The I in IT is the often overlooked letter in the acronym. Technologists who lump all things technology beneath the IT acronym often forget that information gathering and sharing is the real objective of IT professionals. Many focus very much on the T and very little on the I, then wind up with technology that gathers and shares wrong or useless data. That's why it was refreshing recently to get Mike Lindblad's thoughts on the role of IT in his retail organization. Lindblad is CEO of Barbeques Galore, the 74-store retailer of high-end grills and barbecue supplies and accessories. But don't jump to conclusions about Lindblad's philosophy on technology just because his focus isn't on the latter of the letters in IT. He isn't a technology-spending scrooge who thrives on the restriction of IT project growth. On the contrary, he's a tech-savvy CEO, and one who works arm-in-arm with his IT department. He's simply not enamored by technology for the sake of technology. Rather, his interest is in information, and he sees technology as merely the conduit to disseminate it.
It's with this philosophy in mind that, when Barbeques Galore contemplated its vision for growth last year, its network infrastructure was put under the microscope. The company wanted to expand. To expand, it needed to centralize various POS applications and distribute them to the stores. To do that, it needed a network upgrade. "Mike understands technology's role in his vision to add 10 new stores to our enterprise in 2005," explains Rich Kilar, director of IT at the company. "But when we began analyzing the store systems and applications that would help us expand, it became clear that centralization of applications was the way to go, and that our dial-up network would not facilitate the centralization of the applications we deemed necessary," he says. Specifically, the company is preparing for a changing of the software guard at its POS registers. With this change, it plans to exploit POS-integrated systems like automated time and attendance, CRM (customer relationship management), CBT (computer-based training), and e-mail by offering them via a high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line)-based VPN (virtual private network).
DSL-Based VPN Is Secure, Monitored
Barbeques Galore recently completed installation of its DSL-based VPN to connect its stores with one another and to headquarters. "We chose The Integration Works (Santa Ana, CA), a SonicWALL (Sunnyvale, CA) Gold Partner, to administer our network. The service provider was able to cover most of our locations, so we don't have many that fell out of the DSL network," says Kilar. In the few locations where DSL was not available, the company had to fill in the gaps with T1, satellite, and cable connections. As is usually the case when IT dollars are on the table, these exceptions to the plan did cost the retailer more money. Fitting stores outside the DSL network with alternate technologies can double or even triple a retailer's initial costs and monthly fees, depending on the called-for substitute connectivity.
The Integration Works facilitates SonicWALL's Global Management System (GMS), which provides 24/7 automated monitoring of SonicWALL security appliances and VPNs. Kilar says the service provider will eventually provide the retailer with network monitoring training and turn these responsibilities over to Barbeques Galore to handle in-house. For firewall protection, the retailer chose SonicWALL's TELE3 SP firewall/VPN appliances for its stores. These units feature automated failover technology, which safeguards the company from downtime in the event of a failed broadband connection by supplying a secondary IP (Internet Protocol)-based VPN. For even more redundancy, an analog modem terminal adapter gives the retailer the flexibility to choose between broadband and dial-up connectivity.
At headquarters, the retailer doubled up on SonicWALL's PRO 4060 security platforms for complex networks. These feature six configurable Ethernet interfaces that provide firewall throughput and VPN concentration, allowing protection to multiple drives and network paths. Additional security services include intrusion prevention, network antivirus, and content filtering services. "The firewalls at all locations are primarily intended to provide virus protection," says Kilar. "The threat of having to deal with the cost and time it takes to recover from becoming infected motivated us to seek this kind of protection." Of course, this wasn't an issue prior to the upgrade of the network because stores that weren't networked didn't even have the potential to contract viruses. Opening your stores up to Internet connectivity comes with both risks and the expense of mitigating those risks.
Centralized Time And Attendance, CBT
With the broadband network in place, Barbeques Galore continues to centralize and distribute many mission-critical applications. Time and attendance is one the retailer will soon automate via its network. "We're currently running a timecard system for time and attendance," says Lindblad. "Some of the POS systems we're looking at have time and attendance features built into them, so when we distribute the POS system we ultimately choose via the network, our time and attendance application will also be centralized." Today, Lindblad says store managers put too much time into calculating timecards for payroll. With a modern, networked time and attendance system, employee payroll will be automatically computed using clock-in and clock-out records. While he says it's difficult to quantify the efficiency gains he expects to see as a result, getting store managers out from behind their desks and onto the sales floor will have significant customer service and management implications.
Speaking of customer service, Lindblad says Barbeques Galore invests heavily in the preparedness of its store-level associates. "Development of our people is a high priority. We have national trainers, and their current job is to ensure that our store management group is trained as trainers. Then our store managers handle store-level associate training," Lindblad explains. He isn't satisfied with this scenario, however, and once again will call on the investment his IT department made in the VPN as an information enabler. The company's training department is currently developing a CBT program with intentions to distribute it from a central location to all stores, where store-level associates of all stripes will have access to appropriate training and testing. "This will ensure a thorough, timely, and, most importantly, standardized training program is in place," says Lindblad. "The ability to train and test associates in real time will help us evaluate individual productivity and coach associates to improve it - also in real time." And, as is the case with automated time and attendance, CBT will free up time for managers to get back on the sales floor.
More Bandwidth, Better CRM
With managers spending more time on the sales floor, a stable, high-bandwidth VPN, and better-trained associates, Barbeques Galore is poised to take full advantage of its CRM (customer relationship management) initiatives. The retailer has been capturing customer information at the POS for a couple of years now, but its dial-up network limited the amount of customer data it could upload to headquarters. Little bandwidth, dropped lines, and busy signals had a profoundly negative impact on data integrity, compromising its usefulness in actual CRM campaign scenarios.
Today, the bandwidth inherent in its DSL-based network is allowing the company to collect extensive CRM and loyalty data for its marketing department. Lindblad says that a good portion of his company's customers come into stores frequently for add-ons and consumables including charcoal, grilling utensils, barbecue sauces, spices, and marinades. Then there's the big-ticket consumer, who comes in to purchase high-end grills, smokers, and outdoor ovens. This customer mix lends itself to reward, loyalty, and incentive programs, which help create crossover between these customer segments. "The network will help us develop a more thorough customer database than we have now, which will allow us to understand our customer better and develop programs that reward our best and most frequent shoppers," says Lindblad.
"We also sell a product that is question-intensive," says Lindblad. "Our customers have questions on product specifics, and that information will now be readily available to associates electronically in the form of product manuals, vendor information, and special order and parts status." Again, IT is all about sharing information, and in this case, that communication isn't internal, but is between the retailer and its customers. "Our network will help us gather more, better information, which will help us communicate more effectively with our customers and give them more incentive to revisit the store," Lindblad concludes.
E-Mail, Signage, Intranet Improve Communication
Tracking down inventory upon customer request has typically led to a series of phone calls and faxes among stores and headquarters. This is clearly not the most efficient way to handle store-level inventory management, especially in front of customers. With a high-bandwidth WAN (wide area network) in place, e-mail applications take on a whole new power. Barbeques Galore has begun using its e-mail network to replace phone- and mail-intensive communications, such as sharing inventory management data, merchandise plans, and its weekly store consolidated memo. This memo, previously distributed via mail, deals with operations, merchandising, marketing, and other issues stores might face in a given week. "We've spent too much time on unproductive phone calls, trading phone messages, faxing, mailing, and shipping. There's a huge opportunity to improve the information flow among stores and between the field and headquarters via an e-mail network," Lindblad says. Stores are being outfitted with "manager's" PCs devoted to the e-mail application, Internet access, fax software, and the company's proprietary corporate intranet. "The intranet is a very useful tool for the stores," says Kilar. "It consists of key information downloaded from our AS/400 midrange system, and it presents merchandise, CRM, and other data on one convenient and nicely packaged dashboard screen for our associates."
The retailer is also using the network to distribute product signage to stores. These graphic files can be sent directly to store-level printers on a daily basis, keeping the company's merchandise promotion and pricing effort consistent and updated.
"The most important role IT plays is to enhance our ability to provide information to our people in stores where they can use it as they face the customer. IT is important to the extent that it ensures the information we provide people in the field is as accurate and informative as it can be," says Lindblad. "The more this is true, the better we're going to be at taking care of our customers and selling through our stock. Our WAN makes it possible to distribute information that we couldn't distribute before."
Barbeques Galore is enjoying a reduction in telephone and paper communication costs, and it's giving its better-trained associates more time on the sales floor and at the POS. The free flow of information is empowering the store-level Barbeques Galore team, and while there is no I in that word, the company's new WAN is helping the retailer put the I back in IT.