleshooting to a more agile, integrated, DevOps-driven approach.
Cloud adoption and in-sourcing development has been a huge part of that continuing process, helping Halfords deliver seamless customer journeys and a smoother online experience.
“We launched the website mid-February and haven’t looked back. Of course we found some snags and issues, but nothing major. All in all the site performed really well and I think that’s all to do with the advance planning, and the great team I work with.”
With changing customer needs and expectations, Halfords have put a greater emphasis on doing more for the customer—not just providing the products.
Halfords want to be proactive rather than reactive, to offer the products, services and support customers need before they even realise it.
“The next thing for me is how we innovate and integrate further. We want to be able to see every customer’s unique journey across our whole tech stack, with every touchpoint visible, and in terms of integrations we’ve still got a way to go there—but that’s what’s next.”
With the strong tech backbone put in place over the last 18 months, Halfords have been able to respond to the pandemic swiftly and efficiently. They’re still serving customers online and in person, and are on top of a huge spike in demand for cycling equipment across the UK—last month, google searches for ‘Halfords bike’ outstripped searches for ‘bike’ on its own.
325 stores and 345 garages, as well as their van fleet, remain in action, but Halfords has taken every step possible to ensure employee and customer safety.
Customers cannot enter the stores. There’s clear demarcation tape and 2 metre measurements to show where they can queue outside, and entry and exit points and people aren’t allowed to cross over. This makes it much easier for the reduced number of staff inside to keep their distance.
They’ve invested significantly in PPE (soap, sanitiser, masks, visors, sneeze screens at all payment windows), and the smaller stores/garages where staff can’t maintain social distancing are all closed. At the moment social distancing is enforced manually, but they are looking into an app or solution that could help staff feel safer still; any tech investment right now would have to be solving a very pandemic-specific problem.
They have also lent heavily on tech to keep queues moving: cashless payments, click and collect lockers, mobile tablets for staff, emphasis on ecommerce as opposed to physical visits, and easy scheduling for home visits have all helped Halfords keep delivering for customers.
“We are seeing an uptake in our mobile business. The customer can leave their keys on the doorstep as we’re arriving, we don’t have to have any contact with them. We can take the keys, do the work as needed on the vehicle—and we then sterilize everything. Film to cover the steering wheels, seats, anything the technician, who’s in full PPE, would touch. We sterilize the keys and leave them back on the doorstep. It’s a good model in the current climate and one that customers are continuing to use, which is good for us.”
Whilst most of their stores are “dark” stores at present, where the customer cannot physically enter it, Halfords are trialling ways to open up stores so customers can browse and shop again in the coming weeks but with stringent safety measures in place.
Neil reflected on the last couple of years and is really pleased with most of the technology decisions they made but like most retailers has the challenge of legacy systems which can slow them down.
“We’ve still got technical debt, we’ve still got legacy systems, we’re still going to need continued investment to keep up the good work that we’ve done. And that’s the trickiest thing - convincing CFOs we need to continually invest in updating and improving legacy systems when it’s not ‘sexy’ as such. But it is necessary because of how we’ve integrated almost all of our systems now, to improve the customer experience.”
As Neil stressed, integration needs to go all the way through the business..
If you’re interested to hear more about Halfords’ story, watch this webinar on “Re-imagining the retail experience through technology”.