Online retail is a massive growth industry, boosted by the global pandemic into a wildfire of digital transformation.

With physical stores facing enforced closure or restricted access, consumers have been converting to shopping online like never before at breakneck speed – sending shipping costs off the charts, along with profits, price competition, traffic declines, inventory overages, and overstocking.

Based on annual Twinkle100 ecommerce data, in 2019 Wehkamp was ranked 5th biggest Dutch e-commerce with a total of 530 millions Euros online turnover with more than 11 million orders processed annually. Wehkamp is one of the oldest online retailers in the Netherlands, starting as a mail-order company in 1952. Today is one of the Netherlands’ online market leaders in fashion, lifestyle, beauty and baby/childrenswear.

Fundamental Shift In Wehkamp’s IT Infrastructure

Just ahead of the pandemic, Wehkamp had undertaken a year-long digital transformation – to enable agile development of its core processes across the business: from warehousing, stock control and dispatch; to procurement, invoicing, and supply chain management.

The journey had not been a simple system replacement. At every step, an evidence-based methodology was needed to demonstrate the need for such a radical approach – and how it would benefit the organisation.

With all of this in mind, Wehkamp partnered with Levi9 to bring about what became a fundamental and radical shift in the organisation. The task very quickly morphed from what at first seemed straightforward – a systems upgrade to futureproof and make processes robust enough to cope with increasingly sophisticated demands.

Top Down Buy-In To Change Hearts & Minds

From the outset, a team was established and tasked with changing the way people were looking at things, from the very top (Wehkamp’s CTO) down. The fact that the project gained the full backing of the board was strategically important for future development and profitability.

In practice, digital transformation required substantial planning and investigation in the discovery phase – through painstaking attention to detail to deliver bite-sized training and implementation handover to Wehkamp’s operational teams.

The legacy system was built on Microsoft’s BizTalk platform. Whilst adequate for the business up until then, it is an expensive solution and tied into processes that needed also upgrading and maintenance.

The alternative – that both Levi9 and Wehkamp team established as the most effective option – was an open-source system, NiFi. This is a software project from the Apache Software Foundation designed to automate the flow of data between software systems – one that’s based on the “NiagaraFiles” software previously developed by the US National Security Agency.

The rationale for the move was demonstrated through the discovery phase, after an extensive search and trial of options in the market, and Proof of Concept workshops that established the operational and business case.

Making The Case For Exploration

Initially, the project wasn’t getting the same high level of support from all teams – mainly because the new way was so different, both in terms of the architecture and processes used.

These factors made the project appear high risk with little chance of success. But thanks to some intense explanatory workshops and demos, the implementation team of both Levi9 and Wehkamp made the case.

From the outset it was understood that in order to hand over such a sophisticated and very different system at the end of the project would not just be unfeasible, but would also create an unfair burden on the operational teams.

That’s why the implementation team adopted weekly integrated scrum and iterative training sessions to bring the operational team up to speed – which helped to create and sustain enthusiasm across the year-long project.

Overnight, through implementation across NiFi, Wehkamp’s systems and digital teams were free to use a range of platforms. This had the added benefit of slashing costs – with no need for licences – and the ability to develop incremental implementation as and when the business needed to deploy or upgrade various processes.

Distributing Data Processing

Probably the biggest challenge was organisational. The move to a distributed environment meant that data could be accessed at various geographical locations and available locally most of the time.

A positive outcome is that data and software processing will become distributed – actively reducing the impact of any particular site or hardware failure.

Most importantly, this strategy empowered smaller teams – providing ownership and installing agile processes – as opposed to the existing centralised team, which although had the expertise, could potentially be a bottleneck.

The spin-off benefit for the smaller operational teams – and also advantageous to the organisation will be the ability to migrate flows; as well as faster problem solving, decision-making, and implementation. This required a substantial leap of faith from the senior team, who had previously considered a radical change to be too risky for an organisation totally dependent upon efficient processes and flows.

Ultimately, the joint Levi9/Wehkamp team proved the benefits of Workflows-As-A-Service – as a cost model for Wehkamp. Maintenance is minimal and there’s no dependency on a single point of failure.

With online retailing only ever increasing, Wehkamp is now set up to provide superior customer experiences, efficient organisation, and can now take on competitors in one of the world’s most dynamic markets: online shopping.