The UK-based department store chain, House of Fraser, recently partnered with e-commerce solutions firm eCommera to help it accelerate its journey toward a true multi-channel offering via traditional stores, web-based stores, email and mobile devices. This article is copyright 2012 The Best Customer Guide.

House of Fraser operates 65 locations across the UK and Ireland and, after being acquired by the private equity group Highland Consortium in November 2006, the company was turning over more than £1 billion annually. However, despite this, the investors understood the huge opportunity that trading online represented and set the challenge of making the brand's e-commerce store "the biggest store in the business". According to Andy Harding, director of e-commerce for House of Fraser, "It's been a challenging year for all retailers and we have had to deliver more value with less budget."

House of Fraser had originally worked with eCommera in the run up to the 2007 Christmas trading period to build its first e-commerce website. But, with a limited number of physical stores, House of Fraser had long wanted to extend its reach and provide customers with greater access to its 'House of Brands' retail model.

But it was only in 2011 that the planned expansion into multiple channels truly began. In October 2011 the company opened its first HouseOfFraser.com concept store in Aberdeen. Instead of displays of shoes, clothes and accessories, shoppers are greeted by banks of iPads, computers and interactive screens - bolstered by staff who help them navigate to the goods they want. They can choose either to collect or have goods delivered. By the end of 2011, a second concept store had already been opened in Liverpool. If these pioneering outlets prove successful - which is yet to be seen - then the opportunities for the company to extend its high street presence, both economically and flexibly, is immense.

Sales through the internet and mobile devices currently accounts for around 10% of turnover, but it is predicted that this will grow to over 20% within a few years. This is not about a shift in focus, such as fewer stores, but rather about bringing its existing and new channels to market more closely, to provide a joined-up experience for its customers. As Harding says, "We differentiate on service and have to continue to enhance our proposition, so we can carry on improving customer satisfaction. It is our goal to treat each customer like a VIP and that requires the personalisation that multi-channel retail can offer."

Harding qualified this by pointing out that House of Fraser had already proved that multi-channel customers spend more than those who shop through a single channel. The company's multi-channel strategy therefore is to encourage customers to shop across multiple channels by differentiating the service and through innovation.

It was back in 2010 when House of Fraser introduced its 'Buy and Collect' service, which allows shoppers to order online by 3.00pm and collect next day after 12.00pm from any nominated store in the country. Some 35% of its online purchases are now collected in-store, driving additional traffic into physical High Street stores. Interestingly, 84% of those who use the service describe it as "excellent". Early feedback has already shown that around one third of customers would not have bought from House of Fraser without the convenience of this service.

At the same time House of Fraser took its online and in-store integration one step further by introducing an assisted 'Order in Store' service which allows staff to help customers order goods online that are out of stock in the store. The customer can then either return to the store to collect or, if convenient, have the goods delivered directly to their home.

Harding began his post as director of e-commerce in early 2011, aiming to spearhead a new focus on multi-channel. Despite online sales of £50 million a year, House of Fraser wanted more. Feedback from customers showed that the existing web site was not easy to use and that it was falling behind in terms of innovation. According to Harding, "We were basically below the benchmark for usability and experience and we felt that we had a lot more to do."

Harding retained web design in-house but worked with eCommera and the company's existing e-commerce platform, Demandware, to build and launch a significant upgrade. eCommera overhauled all sections of the website. Critically, the checkout was replaced with a more interactive flow, so that the customer's basket was viewable on every page. This proved vital to reducing cart abandonment, as customers need to see how much they are spending and on what, at every stage of their shopping journey. The first major development was to enable customers to search not only by categories but by brands, which complemented House of Fraser's image as a House of Brands. This new 'brand navigation' structure enabled both easy and customised navigation through all the brands.

At the same time, a new cross-channel loyalty scheme was integrated allowing customers to earn points regardless of how they shop - whether in-store, online, or by telephone. eCommera faced a number of integration challenges with the new loyalty programme as it meant introducing new payment types across the website. The new site design helped increase conversion and updated navigation allowed House of Fraser to easily launch new brands onto the website, ramping up the brand count from around 800 to over 1,200 including premium brands that wanted their own space to sell.

The main challenges centred on the creation of the huge amount of content and structure for this brand functionality. eCommera leveraged its experience and expertise in running other large department sites (such as Asda Direct) to make the process easier, simpler and more flexible with auto-generated content for less significant brands.

The online customer experience was also improved using new navigation techniques, more accurate attribution, and richer filtering, allowing customers to locate items more easily. The critical factor in these improvements is time: allowing customers to make their purchases as quickly as possible was a key factor in the subsequent development of the company's mobile commerce site. Dan Seymour, head of multi-channel projects for House of Fraser, explained: "Within the 18 months up to November 2011 we added Buy and Collect, Order in Store, PayPal, a new recommendations engine, and Bazaarvoice. We also completed a site redesign, added mobile applications and massively extended our brands."

eCommera then worked with House of Fraser on the development of a mobile-optimised site, not only as part of the new multi-channel strategy but also in response to a dramatic rise in traffic to the main web site through mobile devices. At time of publication, 25% of the company's online traffic is served via mobile devices. Harding said, "These mobile enhancements are about the customer experience and, ultimately for us, profit. We regard the mobile site as the glue that binds our store and online offer, to attract the truly multi-channel customer."

Although House of Fraser has no international business as such, it does deliver abroad and is looking at further outreach in different countries in the near future. Now working with eCommera the company will be able to build up this capability. In addition, the two companies are working to integrate inventory and fulfilment - a challenge that faces all retailers that need to trade across channels - solving the problem of how to remove the gaps between store and web stock, so that wherever an item is, it can be located, ordered and sent to the customer.

According to Harding, the company continues to investigate new technologies (such as interactive TV) to add to its e-commerce channel: "At the forefront of these decisions, we have to make sure that we are able to respond quickly to our customers and changes in the market, which requires agile development. Because basic changes can be made by non-programming staff using standard internet tools, customisation can be done quickly and efficiently, either by eCommera or by House of Fraser itself."