Q&A: Ed Bradley, Founder/Director & Head of Sales, Virtualstock
RTIH: Tell us about Virtualstock.
EB: We’re a leading, new generation B2B tech company that provides supply chain solutions via our SaaS platform, The Edge. In short, we help retailers drive revenue, improve customer satisfaction and enable greater visibility of the entire supply chain. We already provide our solution to six of the top ten UK retailers, including Tesco, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s Argos.
The way we do this, is by helping our clients keep pace with evolving consumer demands through offering extended range (e.g. dropship/marketplace) and flexible delivery solutions (e.g. Click & Collect), among others. The modular nature of our platform also means that it can be used to solve numerous practical issues across the entire supply chain, granting full visibility and control over order processing, order tracking, product setup and management, inventory management and more.
And it has quickly become clear that it’s not just retail that benefits from our offering, as we’ve seen enormous take-up within healthcare. Indeed, our product, repackaged as The Edge4Health, is now helping the NHS save up to £1 billion p.a., revolutionising e-procurement for both trusts and suppliers.
RTIH: What was the inspiration behind setting the company up?
EB: Well, my co-Founder Tim Ingham and I had worked extensively within global distribution previously, giving us a very good understanding of supply chain management. And back in the mid-2000s we started to notice a trajectory towards total sector domination by a new generation of online retailers, so we began to plan how we could create a platform that would help traditional retailers compete.
This may seem obvious now, but at the time e-commerce represented a very small percentage of a retailer’s total revenue. There was little requirement to meet the complex consumer demands of today, e.g. Click & Collect, marketplaces, dropship and more. It wasn’t the easiest journey, especially as we were pushing our product at a time when people were still sceptical about the internet, following the .com crash, and SaaS/cloud-based platforms were an unknown entity. I remember we were quite literally selling Christmas trees by the side of the road to help finance our business, little more than two guys sharing a laptop.
RTIH: What has been the industry reaction thus far?
EB: Fantastic! We have focussed mainly on the top tier of the retail market. The Edge has already been adopted by Tesco, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s Argos, Dixons Carphone, The Kingfisher Group and we have a number of other large retailers coming onboard this year.
Our clients are thrilled with the service and value we provide them, as we help tackle their pain points and drive business. For example, one of our major retail clients doubled their sales coming through non-stocked inventory from using The Edge. And beyond the company-wide benefits like uplift in revenue, The Edge also makes the lives of our product users a lot easier (for both retailers and suppliers), given how intuitive the platform is to use. The speed that we can deploy the system hugely outpaces traditional methods of systems integration and in-house development. In addition, The Edge can rapidly and easily connect to any type of system and thousands of suppliers.
RTIH: What has been your biggest challenge/setback?
EB: There have been numerous challenges along the way, however, the biggest underlying one has been the ‘readiness’ of the market. For much of the early days, retailers were focussed on building more physical stores and e-commerce was a lesser priority until after 2010. This meant that we relied on some early adopters to maintain the company and the development of the platform.
Another challenge has been resistance to change. The Edge is a disruptive technology that challenges the way that traditional IT is managed. Thankfully, however, this resistance is diminishing. Executives within retail are now much more tech-savvy and are making bolder decisions around SaaS and cloud solutions to improve the customer experience.
RTIH: What are the biggest challenges facing the omnichannel retail sector right now?
EB: The answer to this is the same one we have been giving for years; the biggest challenge by far is the retailer’s legacy systems. Often, traditional retailers have a complex set of systems that have been running their businesses for 20+ years. These systems were never designed to cater for all the omnichannel demands that have been placed on them over the last five to ten years and it’s very difficult to for them react.
Retailers tend to muscle through by throwing people, money and spreadsheets at the problem and over the next five to ten years, consumers will demand even more from the retailer. Quite frankly, these consumer expectations will not be able to be met by traditional systems alone. Staying competitive in today’s difficult waters requires digital fluency and a technological standard that many may struggle to meet.
RTIH: What's the best question about your company asked of you recently by a.) an investor and b.) a customer?
EB: We often get asked if, given the wider application of our product, we will look to expand to other sectors beyond retail and healthcare. The answer is a resounding yes. As it stands, we are already in conversations with a major media company and are looking into defence, pharma and education too. It’s clear that the benefits of our technology should not be restricted to retail; supply chain optimisation bears significant opportunities across the board.
Moreover, the truth is that the levels of digitalisation are highly inconsistent across sectors, with retail often leading the charge. Other industries might not yet realise the value technology can bring to them, and may it be our mission to help level the playing field.
RTIH: What can we expect to see from Virtualstock over the next 12 months?
EB: Virtualstock is growing fast on several fronts and the team has already grown from 20 to 110 employees over the last two years. This year, we envision accelerated growth in retail, in part thanks to our strategic partnerships with IBM and Wincanton – both within the UK and internationally. Indeed, Virtualstock is due to open a New York office this summer and we’re already in discussions with a number of US retailers. We’re also in advanced conversations with our first (leading) German retailer.
On the healthcare side, we expect that our partnership with NHS SBS will see the adoption of The Edge across a further 60 NHS trusts. In addition, we will continue to develop and innovate our platform with some major features coming out for our clients which will largely focus on market data and reporting, to coincide with a rebrand. So, there are exciting times ahead and, as founder, I feel utterly privileged to be part of such an original and dynamic team. I am deeply proud of where we have come from and look forward to what’s next.