Interview: Peter Fitzgerald, UK Sales Director, Google


Sophie Doran | July 09, 2015

Peter Fitzgerald, UK Sales Director at Google and President of Innovation & Digital for the British Fashion Council, is a man with vision. Here, we pick his brain about luxury, digital, retail, and data – and how they all intersect.

Peter Fitzgerald, UK Sales Director at Google and President of Innovation & Digital for the British Fashion Council, is a man with vision. Here, we pick his brain about luxury, digital, retail, and data – and how they all intersect.

When you think Google, you think big. Name drop Net-A-Porter founder Natalie Massenet and the British Fashion Council (BFC), and that effect is maximised.

Tie them all together, and you have Peter Fitzgerald, UK Sales Director at Google and President of the BFC Digital Pillar.

Hand-picked by Massenet to revolutionise London Fashion Week via pre-fashion week “digital bootcamps” with London’s designers and in charge of retail and tech businesses for Google UK, including heritage luxury brand Burberry – and you could say that Fitzgerald is something of a maestro when it comes to cutting-edge innovation in the digital space.

Add to that several years at under his belt before moving to Google, and an appointment as Non-Executive Director at Debenhams in 2012 to help grow the department store’s online business – and there’s no disputing Fitzgerald is the go-to man for helping retail businesses and brands realise their online ambitions.

With this in mind, we spoke to the guru himself to specify how luxury, digital and data intersect to create an unforgettable experience for the customer and invaluable insights for the brands and retailers behind the curtain.

“ What is exciting to me is that this intersection between tech and fashion is just getting started ”

Tell us a bit about your roles at both Google and the British Fashion Council – what is involved, how do they intersect and how did the BFC position come to be?

So, I manage retail and tech businesses for Google UK and for some of the businesses, like the fashion space, we have a luxury practice. We manage that globally. You have accounts like Burberry that would fit into that categorisation, for example.

My involvement with the British Fashion Council is that I am the President of Innovation and Digital. It’s a non-executive role. Natalie Massenet is the Chairperson and, basically, she asked me to help designers get online, and succeed online.

Part of how we do this is a mixture of workshops. Very practical things that designers can do to have a transactional site, or sell out to marketplaces, or use social media and video in an effective way have conversations with their customers.

So, before the fashion shows we get all the designers together so they can work on one thing digital for the show.

Out of this, we’ve observed that many of the business that show at Fashion Week, for example, now have websites – probably over 50 percent. When we started it was a very low percentage. So we are making progress and a lot of it just has to do with listening and coming up with solutions individually – designer by designer – and then doing these scaled events.

I guess what is exciting to me is that this intersection between technology and fashion is just getting started. I think there is a tremendous amount of innovation that can come out of it.

For example, we worked on something recently with River Island and a designer. It was a video and we turned it into a kind of 3-D CGI experience, to make it work in a virtual reality space. It was just something really fun and innovative.

Burberry Kisses

We’ve also done things like Burberry Kisses, which was really exciting. You could send a kiss to anyone in the world and you could send an imprint of your lips if you were kissing your phone or whatever. Then this beautiful envelope with that imprint would fly across the world. Again, it was using Burberry’s amazing video sends and storytelling with our technology that made it just seamless.

I think the take-away from that is that when we partner, great things happen. The tech for Burberry Kisses for example, was quite straightforward for us to do. The storytelling that they did was phenomenal.
But I think there is just so much more that can be done – we are only just getting started.

“ Mobile is a huge deal and an opportunity ”

You touched on technology trends – are there are any specific technology trends that you see impacting luxury brands in particular, perhaps this year or next?

I think mobile is a huge deal and an opportunity, because we’re seeing a kind of ‘leapfrogging’. So many emerging markets, for example, don’t even bother with desktop. They just go right to mobile. So even if luxury brands have a desktop site, the vast majority of the browsing and shopping is on mobile devices.
So luxury businesses should be investing, even modestly, in a good mobile site. A good mobile app to really build up their customer bases and drive loyalty.

When you think about it – it took a long time for the desktop web to get over a billion people on it. Mobile already has over two billion people connected on the mobile web, and we are just getting started. You still have 60% of the world which isn’t connected, but the primary way in which they will become connected is mobile.

Even in the more advanced markets, the connection speeds are very poor. So in the next handful of years you are going to see more and more luxury shoppers getting onto a fast mobile web.

But again, even on that level – we are just getting started. There is more research to be done to answer questions like: How does mobile influence consumer research before walking into a store or their impulse purchasing on one of these devices? It’s profound.

“ 25% of shoppers won’t even go into the store if the information is not available online ”

Let’s talk about the research you mentioned then – can you expand on this a bit more please?

Sure. If we look at affluent consumers – eight out of ten research online before purchasing. Twenty-five percent of shoppers won’t even go into the store if the information is not available online. So the implication is that luxury businesses have to ensure that if they have a beautiful boutique on Broad Street that they have a website. For those that are not creating websites, they can list on an aggregator site. Then, at least they can ship items out to 20, 30 different countries.

They have to think global. Micro-businesses can now be global businesses, which is very exciting – moreso if the luxury opportunity is personalised.

If you walk into Neiman Marcus store, for example, often for they know their best shoppers by first name. They just create a great, personalised experience.

I was doing some research when I was out in California ten days ago and you can now also buy with a Neiman Marcus app. So, if you are in the store and you find something, you add it on your mobile app and when you go back home, in a couple taps you can make the purchase. They are making it incredibly seamless.

This is a good start because all our research shows that affluent shoppers, and high-net individuals in particular, expect a brand to work across devices, across channels – seamlessly.

Basically, consumers research before they buy – sometimes during and then after purchase. So it’s really imperative now that you have personalised products and experiences, and mobile is a powerful way to join the offline and online worlds.

Neiman Marcus mobile app

Definitely. I recall one or two years ago, I heard of a department store that was trialling heat-mapping, based on mobile signals to find out where customers were going in their stores. There’s also been talk of facial recognition technology that could be used to recognise high-value customers, etc. But do you think that this is a realistic change that customers will accept? Yes, we want personalised, cross-channel experiences – but then when it comes to giving out our data, we behave in a very different way. Do you see a future where that will become accepted in retail?

I think it really depends on the person/shopper. So this goes back to being very sensitive to the different attitudes of consumers towards data and all this being permission based. Being very transparent about the service you are offering and if there is data sharing involved, is very important.

Going back to Neiman Marcus as a case study – with their mobile app, a customer can either say: ‘I am in the store’, and request a particular sales consultant, or they can mark that they don’t want to be bothered. So if they just want to browse without someone coming up, they can do that.

So customers are given choice – and just being able to make those choices, depending on the mood that you are in, for some can be very valuable.

“ Being very transparent about the service and if there is data sharing involved, is very important ”

Other businesses are using apps to drive loyalty, as I mentioned earlier. Macy’s with their app, for example. If a customer goes to the store and checks in, Macy’s gives them loyalty points just for showing up.

Then what they can do is start giving you suggestions about what you might like in the store, based on your previous browsing and purchasing. That is highly valuable, because suddenly a store of four floors with loads of product is transformed into a personalised shop for them. But they have to check in.

So, to me on this point, it’s just about very clear on the benefits and being very clear also on how your data is being used. I think if you do that first, then you can just kind of take it step-by-step after that.

“ We have feeds now from retailers that give us almost real-time information on product availability ”

What about Google Now – where users are suggested searches before they search – how might that influence the purchasing processes of luxury consumers specifically?

Yes, I think one example might be – if you were searching for a particular handbag. You’re almost at the stage where you’re narrowing it down to one or two brands, or a particular color. But you might know that you definitely want to buy it from Neiman Marcus, just to use that example again.

One scenario in the future that you could imagine is that then, if you are say, within four hundred yards of a Neiman Marcus. There could be a reminder that came up – a little panel that said this item that you were looking at is actually in stock, in this store which is very close. Then you get directions, it tells you it’s a seven-minute walk, etc.

So that would be an example of how you could get a suggestion through Google Now which is highly relevant because you are in the market for a handbag. You have the intentions to buy the bag and you have shown interest in that particular retailer as well.

Again that’s all permission based, but we have feeds now from retailers, which they send us, that give us almost real-time information on product availability, so there’s scope for that.

Levi’s x Google: Project Jacquard

This year, we’ve also seen Google partner to create product, such as the Levi’s connected clothes collaboration, and experiences – such as the work you mentioned with Burberry. What is Google’s level of involvement on these projects – are you providing just the technology, or are you also involved on the sort of physical product development?

I think with Burberry, we want to work very closely at the ideas stage with them, and then develop those together. I don’t see us working on their next clothing line, but we will think about how they can use technology to really amplify their store for example, or work on other initiatives, like Burberry Kisses. Focusing on projects where we do a lot of the tech, they do a lot of the storytelling, because when you merge those two strengths, it’s very powerful.

With brands like Levi’s, as you mentioned, we just announced that project – Project Jacquard – and while we don’t work on the actual jeans we, again, help on the tech side.

“ We are convinced that wearables are going to be a really important trend going forward ”

Levi’s is brilliant at innovating, even going back to Gold Rush era, they were coming up with things like the copper ribbon – they reinvented work wear for miners. So they will bring that deep experience and knowledge of apparel to the project and we will bring the advanced knowledge of the technology platforms, and the digital systems that are really needed to make wearables a viable possibility for them. So that’s basically how we will work together on that one.

On that note though – we are convinced that wearables overall are going to be a really important trend going forward. It’s already starting – we see that through a lot of the fitness brands already and in watches – so it’s a very exciting space.

You are quite positive that connectivity will infiltrate the globe as a whole. But how much you think traditional luxury brands or fashion houses will adopt connectivity in their product? Do you think there is a future for connectivity in the more traditional luxury space?

Yes, definitely. The Regent Street Burberry store in London is a great example. They have been using this now for over a year but, with the radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology there, customers can bring a handbag up to a meter and it will recognise it and start showing videos of the craftsmanship behind the bag – ‘this was made in Florence’, etc – and you can see them making it. Then you can see that bag on the runway with an ensemble, so it already starts to spark ways that you can put outfits together with the handbag.

“ Brands can create a rich digital life behind their products, where they can talk about their heritage ”

I think you will see more and more of that in store environments. Where brands can create a rich digital life behind their products, where they can talk about their heritage, etc. That is wonderful for luxury and in-store experience and it brings the best of digital into the store environment.

Then brands can think how do you bring the best of offline into their website experience as well. For example, businesses can use RFID or other technology to even manage the stock in a much better, faster ways.
So yeah, I think overall, we need to continue to work closely together in future and increase the partnership between tech companies and luxury brands, because I think there are some really great things that can be done – especially in the wearables space, as I mentioned.

Definitely. There has also been a lot of discussion lately about whether Apple is a luxury brand, and I think everyone has their own personal opinion. Generally though, to what extent can consumer electronics or technology companies have the power to become luxury brands?

That is a really interesting question. I think when you think of businesses like Red Bull for example – they sell soft drinks, but because they’ve been so brilliant at media they have almost changed the rules.

Similarly, a brand like GoPro – you could argue that it’s a product or tech company, but now they are a media company as well. Every three seconds someone uploading an image of an amazing jump they just did on their snow board. Then, they have this incredible curation, so if you go onto their site or onto YouTube, you’ll see – it’s unbelievable the interaction they get. Some of these videos get millions or even a hundred million people watching.

So I think there is tremendous opportunity to cross over.

Talking specifically about luxury – if technology-type companies are very clever and smart about how you deliver a more personalised experience, there’s an opportunity to move into that space. We are seeing this play out in a lot of these new disruptive businesses like Uber, for example. You can argue in many ways they operating like a tech company, but they are fine-tuning their experiences to be considered a kind of luxury.
So yeah, it’s a very interesting space right now and there’s a lot of blending going on.

Burberry Regent Street Store, London

Very interesting. I have a last question now about innovation, particularly given your role with BFC, guiding brands to leverage digital and technology. I think that while luxury brands know they need to innovate, often they are either part of huge conglomerates or family-owned companies, so they lack the agility or structure to execute. So, with that in mind – is there any advice you would give a luxury brand that is looking to foster its capacity for innovation?

I guess to start – let’s say you run a boutique. I would suggest you make sure that your brand experience is as good online as it is offline. For many of them they are now onto platforms like I mentioned, but they need to devote a little more time to building out their website or working with a technology company to make sure they show up when people are looking for their goods and services.

Especially on mobile, as I said earlier – so that they come up on a local search when someone is really close to their store, for example. So they just show up, and they can be found.

They also need to think about a seamless brand experience. I think for many businesses, particularly the smaller ones, it’s just about devoting a little bit of time and curiosity to that.

“ It’s really just about getting a basic education of the tools or platforms out there to innovate ”

Many of the designers or the teams that I met with for Fashion Week said they did not have much time. But what we did to work around that was to just take one person from their team and put them through an eight-week, online learning course on how to be a bit more digital savvy. And it’s changed the thinking of the company. So some now have a site that serves 70 markets.

In this way, we have been able to really help step-up change or turbocharge some of these businesses that really just have a handful of people working on them, but the same goes for bigger businesses.

At the end, it’s really just about getting a basic education of the tools or platforms out there to innovate. Then it’s also about working with entities like the British Fashion Council. They do a lot of events and a lot of one-on-one mentoring. So some of it is just kind of looking at the resources that exist around you to learn and evolve.

Additional editing by Daniela Aroche, Editorial Director of Luxury Society

To further investigate technology and digital brand innovation on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- 7 Digital Innovations for Luxury Brands
- Integrating Luxury Retail Online & Offline
- Recommendations for Digital Luxury Marketing in 2015