Clear Returns & IBM partner to improve retail analytics

10 August 2015

Up to a third of products purchased through the internet are returned. These returns can be a considerable burden to retailers as they cost the profit margin of the product and reduce customer loyalty. Understanding a pattern of returns can therefore be of considerable benefit to firms. For such an understanding, Clear Returns is partnering with IBM and will use its Big Data & analytics technology to unlock the information in the cloud and improve retail and customer experience.

Clear Returns is a small firm started in 2012 at the Entrepreneurial Spark, an incubator based in Glasgow. The company has developed a set of analytic techniques that help companies identify waste in their returns supply chain, from identifying poorly worded product descriptions to tackling serial returners. Founder and CEO Vikey Brock, as part as the start-ups growth trajectory, has worked closely with IBM, taking part in its SmartCamp in Dublin.


As retailers become omni-channel operators, more and more consumers are buying their products through the internet and having their items sent home. This radically changes the shopping experience for retailers. “Today, the true point of sale isn’t the retailer’s website, it’s the customer’s home, where they decide whether they actually want the products they ordered,” explains Brock.

Toxic products
The effects of returns can be relatively negative on the business from which the clothes were sourced. According to Clear Returns, in some retail branches 80% of customers that undergo a return experience, do not shop at that retailer again, while 1% of serial returners come to drive 10% of total return costs. The most interesting aspect of the research is that it is a relatively small number of products (7%) that account for a large part (50%) of total returns.

According to Brock “retailers need to get much more intelligent about the way they handle returns, and we see predictive analytics as a key tool in providing that intelligence,” through which they can identify which products in the catalogue are at issue. As the rate of returns vary considerably per product and fashion line, problematic items can be identified and classified, which the Brock calls the ‘toxic products’.

IBM - Retail analytics

To combat the phenomenon of unnecessary returns in a broader way, Clear Returns and IBM have partnered up. The two companies will leverage their wider software offerings, including IBM SPSS Modeler, IBM Digital Analytics, IBM Sterling Order Management, among others, to develop a software platform which analyses the data from the sales, order management, warehousing and in-store systems of retailers. Through careful analysis of the chain of events after an initial product order, the Clear Returns team will be able to develop tailor made advice to clients.

Besides identifying cases where improvements can be made to product lines to inhibit returns, the offering will also be able to analyse consumer behaviour to identify high value customers that both buy and keep what they buy, such that they can be specifically targeted with mail campaigns to drive profits.

Commenting on the partnership, Colin Linsky, Global Industry Executive for Retail at IBM, says: “Retail consumers have become more empowered and informed about the choices available to them. This can make it more difficult for retailers to accurately predict demand, optimise inventory and drive maximum profitability. We’re very excited to be working with Clear Returns to help retailers offer a more proactive and personal service - ensuring that returns don’t lead to customer churn.”



How data insights helped Network Rail improve the South-East route

11 April 2019

Amey Consulting has leveraged data insights to assist Network Rail with the improvement of its South-Eastern route. Using the Quartz tool, which monitors train movement, Network Rail will now be able to commit to data-enabled interventions to quickly improve underperforming train stations.

With rail services in the UK coming under strain from the demands of modern commuter life, while the infrastructure and service delivery of the nation’s railways has come in for sustained criticism in recent years, a period of regeneration is on the cards at last. Network Rail is the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway network in Great Britain, and has subsequently tapped the consulting industry on a regular basis to help find areas of improvement.

The group recently drafted in consultancy BearingPoint to conduct a thorough organisational evaluation and advise Network Rail (High Speed) on attaining a ‘fit for purpose’ organisational standard – for which the consultancy was nominated at the 2019 MCA Awards. Meanwhile, ArupArcadis and Aecom have been contracted to help Colas Rail and Babcock Rail implement a decade-long framework for Network Rail, aimed at supporting the delivery of the next generation of rail systems, with the contracts said to be worth as much as £5 billion

How data insights helped Network Rail improve the South-East route

As Network Rail further aims to improve its performance and customer service offering, another area it has sought help from the consulting sector for is its South-East route. The network of railways connects London with the southern parts of the country, as well as with Europe, making it the busiest in the country, with more than 500 million passenger journeys per year. This crucial expanse of rail was plagued with small minute delays, which were impacting millions of passengers every day, while reducing the efficiency and capacity of the overall network – something Amey Consulting was selected to help solve.

Amey Consulting soon determined that with the sub-threshold delays to services only lasting for 1 or 2 minutes, most were not the subject of detailed root cause analysis, and this made their corrections almost impossible – with dire consequences. Without addressing these delays, passenger satisfaction would fall, while the capacity and efficiency of the network would be reduced, stinging the income of Network Rail even before a host of delay-related fines would hit the company.

In order to help the client gain a better understanding of where, how, when and what these small delays occur, Amey Consulting looked to demonstrate the value of data-led consulting, with a significant reduction in delays within the first month of rolling out changes to key stations. The consultants embedded themselves in Network Rail’s team, helping them learn the key skills needed to support and apply data-driven solutions.

Agile transport

This involved the deployment of the Quartz tool. The system utilises to-the-second train movement data to present the performance of individual stations across the South-East route. It allows users to effortlessly understand station performance with a high level of detail, and use this information to identify losses caused by small-minute delays. The granular data allows for targeted actions to drive efficiency savings and performance improvements. More importantly, it allows users to understand the impact of small process changes on performance. 

Steve Dyke, an Executive Partner at Amey Consulting, said of the project, “We looked to identify the physical root cause on the infrastructure, building a case for change then managing that project implementation and tracking the benefit/value.  In doing so we are working to define a data performance improvement service to the operational and infrastructure owners.”

Just as important for the project as the technology, however, was teaching the Network Rail team how to leverage it after the consultants were gone. The Amey Consulting team worked to develop an agile working culture within Network Rail’s South-East division, helping staff to be confident in using data to improve the journeys of millions of people per year by attacking the problem from the ground up.

Dyke concluded, “This is less about the tools and about the approach to managing performance.  It meant using by-the-second analysis, data science, and then agile development to visualise and identify areas where improvements can be made.  We then worked with NR to change the way they approached the management of the infrastructure changes.  So rather than pass the information down the value chain, any of which could have been missed, we managed the change end-to-end.”

The project was so successful that Amey Consulting was also among those honoured at the recent MCA Awards. The firm scooped the Performance Improvement in the Public Sector prize for its work with Network Rail, at the 2019 ceremony in London.