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An Advantageous Position

In Focus
NAME:Graham Harris
LOCATION:Zwolle, Netherlands
Graham Harris is harnessing his years of experience working with some of Britain’s biggest brands and taking Dutch catalog retailer Wehkamp into a bold new data-driven digital age.

Over its 70-plus years in business, Dutch retailer Wehkamp has explored almost every method of selling out there – starting with simple leaflets selling beds and evolving to become a large catalog retailer.

Over time, its range has expanded to include fashion, homewares and electrical items.

“That big book brought a very big range to customers in their own home,” Wehkamp CEO Graham Harris tells The CEO Magazine.

Its promise of next-day delivery for orders made before midnight has also been a huge game-changer for the company.

“Having that big range available for delivery that fast was a big stepping stone for this business’ early success,” he reflects.

Now, of course, it is playing in the online arena – but it’s a transition that has come naturally to the retailer.

“Everything’s the same, albeit the format is different,” Harris notes.

The strength of the company’s 35-year partnership with global shipping and logistics firm DHL has therefore been instrumental, enabling it to grow and expand its services in the Netherlands.

“Our shared agenda on sustainability enables us to speed up the developments in this area, offering our customers greener choices,” Harris says. “We are constantly working together in a true partnership to improve and add services for our customers.”

Next Steps

Traditionally, catalog businesses have revolved around customer accounts and invoicing. It’s a way of working that has set Wehkamp ahead of the curve in another crucial area – data.

“Invoicing was at the center of the business and that really then gave you the next step along its evolution, which was to use the data more,” Harris says.

“These businesses have been data-rich for a very long time, much longer than many store-based businesses, which always loved to know a lot about customers, but without the loyalty schemes, when you walked out the door, they knew no more about you.”

“A great range with great prices and great service then gives you a proposition that can win in the longer-term.”

It’s an advantage that has enabled Wehkamp to market to its customers more efficiently, according to Harris.

“Retailing always has to be competitive,” he stresses. “It has to get the price right, and the only way to get the price right is to run a very lean model. So if you can know your customers well, you can market efficiently. And if you can run the logistics side very well, you can actually deliver efficiently and you can turn that into great prices.

“A great range with great prices and great service then gives you a proposition that can win in the longer-term. And I think that’s where Wehkamp really comes from and why it’s strong today.”

The Right Skill Set

Harris’ own extensive experience in the world of retail, having worked for the likes of Woolworths and Tesco, gave him the expertise required to keep this long track record of evolution moving forward.

“I grew up with my mother running her own retail shops, so my retail experience started when I was a child,” he explains, adding that retail is in his DNA.

But the shops of today look very different to those of his youth.

“Now that so much is online, stores have had to change,” he reflects. “Stores have to get much more experiential or deliver brilliant service. Online has grown so rapidly that stores have to omnichannel [provide customers with a seamless and unified brand] really well. You have to be able to click and collect, or if you’re pure play, you can launch a brand and you can launch it internationally with no barriers anymore.”


Technology is driving this evolution, with apps, AI and computer-generated imagery all helping retailers to develop their proposition for their customers – which is so important, given the fierce competition in the marketplace.

“The challenge for retailing is always being on the front foot with changes. No customers are obligated to shop with you. Businesses that haven’t changed have failed,” he says. “So as a retailer, what you find in Wehkamp is we’ve tried to develop the business that customers actually want to come back to again and again.”

Besides these crucial insights into the evolving retail landscape, time has also taught Harris a thing or two about leadership, with one of the key takeaways being the importance of being a risk-taker, a notion instilled in him during his time at Tesco.

“It was about being entrepreneurial and customer-centric and we’ve imported those values into Wehkamp, because they really do ring true if you are constantly seeking to do the right things for customers,” he says.

State of Flux

It’s a constant learning curve, with lessons to be learned at every stage along the way. Indeed, when Harris came on board, the business was still finding its feet amid this new status quo.

“When I arrived five years ago, Wehkamp didn’t quite know what it was meant to be – should it be a marketplace and stock everything from everyone’s brand, or should it just be a platform which sold everything to everyone and you just paid Google to drive footfall? It was failing quite spectacularly.”

But by working out the economics of these various propositions, Harris and his team managed to move the business into the position it’s in now, which he describes as that of a curated but inspirational department store with highly relevant offers. And sales are now exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

“The challenge for retailing is always being on the front foot with changes.”

“We select what you see, we create a proposition for you to shop and because we’ve got the data, we can obviously serve it to you on-screen with your recommendations and the most interesting articles,” he says.

Filters are used to serve up items in the right sizes, while the data gathered about each customer means Wehkamp can accurately predict what they might like to shop for next.

The possibilities are already immense. But having seen so much change so far in this industry, Harris knows there is much more yet to come – and that certainty is why he is still here.

“I think if those things are continuously developing in retail, it’s never dull,” he says.

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