Escott is the head of Harvey Norman Big Buys, an online retail store created by Harvey Norman and launched in late March this year. His boss, of course, is Gerry Harvey, a man who has traditionally dismissed online retailing and last year was pilloried for his campaign to have GST applied to online purchases valued at less than $1000 on foreign websites.
Escott previously ran a Harvey Norman Computers & Electrical franchise; he has also held the role of group CIO for the company from 2005 to 2008. In January this year, he received a phone call from Harvey asking whether he would take on the online challenge and jumped at the chance.
“Part of that strategy was to create a new business called Big Buys, as a dedicated deal-of-the-day online-only website,” Escott says. “And that is what we kicked off in late March.”
Big Buys is a very different business to Harvey Norman. It focuses on a daily deal and carrying merchandise ranging from homewares to cosmetics to camping goods.
Escott says the model and tight timeframe were designed to take Harvey Norman into online retailing quickly.
“Gerry had been hammered prior to Christmas with the GST comment, and we were getting drilled in the media about our online strategy — or lack of it,” he says.
“We had been working on taking the traditional business online, but that’s a very complex effort. This one we could do more quickly and easily, because it was a standalone business, and it was in product categories that we hadn’t been in before.”
The strategy did not leave Escott much time to put new systems in place, but his experience as CIO led him to investigate Microsoft’s Dynamix NAV (formerly Navision) applications package.
“We went with that system, because of the flexibility that it was going to give us,” Escott says. “This was a brand new business that was going to evolve, and we weren’t sure how it was going to evolve.
“So we very quickly settled on Dynamix NAV, whipped up a website that integrated with it, and went live. And that was effectively a seven week process. It was lightening quick.”
Now it is handling an average of 20,000 views per day, but has handled traffic of 370,000 views at its peak. “On our best ever days we’ve done 6000 orders in 24 hours, but there are other days when we can do 100 orders on a bigger item,” Escott says, adding that this volume places Big Buys on par with an average Harvey Norman franchise.
That the new venture could be up and running so quickly was due in part to Escott’s commitment to avoiding customisation of the software. Also, Big Buys has sidestepped Harvey Norman’s standard IT environment, implementing its own servers for Dynamix NAV and hosting the website in the Azure Cloud.
“To go through the normal process for an IT department the size of Harvey Norman — there is no way we could get that done in seven weeks,” Escott says.
To date, Big Buys has been a learning experience for Harvey Norman, but Escott is hoping that it will be breaking even by its first birthday.
It will be then that he can find out if his boss is forced to eat his words.
“We are not setting the world on fire from a ‘making money’ perspective, but we are gaining huge understanding of what works and what doesn’t work online,” Escott says. “And once we understand what is going to work, we will be able to turn that into something that is going to make money.”
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