Interview: Hornbach – a Partnership on an Equal Footing
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Hornbach – a Partnership on an Equal Footing

Unic is celebrating 25 years in business. That is a grand total of 300 months or 9,125 days of developing digital solutions for our customers. It is a wonderful occasion to present a few remarkable, long-term customer projects. The digitalisation of HORNBACH, initiated with Unic in 2009, wrote history, not just in terms of Unic locations. In this interview, Unic senior project manager David Spak tells us why this partnership has been such a success. He also explains how Unic’s customers participate in projects and turn their own ideas into reality.

The Beginnings

How did the collaboration between Unic and HORNBACH come about? And what services do we provide to the pan-European DIY store chain?

We have been a partner to HORNBACH in Germany for more than ten years now. What started with a PIM evaluation and a concept for a Swiss webshop now also includes backend and frontend development. But the DIY experts at HORNBACH also rely on Unic’s expertise for the infrastructure and operation of their shop system. Unic established offices in Karlsruhe in 2011 to clearly indicate to HORNBACH that we were interested in a long-term collaboration right from the start.

With all that in mind, let me add: Even though Unic provides a number of PIM and e-commerce specialists, the HORNBACH team also includes a wide variety of other experts. It is no surprise, then, that we have been communicating and exchanging ideas at a very advanced level for years now.

David Spak, Senior Project Manager at Unic
David Spak, Senior Project Manager at Unic

The Evolution of E-commerce

At Unic, we perceive HORNBACH to be an intrinsically innovation-driven partner. What does that have to do with the new shop system? And why do we see increasing modularity in e-commerce?

What usually happens with major software systems is this: You start out with a system you have evaluated but then realise it no longer fulfils the new requirements. Customer requests, new technologies and market-related needs play an important role here. Companies start to customise their software so as not to fall behind. This means the software tool is adapted to make sure it still meets customers’ needs. In addition, there are specific shop features that the competition may not be offering. These customisations lead to a very specific application, only the core of which is still somewhat standardised. This makes the operation of the shop along with the subsystems, maintenance and updates increasingly cumbersome and expensive.

HORNBACH started analysing different systems early on and has responded to the current degree of customisation by evaluating a new shop system. This will allow HORNBACH to operate current and newly developed features of the old architecture in parallel and migrate them to the new system bit by bit. The new solution and its framework complement the existing architecture. By switching systems, HORNBACH will achieve a whole new level of modularity while simultaneously increasing performance.

Moving Forward Together

Partnership – what is special about this long-term HORNBACH project?

Apart from targeted consulting, Unic always aims to build lasting customer relationships. At Unic, we like to speak of partnerships instead of traditional customer projects. In general, both sides need to understand each other’s needs, desires and ways of working. A better understanding leads to better sharing of expertise and more lasting project success. This applies to an understanding of architecture and periphery as well as each company’s history. In a nutshell: Over recent years, we have come to exist in a symbiosis of sorts with HORNBACH. We place a strong focus on communicating on an equal footing. We talk as much about architecture, future technologies and trends as we do about project-related technical questions and tasks.

A key factor is the mindset with which we approach HORNBACH. We don’t see ourselves as mere service providers. Of course, there are discussions and arguments at times – friction is part of a partnership. But it is this type of collaboration, this strife for positive change that motivates and drives the teams. HORNBACH and Unic have never been known to idle.

I think what they have come to appreciate about Unic is our general level of involvement. In working with HORNBACH, we drive professional dialogue, but also feed the resulting thoughts, ideas and findings from the Unic universe back into the world of the digital DIY store. After all, our goal is not only to introduce digitally driven innovations into companies. We also add a human touch to the digital.

An Innovative Product Configurator

Most recently, we implemented the product configurator. Can you fill us in on the details?

Generally speaking, the product configurator is an application in the HORNBACH webshop. It helps customers select product variants based on various characteristics and rule-based dependencies. Most of us know configurators from the automotive industry. Without any expert knowledge and with just a few clicks, users can put together their dream car.

It works well for cars, so of course it is also ideal for construction materials. That is how we implemented a comprehensive product configurator, with a scope that we are more than proud of. Customers can access configurators for various segments online (via browser and app). The HORNBACH configurator checks the dependencies of individual components in real time and guides users through the configuration. I have had the pleasure of using the tool a few times myself – it really works like a treat.

Hand in Hand

In these times of the covid pandemic, how have you organised your collaboration with HORNBACH?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we are responsible for the operation of the HORNBACH webshop. So, if there is any sort of digital hiccup at HORNBACH, the ball is in our court. That was already the case before the pandemic. What has changed, however, is the significant increase in visitor numbers and the related orders. But the way the project teams are organised usually means that the system is optimised ahead of time. Not when it is already down.

However, when it became obvious that covid was here to stay, we also had to rethink and re-evaluate our processes. What happens in the individual teams when colleagues need to quarantine? Right from the start, we were part of the task force initialised by HORNBACH, distributed across all locations. The knowledge transfer between employees was ramped up even further. The communication with HORNBACH was also stepped up, with so many people working from home. After all, the relevant colleagues need to make sure that Unic is still well-prepared and able to deliver in this extraordinary situation.

Headless Approach Is a Key Driver

In closing, we would like to compare the past with the present – in more general terms. How did developing software back then differ from developing software today?

Many things are part of the overall standard for developers. But I think that how we use software today is the key driver for software-based services. At Unic, we aim first and foremost for device-agnostic use. This includes websites and webshops with responsive design as well as progressive apps with many features that previously could only be found in native applications.

In the past, a lot of the technical requirements were solved in the backend. In the meantime, however, tasks are starting to move to the frontend. This is true of features as well as logic and performance. The headless architectural approach, where backend and frontend are decoupled, is definitely one driver of this development. But a focus on optimisation and performance has also shifted many jobs to the frontend, which comes with a few challenges such as the distribution to various devices. This would then imply that developers have evolved as well, in particular, in the frontend. And even backend developers have been known recently to show an interest in various frontend topics.