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Crane Brothers’ digital journey

Merging the worlds of tailoring and the Internet, Crane Brothers takes us through its digital evolution. Crane Brothers is a high-end contemporary tailoring business with retail outlets in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney.

Walk into one of its shops, and the wooden floors, suited staff and subtle-but-quirky décor might make you think you were somewhere in the mid-20th century. Behind the scenes, though, Crane Brothers is very much a 21st century business, and the Internet is a big part of that.

Today, everything from point of sale to order management and accounting are is online, delivering significant efficiencies and cost savings. But it hasn’t always been that way. Looking back, Crane Brothers owner Murray Crane sees three distinct phases in the company’s 13-year digital evolution, beginning with processes that were as traditional as its suit-making techniques. 

“To start with we were paper-based. We wrote down orders, we filed everything manually… you name it.”

As the business grew, keeping track of everything manually became overwhelming, so it moved to a computerised system. “In about 2004 we engaged a technology partner and did what most businesses of our size would have done at the time. We spent a lot of money on server hardware, plus some pretty expensive software to run on it.”

That was fine for a few years, until a lightbulb moment convinced Crane that an Internet-based solution was a better way to go. “Crunch time for me was when GST increased from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent. As a retailer, of course, that impacted almost everything we did. The answer from our then accountancy software provider was to try and sell us an entire new version of the software that featured the new GST rate. The answer from us was we’d look for something else.”

That something else was New Zealand-developed online accounting platform Xero. Before long, Crane Brothers moved other business processes online until today, the server is just an expensive box gathering dust in a corner. (In fact, given Crane Brothers’ fastidiousness, it’s just as dust-free as anything else in their downtown Auckland headquarters… but you get the idea.)

Point of sale is handled by New Zealand developed cloud-based system Vend.

While Crane admits it’s not a 100 per cent perfect fit for his business – it’s not really set up for the almost infinite product variants a bespoke tailor can offer – the cost savings are undeniable.

“We were looking at traditional point of sale systems costing us $30,000 and up. Vend does what we need it to for $140 a month.” An important advantage cloud-based systems like Vend and Xero deliver is automatic upgrades. “We don’t need to pay extra for a new version or spend time installing it,” says Crane.

And hurdles like that GST change, of course, are a thing of the past. Cloud-based solutions play a big part in day-to-day customer service too. Crane Brothers is big on repeat business, and returning customers expect staff to know what clothes they’ve had made or altered in the past. Over the last few years Crane Brothers’ production manager has developed a customer document management system on Google Drive that makes accessing that information easy.

“So if a customer from Auckland walks into our shop in Sydney, my staff can pull out their phone or tablet and quickly see exactly what they’ve bought in the past… style, size, fabric… you name it.”

The system is accessible to everyone in the business (including some suppliers), says Crane, and it’s so popular with staff and customers that the next step will be to work with a software developer to package it up into a bespoke application.

For a business that relies heavily on word of mouth referrals, the Internet is an important marketing tool. Crane Brothers’ website, crane-brothers.com, is a one-off build that reflects the same attention to detail that goes into the company’s products.

As Murray says, “It’s really easy to look like everyone else on the Internet, so we put a lot of effort into looking different.”

(That effort extends to the site’s main colour being an exact match for the colour of the retail stores’ walls.) Social media also plays a part, with the blog section of the website helping connect people to the brand (or whatever else is on Murray’s mind) while handily boosting organic search results. Crane Brothers shares every blog post on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and sees immediate lifts in traffic to the site (especially with Instagram and LinkedIn).

One of the firm’s most powerful online tools though, is one of the oldest: email. Crane Brothers uses email platform Campaign Monitor and CRM platform Highrise to let customers know when sales and stock clearances are happening. “We rent a pop-up store every few months and email 4-5000 customers to let them know… and we can chew through the stock in two days.” While in retrospect Crane Brothers’ journey seems to make perfect sense, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. A previous IT partner, for example, was reluctant to support the shift to cloud solutions.

“There’s money in mystery,” says Crane, “and we really didn’t have a lot of clarity around what our money was getting us.” Today, the savings in staff effort and expense prove that the move has been more than worth it.

“We’re paying a third of what we paid in IT costs – although our data costs are up, and fibre still hasn’t made it to the office – and we’ve freed two people from working full time on managing information. That all leads to a better customer experience, and that results in a better product – and that’s what we’re all about.”

This article first appeared in New Zealand Retail magazine.

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