Leica is one of the most iconic photography brands in the world. Founded in 1924, the firm effectively invented the handheld camera using 35mm film. Its devices went on to capture some of the most memorable images of the 20th century: the famous portrait of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, the impulsive sailor kissing a woman in Times Square in 1945, and the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack.

However, when it comes to running a retail business, its history is much shorter, having opened its first shop just 11 years ago in Tokyo. "We’ve gone from being a factory to becoming a retail company,” says Helmut Heier, director at the company.

That decision was a response to the huge disruption caused by eCommerce on the sale of electronic goods, causing a number of traditional photography shops to shut down. For example, in the UK, Jessops closed its doors for good in 2013. As a premium brand, Leica was keen to maintain the personal in-store touch.

"It was a strategic move to start something new, we had to work on our own market segment and not rely on partners,” he says. "The development of the retail segment was trial and error. Wherever there was an opportunity or need, a store was opened."

Since then the number of its outlets has increased to 75 across 15 countries, as well as an international network of 140 shop-in-shop boutiques. Many of those also act as galleries showcasing the firm’s photography as part of its customer experience.

Disconnected systems

But due to the ad-hoc development of its retail network, Leica had accumulated myriad disconnected systems across the globe.

It had amassed multiple customer interfaces, relationship management programmes, inventory systems, and ERP software. "The numerous financial reporting systems, the marketing information, the interfaces to separate stores: all of this was not efficient,” he says.

That meant the business had a fragmented view of its customers. “We have a limited customer base, typically several hundreds-of-thousands around world. In this focused customer base, it is essential that we are in the position where we can manage an individual customer relationship. And this is not possible in the analogue way. Therefore we needed to digitise the business,” he says.

Previously if a customer visited a store in Tokyo or Los Angeles and then later somewhere in Europe, they’d be treated as first time buyer on each occasion, he says. "Customers expect seamless experience, and that is something our competitors were increasingly providing.

"This is why we decided to move to one common solution.” After a year of looking, it eventually chose Cegid’s cloud-based omnichannel retail management software. “We needed a vendor that could support a global business with a small size."

So far the system is being rolled out across 50 stores. It has enabled sales assistants to share information between branches about which products are in-stock, including collectors' items; have access to the latest information about the firm’s newest products; and provide a bespoke service to customers based on their particular interests.

But to say this is some sort of 'digital transformation’ would be an exaggeration, as that functionality has existed for some time.

Heier admits it was a “pragmatic” move. “Because our retail growth had been so strong over the last few years, the need for a digital system had suddenly reached a critical relevance.” 

After the roll-out is complete, the company will consider extending it the rest of its store network. It also plans to introduce 'mobile clienteling' to further improve the personalised experience. Using mobile devices, sales assistants will be able to view customers’ previous purchases, monitor social media interactions, see abandoned purchases, and suggest additional services or complementary products.

Huawei partnership

As a brand, Leica has come a long way since it was first founded. Just last year it partnered with Chinese telco and phone-maker Huawei, to co-design the cameras in its mobiles: “An entry point for customers keen on photography."

As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you, says Heier. “Although that’s not always true in technical terms."

However, at its core Leica remains an expensive camera bought largely by professional or serious photographers, as it has been for the last 100 years. By having a direct relationship with its enthusiastic base in-store, while using technology to gain a more complete view of the customer, it hopes to maintain its brand longevity into the digital era.