Salih Sheikh, MD of Future Food Brands, renowned across the industry in his former role as Head of Digital and Marketing for Bestway and the FWD’s Young Wholesaler of the Year, reinforces key points from the TWC / Salih Sheikh Digital Leadership Series.

You wouldn’t build a house on shaky foundations…. And, the same goes for your digital strategy. The value of taking time to think it through and getting advice, right at the onset of any investment, can’t be underestimated.  

Digital infrastructure plays a critical role in delivering your digital vision. It’s without doubt the most complex and least understood element but if you can get that part right – everything else will follow. 

First off, what do we mean by ‘digital Infrastructure’? In simple terms, it’s the underlying systems that a business needs to puts in place to drive the digital offering that sits on topThat can be a website, an app, a reward programme, tailored pricing offers, shipment reporting and stock level monitoring, or an e-commerce platform.

Consider the future

Infrastructure includes your choice of partner in bringing together tailor made features that are right for your business, the technology platforms (we call this a technology ‘stack’), that you will need (these can be bought ‘off the shelf’ or bespoke) that are right for your business in today’s trading environment.  These are vital decisions and ‘getting it right’ will also enable you to remain future-proofed as the world changes. And, there’s no better example of fast change across consumer behaviours, than since Covid-19 landed on our doorsteps. 

Ask yourself WHY? 

The best place to start is to ask yourself WHY? Why do you want a website? Why do you want an e-commerce platform? Why do you want an app?  And even if you think you have the answer – with every subsequent change or addition you make, start with asking yourself why? 

While these questions may be hard to articulate, they make you focus on what you really need to create against just thinking; ‘well I need an app’…  It’s not about deciding if you want an app or a website, but about having a clear digital vision as to how you see your business developing – and then putting in place the technology to achieve that vision.

You get out what you put in

As well as the right infrastructure and technology stack, it’s also very much about the data beneath that. It doesn’t matter how awesome your technology stack is: if you haven’t got the right product hierarchies, product descriptions, or haven’t properly segmented your customers, the data coming out will be rubbish. 

The strength of your output is directly linked to what you’re putting in (you may be familiar with the analogy ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’). You need to ensure your data on customers is up-to-date and cleansed so you can effectively segment and target your customers with personal offers to potentially upsell, and be more effective in regards to cost benefit. 

Getting it right, first time

When it comes to choosing the best tech for each function – one size does not fit all. My recommendation is always to take an approach where you’re not beholden to one tech supplier.These days, systems are very adept at ‘talking to each other’ and linking in, and it’s better to go for an expert in each field as opposed to a complete ‘solution’. These can be limiting and more expensive in the long-term as you look to unpick or bolt on new features which become necessary down the line.  

Instead, make sure you find the best system that works for your business. It’s important to find the IT systems that are right for you and that they’re fit for your purpose they are able to do what you need them to do and support your vision. Make sure the systems you install and build do all of the heavy lifting for you so you don’t have to. including This includes things like manual (and very time consuming!) updates of changes in stock levels – so you can focus on the digital vision.

Install a system that requires as little bespoke building as possible and that your developers can upgrade easily without huge costs. If – as a starting point – the technology you have is seriously out of date, consider investing in new technology at the onset, so you don’t come into difficulty when you’re trying to sync together websites and apps further down the line.

Look for a system that supports both web and app with both working off the core system. This allows customers to build a basket on the web and continue it on the app. Look and learn from what others have done, look at your competitors and gain insights – don’t forget, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Return on investment

Remember there’s a cost to establishing a good digital infrastructure and although return on investment can be a long-term goal, ultimately you want and expect that return. To win with a digital strategy, you have to make buying easier for your customers by engaging through digital platforms and you want to see upsell, and potentially, cost savings in doing so…  

It’s important you’re always mindful you’re not just moving the business from depot to online, which in effect, is simply cannibalising your existing business and adding costs by doing so…

And, it’s a fast-paced world out there. For some businesses, spending the best part of a year focusing on getting the right infrastructure in place means a year of missed opportunity and is just not feasible.

Top Tips

In order to build the strongest digital infrastructure, remember these key points. Start with the customer and put them at the heart of your thinking – what do they want? Have a clear vision, remember tech is the enabler and focus on what you want it to enable. Build a team of experts around you, be business-led rather than IT-driven, build systems that do the hard work for you, test and learn and build iteratively.  Once you have the foundations or the infrastructure in place, you can then begin to piece together what the digital offering looks like.

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