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Year-End Wrap-up - The Year of the Tiger!
Friday, December 18th, 2009

credit photo to: swamibu

credit photo to: swamibu

I cannot believe it has been one year since I started this blog. It has truly been an eye-opening experience for me and has taken me to a world of social media that I had been little exposed to - from Twitter to LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Google Reader, and commenting, tweeting, texting, google waving, and being introduced to the likes of so many social media marketing gurus like Seth Godin, Mitch Joel, Tom Peters, Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Brian Clark, Chris Anderson, and others. It has been helpful and inspiring.

I know this has been a difficult year for many with a troubled economy, continued job losses, foreclosures, Bernie Madoff, Earl Jones (Bernie’s Canadian counterpart), and now Tiger! As my wife says ‘2009 has been the year of disillusionment‘. But through all of this I have been lucky enough to have had an incredibly successful year and it all started with this blog!

Now, I am not saying that this blog has directly driven new sales to my business, nor has Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook for that matter. In fact, based on my actual web traffic, readership, and followers, I would guess it barely made a blip. But what this blog did, was give me focus. To blog means to think - think about what you know, think about what value you could bring to others, and think about how this could help grow your own community and business.

Over the past year, I worked on a variety of interesting consulting projects from best practice research, to system selection, to full blown data conversion and integration projects.   It is into the latter, more simply referred to as ‘Data Transformation Services’, that I decided focus my business development so that we can better serve retailers with this critical service.   Retail IT industry expert, and good friend Bill Robinson, likes to describe this as the ‘under-belly of IT projects’. It is often neglected, under-estimated, under-resourced and lacks the appropriate expertise required, which leads to delayed deliveries, missing data, lack of data integrity and could ultimately lead to failed projects!!  

And so it is with this in mind that I have re-focused my efforts and business development, to better serve a community of retailers and software vendors that understand the critical and difficult nature of this work. A well executed Data Transformation project is essential to project success.  With complete business plan in hand, some new business associates to help, and alliances with key vendors, we are already seeing the positive results of this endeavor.

In the coming year, I intend to further extend these services and continue focusing on my blog, sharing information and knowledge, that is pertinent to retailers of all size and types. So here’s to a new year of blogs, tweets, emails, and community-building.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy and proserous new year!

What’s Your Multi-Channel Retail Strategy? Time To Connect….
Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Why is multi-channel retailing the topic of so much discussion ?

credit iamge to Geoff...

credit image to Geoff...

Multi-channel retailing is far from new. Retailers have been selling in multiple channels for over a century, originally via mail order catalogs and then via the phone. The Sears catalog was first published in 1888. They understood the benefits of multi-channel retailing. From this point forward, retailing was more than simply brick & mortar. Providing additional channels for your customers, meant opportunity for increased revenues and better customer service

With the internet, e-commerce, and mobile phones; multi-channel retailing has exploded in ways never anticipated. Consumers now have bigger expectations and demand the flexibility multi-channel shopping can provide. For example, if I shop online and provide all of my personal information to a retailer, I should not have to give that information again when I visit an actual store, whether in my own town, across states/provinces, or even in another country. Multi-channel is all about flexibility and service; providing more options for how consumers can shop with you and simpler ways for them to get the products they want.

Seems fairly simple, but many retailers struggle to get this right. In the early days of multi-channel (pre-internet), these channels were largely treated as separate business entities, with its own inventory, and possibly its own distribution centers.  With the advent of the internet and the emerging e-commerce channel, retailers initially treated this new channel as a separate entity too, with its own inventory, prices, policies, and distribution methods. So much so, that product selection, prices, and availability could be vastly different between brick & mortar and online. Inventory was not even shared between these two channels. Lost sales ruled!!

As the e-commerce channel began to grow, customers expected a different shopping experience; with more consistency, more flexibility, and greater freedom. Retailers slowly started to adapt to this new on-line world and began to put greater focus on an overall multi-channel strategy. The benefits are clear. According to a recent RSR study, a consumer that shops in a multi-channel environment (unhindered), will spend more money with that retailer.  With new channels being added (e.g. mobile, facebook, etc.) and their rapid growth, operating with multiple channels is a requirement for almost every retailer. Having an overall multi-channel strategy is paramount.

While many retailers have come a long way in this area, many retailers still struggle implementing an effective multi-channel strategy. Here are a few things retailers must consider when building their own multi-channel strategy:

  1. Sharing Data – all data must be shared and consistent across all channels. Effective multi-channel strategies can no longer have the same data created in multiple places. Aside from the amount of extra work you will put on your resources, you will end up with discrepancies, inconsistencies, and missing information, which will in the end frustrate your customers. Items, customers, prices, locations, must all be shared. Data integration must be fluid and seamless across all channels.
  2. Integrated Systems/Processes – all business processes must appear as one operation to the customer. Shipping, selling, marketing, etc, must be a cohesive unit. A customer really does not want to hear a salesperson in the store say ‘I do not know about the sales on-line, that’s a different division and you will have to contact our online support desk ‘. This will, once again, only frustrate the customer. They are in your store and they want to have a total shopping experience between channels. A fully integrated system across all channels will improve your chance of success.
  3. BAFA – Buy Anywhere Fulfill Anywhere - This is the ultimate in any multi-channel/cross-channel operation. Customers want to shop where they want, when they want and have it delivered or picked up at a time and place of their choosing. No phone calls, no running from store to store and no sitting around waiting for a package to arrive.This is the ultimate in customer ease and flexibility. This will reduce lost sales. Rena Granofsky, President of RIT Experts, recently wrote an intriguing white paper on this very topic. I would also add one more ‘anywhere’ to this acronym BAFARA - Buy Anywhere Fulfill Anywhere Return Anywhere - and that would complete the cycle from the customer perspective.

It’s time for retailers to connect - connect data, connect systems, and align business processes across all channels. What do you think is important in a multi-channel strategy? Are there other things retailers should be considering/implementing?

Are You Greentailing Today?
Monday, September 14th, 2009

credit photo: medialyte

credit photo: medialyte

We hear so much about consumers and businesses behaving responsibly and keeping things ‘green’, but are retailers doing enough in this area? I recently read the book Greentailing (affiliate link), by Neil Stern and Willard Ander, and they took a close look at what some retailers are doing to behave as a socially and environmentally conscious company.

Here is their definition of ‘Greentailing’:

“Greentailing is conscientious retailing built on environmentally profitable business practices which explicitly consider the impact of a retailer’s actions on the environment and community, customer perception and behavior, employees, suppliers, and ultimately shareholder returns.”

Here are a few suggestions/examples, cited in Greentailing and other sources, that retailers can be focusing on today to improve their ‘Green’ factor:

  1. Optimize energy efficiency in your stores - the U.S. LEED certification program has established guidelines and measurable standards for design, construction, and operation of your retail facilities. Companies like Target, Best Buy, and Office Depot have already started opening LEED certified stores.
  2. Packaging - eliminate any unnecessary packaging. Excessive packaging is wasteful and not very consumer friendly. Retailers can proactively buy merchandise that has no excess packaging or packaging that is made from recyclable products.
  3. Bagging - we have started to see the elimination of plastic bags in groceries and other retailers in major cities like San Francisco, Toronto, and others. In order to discourage consumers from choosing plastic bags rather than recyclable bags, Toronto has recently introduced the infamous ’5 cent bag‘ bylaw, forcing grocers to charge consumers 5 cents per bag if they still opt for plastic. While not everyone agrees with this approach of a ‘forced’ tax on their use of plastic bags, it is certainly one of many ways retailers can eliminate waste and use of products that are simply bad for the environment.
  4. Recycling - retailers can offer more products that are made out of recycled goods or even sell high quality used items. Buffalo Exchange has made a retail business out of buying/selling vintage high quality used clothing.
  5. Organic, Natural, Nontoxic - retailers can make an effort to buy environmentally preferable products. Retailers must pay attention to how products are being produced and are using the most natural, organic and nontoxic materials possible. Williams Sonoma has recently introduced a new line, ‘Pure & Green Collection’, using all natural products and recycled containers for a line of soaps, lotions, and cleaners.
  6. Supply Chain - retailers can do more to make sure suppliers themselves are producing, operating, and delivering products in an eco-friendly manner. Wal-Mart introduced a scorecard system that measures and evaluates their suppliers on all of these factors.
  7. Charity - Charity, philanthropy, and community services are all good for the environment. Giving something back to the local community with hands on services or charitable donations towards non-profit organizations that are improving the environment are other ways retailers can make a difference.
  8. IT Initiatives - There are many IT initiatives that can be undertaken to help improve the environment. Software applications that can reduce or eliminate paper outputs, use of digital/shelf tags instead of price labels and other such applications. A colleague of mine is involved in a company, Transaction Tree, that eliminates paper receipts and can have them all e-mailed directly to the customer. Stores like the Stanford Store (a Stanford University apparel shop) have eliminated paper receipts and handles them electronically, sending out customized and personalized e-receipts. There are also companies like Carbon Foresight who provide services along with their CarbonConnect software that can evaluate & measure your overall carbon footprint.

These are just a few suggestions/ideas that might help you look at some of your own business practices with a ‘greener’ eye. What greentailing steps are you taking that I may not have covered? Please share your stories/examples with us.

9 Things for Retailers to Tweet About
Thursday, August 6th, 2009

credit to: a godly maiden

credit to: a godly maiden

Last post I talked about what Retailers should be ‘listening’ for on twitter. Now the question is “what should they be tweeting about?”

This is the most important thing I will say in this post: ‘Tweeting is personal’.  If your tweets are robotic, timed, and impersonal, they will be ineffective. Using Twitter should be about sharing who you are, what you have to offer, and why it is important to you and others that are following. For what not to do and some basic Twitter etiquette, see Chris Brogan’s recent post -  A Brief and Informal Twitter Etiquette Guide. Another recent post describes Tweeting Your Corporate Culture. Based on all of this information, I have put together a few suggestions, and my list of:

.

What Retailers Should Tweet About

  1. Company history, vision, & mission - Your company has a history, a story to tell. It’s a great way for people to connect with your brand to tell them your history, war stories, visions, and missions. Sharing these 140 character tidbits can go a long way with your customers.
  2. Customer success/feedback - Share customer stories. Positive feedback or customer stories about how a customer succeeded because of the use of your product or service.
  3. Employee recognition - Sharing employee accomplishments, personalities, and insights, tells a lot about the company culture and what the company is all about.
  4. Company news & events - Share any press releases, news stories, or special events.
  5. Product features/benefits - Describe product features and how the customer will benefit from these features. Share different ways customers can use the product/service or different purposes that others may not have thought of.
  6. Other relevant industry news - As an industry expert in your domain, you should share relevant  industry news with your customers. It is important to educate and inform your customer about the industry in general.
  7. Related topics of interest/importance to the company - What other things are of interest to your organization? What other passions does your company have. I think it is very important to tweet about this. Maybe there are special interests or charitable organizations you believe in. Share this with your customers.
  8. Product ideas/suggestions - Solicit feedback and ideas/suggestions for new products or how to improve on existing products.
  9. Upcoming promotions/sales - And lastly, tweeting about special promotions and upcoming sales. I left this for last, since it is the most obvious use and the most common type of tweets used by retailers. I think this should be very limited in its use and it should be done as creatively as possible. Offer special competitions/promotions and giveaways to twitter followers, as another way to not only promote your stuff, but also to engage your customers or potential customers.

As you can see there are lots of things to tweet about, but it should all follow a well-laid out plan. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when tweeting:

  • Do not tweet too much. While there is no hard and fast rules about quantity, I think a handful of tweets per day (maybe 3-10) is more then sufficient.
  • While you do not have to tweet about ALL of the above topics, do not limit your tweets to only a couple of topics. Try to mix it up and keep topics diverse and interesting. Also, test out different topics/approaches to see what works best.
  • Try to engage your customers. Ask questions, solicit feedback.
  • Try to @reply to as many questions/comments directed to you as possible. It is not required that you reply to every message, but try to as much as possible.
  • Any conversation that does not need to be shared with everyone should be moved to Direct Messages or E-mail.
  • HAVE FUN!! Tweeting is supposed to be fun, personal, casual, and impromptu. Sharing, engaging, and teaching is one of the most effective ways to market your products/services.

6 Ways Retailers Could Search Twitter
Thursday, July 30th, 2009

credit to: internetinfopreneur

credit to: internetinfopreneur

Everyone should be searching Twitter regularly. It is the new way to ‘listen’ to what you need to hear. I search Twitter regularly for things that are important to me.

Retailers can take great advantage of this and learn more about themselves and their competition. Here are a few things that Retailers should be searching for on Twitter:

  • Company Name
  • Banners
  • Brands
  • Specific products
  • Specific areas of interest related to your business (e.g. yoga for Lululemon, marathons/races for The Running Room, etc).
  • The competition and their specific competitive brands.
  • Anything that is of interest to your organization at a particular point in time - this can be very dynamic and very powerful.

Searching for this can be informative and insightful, and it will also give you an opportunity to engage your customers or prospective customers. If someone says something negative about your brand, you can jump in and offer some help. If someone is tweeting something negative (or positive) about your competitor’s brand, it is once again an opportunity to swoon in and offer some help or alternative suggestions (i.e. your product or service).

Here are 6 useful ways I have found useful to search Twitter:

  1. Search.twitter.com - This is the simplest and quickest way to enter any search criteria and get immediate results.
  2. Twitter Desktop Tools - Tools like Tweetdeck or Seismic help manage all of your twitter accounts/timelines. These tools provide great ways to organize your followers into groups and create your own ’search’ groups in an organized fashion, that can be saved and viewed on a regular basis.
  3. Monitter - This is a great tool that provides you the ability to view 3 panes of keyword searches simultaneously. I prefer this tool when trying to ‘monitor’ something that is current. By typing in 3 keywords or phrases about that current event you can watch all twitter activity about that particular topic.
  4. Twitscoop - Twitscoop is another great tool to view your own timeline, create your own searches, and keep on top of current twitter activity and the hottest topics being discussed.
  5. Google Twitter Search - This is a nifty little search tool built on Google Search. It scans the Twitter database for your search criteria but displays it in the standard Google search results display.
  6. RSS Feed - This is my favorite tool of all. You create very specific and unique searches in search.twitter.com and then add them to your RSS Feed. Using your favorite RSS reader you will always be aware of any new tweets that meet your criteria. You can sometimes ‘miss’ key tweets using some of the Twitter tools/feeds above, since timelines only show the most recent tweets. Using an RSS feed you will never miss an important tweet, since it will remain ‘unread’ until you have seen it within your reader.

Regardless of the tool being used, it is imperative that you start searching Twitter on a regular basis. It is a great way to stay on top of current events, trends, and what others are saying about your brand, your competition or other areas of interest. This will give you an opportunity to engage directly with your customers or prospective customers.

If you have used other tools/ways of searching Twitter or found other uses for this, then please share it with us.

Time to Throw MS Office out the Door?
Monday, July 13th, 2009

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Is it time to move away from Microsoft Office and Outlook? And if so, is NOW the right time? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Microsoft or its software. I have come to rely and depend on these products for over 15 years now. I have created, saved, and filed thousands and thousands of documents and emails over the year. A perfectly organized folder structure six deep, so that my brain could attempt to navigate back to that important email message I may have filed over 6 years ago. In fact, I am so entrenched in its use that I get the shivers when I think of switching. And therein lies my problem, why should I be so locked into one product, one comany? The world of software seems to be moving in a different direction.

I have already started to move more and more towards Google, using Google Search, Google Reader, Google Web Analytics, and Google’s FeedBurner. So if I now switch to Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar, will I just be throwing out one software dynasty for another?

I don’t think so and I will explain why:

  1. In the clouds - Google applications and many others now run in the clouds. Gone are the days of installing software from CDs, with registration keys and special drivers. These apps are either free or require a small monthly fee. Setup is as simple as starting your browser. All data and documents are stored on central servers and managed in the clouds. If your computer crashes, if you use a different computer in Taiwan, just navigate to the web-site of your favorite application, login and then everything is there. For example, I use Dropbox, where you can store and share files in the cloud, no more need for timely backups, as documents/files are instantly updated in the clouds and all shared computers. (n.b. you still must back up your computer and all of your own data for complete security).
  2. Open and Flexibile - These applications are open, meaning I can run a different front-end built from different software vendors without losing anything. Twitter is a great example of this. While all tweets go through Twitter, I have already tried a handful of different applications that can access, display, and add functionality to the Twitter environment. Right now I am using Tweetdeck as my preferred front-end to Twitter, but if something comes along better tomorrow, I can switch with little pain and little lost. All the real core information is kept on Twitter, everyone else is just adding functionality around this.
  3. Organization/Search - Organization and search capabilities just seem to be a whole lot better and faster in Google. Tag or label your documents and email mesages. No more need for complex folder structures to save your important docs and email messages. Other web applications such as Twitter and Delicious also have great tagging and search capabilities.
  4. New Applications - New applications are built everyday that you can easily try and plug into. No upfront charge, no lengthy setup, but all the benefit to catch on to the latest application, all without losing your data or requiring some major migration.

So this should shed some light on why I feel ready to throw out MS Office & Outlook and jump into the world of Google and Cloud Computing. BUT….maybe I’ll wait until next week :)

Next post - Should Retailers be Moving to Cloud Computing?

Retail Data Conversions; Part Art, Part Science. Which is more important?
Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Right Brain, Left Brain  credit to: vaXzine

Right Brain, Left Brain credit to: vaXzine

Data conversions must be exact, precise, methodical….WAIT, this all sounds very scientific and not creative at all. So what part of a data conversion can possibly have anything to do with ‘ART’? Let me explain…

Retail data conversions can be complex. I am sure this is true for most industries, but as retail is my industry domain, that is what I am focusing on. Converting critical data like UPCs, prices, customers, etc, can have a huge impact on your organization, if not done correctly! I have worked on numerous data conversions for retailers over the years, and I feel like I have encountered every problem imagineable. Yet, new problems are encountered each and every time. Each conversion is different. No matter the methodology followed, the testing prepared for, unique situations arise. In so doing, we must adapt to the situation and this is where the creativity, the ‘art’ (and fun) begins. Here are a few prime examples:

  1. When a default is not a simple default - by definition a default should be simple. Not necessarily so. Providing data for all fields in a new system is not always possible and therefore we set defaults. But simple defaults will not always provide the best results. Maybe the default can be based on other important data or dates and provide a more meaningful ‘complex’ default. In order to have a better result, it is preferable to use as precise a default as possible.
  2. Using complex data maps - how creative can you be in building data maps that result in better and more meaningful output. A data map can be a simple one-one to map (replace the old value with this new value) or it can be fairly creative and complex. I recently had to map an old GL code structure with multiple parts to a new GL code with a differnet set of parts, where each part had a diffent series of rules and data masks to build the new G/L code from the old to the new - now, that was fun!!
  3. Finding a home for old data - Sometimes the residing system just does not have a place to store a piece of information from the old system. When that old information is valuable and you want to carry it forward, you must find a place for it to live, where it can be accessed and continue to be meaningful. A couple of options may be; to use a user-defined field, or put in another field that is not being used and give that field a new meaning, or merge the information into another field while keeping its meaning. All viable and creative solutions to a common data conversion problem.
  4. Resolving errors - and this is where the most creative part of the process occurs. Integrity is king! You have built a complex set of data conversions and business rules that are all inter-connected and must work in concert to get a complete result with full integrity. Sure, you can say if you built the conversions correctly to begin with there will be no errors and no discrepancies, but my experience tells me otherwise. Rejects, errors, and discrepancies are a natural part of data conversions, but how you deal with it is what becomes the differentiating factor. Some rejects or discrepancies can be fine, if they are expected or can be explained/justified. In other cases, the source of an error needs to be identified and then corrected. Once the source of the problem is found a correction is needed - corrections can be as simple as a small business rule change or as complicated as requiring a conversion re-write or additional data/conversions that might not have been anticipated. The goal is to ‘create’ a resolution that will get the desired result without disrupting the entire flow and integrity of the entire conversion process.

So there you have it, data conversions are not simply scientific, and a creative component is almost always needed, sometimes equally, if not more important. This just highlights a few examples of this and I am sure there are others you may have experienced that are also relevant? So which do you think is more important? Art or science? What have your experiences showed?

12 Ways Google Wave Can Help Retailers
Sunday, June 7th, 2009

If you haven’t seen this yet, take a glimpse at this presentation of the recently unveiled Google Wave at the Google I/O 2009 Conference (it’s long at 1h 20m, but watch a few minutes starting at the 4:30m mark, and you’ll get the idea).

It is the latest Google creation that may transform how we all work. In it’s simplest definition, it is the next generation of e-mail. But take a closer look, and you will quickly understand it’s way more than that - it’s the collision of email, instant messaging, wikis, blogging, video (youtube), photo albums (flickr), twitter, and much more into one single powerful collaborative tool. And ALL of this is done in a simple browser.

I expect this to be transformational, and I immediately began to think of how retailers might benefit from such a tool. Of course there are already lots of collaboration tools available in the market, but keep in mind that Google Wave is way more than that, it is:

  • Free - anyone from any computer can simply open their browser and have access to all of this.
  • Real-time - and when I say real-time, I mean real-time. Character by character, it is instantly displayed on the receiver(s)’ computer.
  • Everything all in one - no separate components for email, instant messaging, blogging, tweeting, etc.
  • All about a conversation - track every comment or reply in its appropriate place within the thread and specify who can or cannot see the reply. Also provides complete playback capability that allows you to step through a conversation from the beginning, one comment/reply at a time.
  • Open Source - anyone can add more services/features to this, making it increasingly powerful. In typical Google fashion - they have created the foundation and will let the rest of the world improve on it!

Retailers with locations, employees, and customers across states, the country, and possibly the world, have a lot to benefit from all this. This tool is really about having conversations. Conversations that others can participate in and build upon. Conversations can consist of 2 participants or an entire organization, where everyone can participate in the conversation and follow along in a very flexible and powerful way. So with that in mind, here is my list of 12 ways that I can see retailers benefiting from Google Wave:

  1. Education - Companies have always been good at delivering big binders/documents of policies, procedures, rules, etc. What if they can tailor those online documents to certain groups of employees? What if employees can post comments/questions right in the appropriate point of a document, where HR or other employees can respond? This is sort of like an FAQ, but organized in an ongoing conversation.
  2. Product information - Buyers have stories to tell about their collections and products. Everyone in the organization can benefit from this information and then add their own comments/feedback. All of this information can be shared with everyone and buyers can learn from others.
  3. Training materials - provide all training materials online that can be viewed and shared by all staff. Documents, videos, online conferencing, and employee feedback. Others can learn from what has worked best or not for others.
  4. Product warnings - Inform your customers quickly with warnings of any product defects or potential hazards.
  5. Customer invitations - Invite your customers to special events and upcoming promotions.
  6. Customer feedback - Request customer feedback and let employees and other customers to respond. This information will be totally transparent and shared by all.
  7. Customer polls/surveys - Conduct quick polls or surveys with your employees and customers. This will give you quick and instantaneous feedback on how things are going or testing out a new idea or strategy.
  8. Share selling tips/techniques - Store employees can share their own tips on product benefits or selling techniques.
  9. Store competitions - District or store managers can start competitions for employees or stores at a whim, and track the results.
  10. Collaborative charity events - Start/promote charity events, locally or nationally, where employees and customers can easily participate.
  11. Employee blogging/tweeting - Provides a platform for employees to express themselves through blogging and tweeting. Employees can share their personal stories and experiences with other employees and customers.
  12. Suggestion box - How about an online transparent suggestion box, where employees or customers can make recommendations, and then HR or other managers can provide their feedback.

These are just a few ideas that came to mind. Any of these or other components/widgets can be added to Google Wave. What would you suggest? How would you like to see retailers use a tool like this?

10 Myths About Selecting a Retail System
Monday, May 18th, 2009

It’s easy to select a new system. It’s HARD to select the RIGHT system. Over the years, I have heard retailers say such things as, ‘all systems basically function the same’, ‘they all have their issues’, and ‘if it works for ‘X’ it will work for me’. It is this kind of attitude that is likely to get you into trouble. Over time, I have developed a list of 10 myths about selecting a new retail system:

Choices - by fotobicchio

Choices - by fotobicchi

Myth #1 - If it works for other retailers, it will work for me.
This is absolutely not true. The exact same system could be a great fit for one retailer and a disaster for another.  Even if you believe the retailer is very similar to you, there are always differences; merchandise mix, number or size of stores, distribution methods, employee skill/sophistication, personalities, etc.  These differentiations can all impact on how a system will work for one retailer vs. another.

Myth #2 - All systems basically do the same thing.
On the surface Retail systems all have to provide a certain level of basic functionality in order to operate in a retail environment. But it goes beyond this. Is the system easy to use, intuitive? How is the system going to help you improve? Does it have the required level of sophistication that is going to enable your company to grow and thrive, or will it’s rigidity be a hindrance? Yes, most systems have the basic functionality, but whether it is in-depth , forward-thinking, and intuitive can be a very different story.

Myth #3 - Underlying technology is not important 
If it works and runs on a Windows PC then it must be OK. Not true! The underlying technology is very important. Is it current? Is it open or proprietary? Can it inter-operate and play well with others? Purchasing a system that is an aging or dying technology or completely closed and requiring special or proprietary knowledge can be very limiting.

Myth #4 - System must be PCI compliant
With the number of credit card security breaches we have experienced recently, certainly all solutions MUST be PCI compliant by now. That is simply not true. Some may be fully compliant, some may only be partially compliant, and others may not be at all. This needs to be reviewed, questioned, and challenged. Being PCI compliant is more than simply about software. This is your data and you are at risk, not the vendor. Do your homework.

Myth #5 - Architecture is not important
Not all architectures are the same. Is it centralized or distributed? Is it client server or thin client? Is it web-based? How easy is it to deploy the software? Are software updates automatic? These can have an effect on your operations and your total cost of ownership, and ultimately your bottom line.

Myth #6 -  If they don’t have what I need, it can always be customized
While this may be true, it is really not recommended. Customizations can be expensive and risky. There is more cost than just the initial development; documentation needs to be customized, specialized training may be needed, support team needs to be educated, and upgrades are more costly as customizations need to be re-incorporated. In addition, customizations can cause the software to become unstable.

Myth #7 - Store activity does not have to communicate in real-time 
Yes for some, seeing their store sales the following day is acceptable, but how the data is communicated can be very important. Whether real-time, near real-time, or nightly, it is extremely important that data is communicated accurately, consistently, is easily verifiable, and has proper failover should connections be lost. Also, not all data is created equal, maybe seeing some data in real-time is critical while some is not, All this must be considered when evaluating store communications.

Myth #8 - If they don’t have what I need, I can always ‘plug-in’ another module
This can be a viable approach, but not all systems/architecture easily support this. Some vendors may support 3rd party modules/applications right out of the box, others may require some integration effort, while some may not support this at all. Integration can be painful and expensive if not working with the right solution. 

Myth #9 - As long as it has the data, I can get what I need
Be extremely careful here. I hear vendors say that ALL the time. We have the data you need, so you surely can report on it. This is not necessarily true. How is this data accessed? Most vendors will have a set of base (canned) reports (but not all!), and then typically you can modify or add reports of your own. How easily is this done? Can data be summarized, filtered, organized? Is the database complex or proprietary? Do they have their own end-user tool? Can you use 3rd party tools (such as Crystal Reports or JasperSoft)? Do you require any special knowledge/skills to access the data? Be very careful to make sure  that you will truly be able to access the data, in the format you need it, and with the skillset you have.

Myth #10 - It costs less and does the same thing
Similar to myth #2, not all systems are alike, and therefore, you cannot simply go with the lowest cost solution. You get what you pay for definitely applies here. Now, that being said, there are less expensive solutions that may work for you, but you need to evaluate all of the above and see where a solution fits within your budget. Just as you would not consider a system that exceeds your budget, you should probably not be considering a solution that falls below the lower range of your budget either.

Bonus Myth - We can do this on our own. Who needs consultants?
While you can use this list to arm yourself with valuable knowledge, having outside expertise is still recommended. Consultants bring expertise, an outside point of view/perspective, and in-depth industry knowledge of best business practices, technology, and software vendors. In the long run, a consultant can save you time, money, frustration and costly delays.


I’m sure I’ve missed a few, what myths would you add? What words of warning or advice can you share that will help others?

 

 

Why Aren’t There More Grocery Stores On-line?
Monday, May 4th, 2009

I predict one day soon shopping for groceries online will be as common downloading songs. It just makes sense. Read my recent encounter with Grocery Gateway and you will understand why I see it this way.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with John Charleson, IT Director of Longo’s. Since 1956, Longo’s has been serving the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with high service, high quality grocery stores. Longo’s has participated in the online grocery business since 1999. At first, they were merely the supplier to Grocery Gateway, where their shoppers would come into the store on a daily business and pick orders for their online customers. After Grocery Gateway made a brief departure using their own central distribution, Longo’s purchased the near bankrupt Grocery Gateway in 2004, and brought personal shopping back to their stores. The rest, as they say, is history. The online business was profitable within 6-9 months and has seen phenomonal growth at a pace of 15-25% per year.

A few more stats about their online business:

  • Fills 4,000-8,000 orders per week in the GTA from about 6 stores.
  • Regular customers order every 2nd week (supplemented by a few visits to the store in the interim)
  • 8,000 SKUs available online
  • Average online order is $140 vs $30 in-store
  • Online sales account for about 5-10% of total sales.

Sales continue to grow as they add more stores for Grocery Gateway shoppers, expanding their customer reach, while increasing the number of SKUs available online.

What a great service. I remember my mom calling the local grocer placing an order over the phone, and having a delivery man show up later that same day with fresh goods, well packed, and carried right into our kitchen with a warm smile. Longo’s has been long on customer service and now has the ability to provide this kind of service to its customers once again, en masse, through the use of technology. While technology plays a significant role in this service, the personal and human touch is what makes it such a huge success.

 

Online Order Process:

Orders are placed online, and then picked at a nearby location by real people. Using handheld devices, the ’shoppers’ walk the aisles picking out the best produce and fresh products with a caring and discerning eye, as if they were buying groceries for their own family. If a product is not available, then the shopper will pick an appropriate substitution. Orders are packed in re-usable cartons and then picked up by the delivery trucks first thing in the morning. Longo’s uses their own well-trained delivery personnel, as this ultimately becomes the only ‘face’ to the customer. Delivery personnel provide friendly, high level service, carrying all cartons right into the customer’s kitchen for convenient unpacking.

Longo’s prides themselves on customer service and they are pleased with the satisfaction their customers get with this service. Many have said they could no longer live without it. Longo’s is always trying to improve upon this.

Even with their great service and an award-winning e-commerce site, they have plans (vision) for numerous improvements:

  • Improve fill rates by showing available inventory by region and making more intelligent automated substitiutions, when the item is not found.
  • Give customers the option of picking up their order at the store (with attendant putting packed groceries right into vehicle) or receiving it at home.
  • Add more SKUs and specialized SKUs, depending on region of purchase.
  • Offer promotions and specials while shopping online.
  • Offer product suggestions based on purchase history.

This shows Longo’s desire to continually improve the overall online shopping experience. I think they can take this even further with more social interaction by adding such features as online product reviews, ’shopper’ feedback, and online discussions.

 

Why Aren’t More Grocers Providing This Service?

I think this is the ideal online business for for brick & mortar retailers. Tesco has been doing this for years with continued and growing success. It’s a time-saver, it’s ecologically friendly (less travel, re-usable cartons), and is a huge convenience for your customers. I understand that this is not a simple service to add and will be difficult to make it profitable, but nonetheless it is a great service to your customer and can give you an edge over your competition. Yes, it will eat into already tight margins, but as we have seen with other industries - adjust to the online world and make it work (profitable) or potentially lose altogether.

I am curious to hear what others think? Do you know of any grocers that are already providing this kind of service? Do you think you would use this type of service if it was available in your area? What other improvements would you recommend for online grocery shopping?

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