Magazine Article | July 1, 2002

Close The Book On IT Overhauls

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

System crashes turned Books-A-Million's fulfillment rollout into a cliffhanger. A POS upgrade ended the story.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, July 2002

Ask a roofer what a few rotten shingles mean, and you're sure to get more than you bargained for. "Rotten shingles mean wet tar paper," he'll tell you. "Wet tar paper means wet plywood," he'll continue. "Wet plywood means new roof." It's the same old story to any home improvement contractor or do-it-yourselfer. Peel back a layer or two, and there's no telling what you'll find that needs to be replaced. It's a story multichannel bookseller Books-A-Million (BAMM) (Birmingham, AL) also faced when it finally got fed up with its POS (point of sale) systems, which chronically and inexplicably crashed in the midst of a new POS software rollout.

As the fourth largest book retailer in the nation, BAMM may be called the leader of the tier II pack. With $442 million in sales, it trails the $3 and $4 billion tier I booksellers distantly. But while its online presence ( may not go head-to-head with, and its 204 brick-and-mortar stores aren't trying to compete with Barnes & Noble or Borders, BAMM is the force to be reckoned with in its niche market. Its recent growth has been fueled by internal technology initiatives that have by no means happened independently of one another. In retail as in home construction, BAMM found that the successful whole depends on having the right sum of its parts - and putting them together in the right order.

Hobbling Hardware Cripples The POS
"BAMM always took a maintenance approach to its technology decisions" explains Cy Fenton, EVP of operations at BAMM. "While we didn't run IBM equipment, it was like that old saw that 'nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.' It was the safe choice versus change." The maintenance approach was costly, however, as the hardware BAMM was running at the POS across the chain was experiencing high failure rates. "It seemed inexplicable," Fenton says. "Machines were crashing for no apparent or logical reason. Before I got involved, BAMM tried to roll out JDA's Win/DSS POS software at five geographically disparate stores, but had so many hardware-related problems, it was pulled out within two weeks." A few months later, BAMM regrouped and tried the Win/DSS implementation again, this time in four stores in the Birmingham area. The rollout lasted 18 months, with the same frustrating hardware issues. "We wanted to build our store communications and special ordering capabilities around Win/DSS, but the rollout was being stalled nearly to death by hardware failures." While the in-store POS issues weren't his problem (yet), Fenton thought he had an answer to the store networking issue that hung in the balance as the Win/DSS installation lagged. Netcentral, a BAMM company run by Fenton and partner Craig Hansen, stepped in and built Web-based special order, store communication, and inventory management templates that ran on the same infrastructure they had designed for the consumer-facing Web site. "Not only do we take the orders and handle all the customer interaction, we wrote software that handles the small package direct to consumer fulfillment, then leveraged that to handle store-to-store fulfillment," explains Fenton. "It doesn't matter if it's a customer or a store associate who wants an order shipped, the order travels the same fulfillment route a Web order would through our Florence, AL, distribution center." With this front-end-to-back-end fulfillment system in place, the Win/DSS POS installation could wait until the company's POS hardware issues were addressed.

Pulling Apart The Point Of Sale
Based on the success of Netcentral's and inventory/ordering solutions, Fenton was charged with the responsibility of turning around the company's woes at the POS. He decided it was time to begin anew. "In the past, we made purchasing decisions based on assumptions - the footprint had to be this, we had to choose the low bid, etc. We needed to sweep all these assumptions aside and start over again."

The first stop on Fenton's POS odyssey was last July's Retail Systems show. "Who better to send shopping for a new POS than a guy who knew nothing about it?" he asks. He played the ignorance card when he met with vendors, studied every piece of hardware from printers to cash drawers for a day and a half, and left the show ready to open the bidding. Interestingly, in the midst of entertaining the courtship displays of IBM and NCR, he got a call from Wincor-Nixdorf, a company he had never even heard of. "I spent quite a bit of time talking with our Epson representative at the show, and she passed my name on to Wincor-Nixdorf. If they [Wincor-Nixdorf] were at the show, I didn't see them," admits Fenton. He invited the major players to educate him on their products, in the end choosing Wincor-Nixdorf's BEETLE POS hardware for the heart of BAMM's POS and sticking with JDA's Win/DSS software for the soul. "What impressed me most was the quality of the BEETLE's engineering," Fenton says. "Then they volunteered to demonstrate it, at their cost, by coming in and rescuing one of our troubled Birmingham stores."

Problems At The Power Supply
Objective number one for Wincor-Nixdorf was to make sure its equipment wasn't going to fail for the same reason its predecessor's did. The company's technicians carefully analyzed the hardware that had been in place at BAMM, in the end deeming the majority of the problems the bookseller encountered a result of consumer-grade components that couldn't handle the rigors of retail use. The equipment was also undersized for the power supply at the store, making it susceptible to electrical issues like ground spikes. The power problem was identified when an employee at Joe Muggs, the newsstand/coffeehouse concept operated by BAMM in most of its superstores, turned on a coffee bean grinder and caused a nearby cash register to reboot with the flip of a single switch.

To ensure the problem would not arise again, Wincor-Nixdorf brought in Powervar (Waukegan, IL) to conduct a site power survey on the four Birmingham pilot stores. BAMM purchased Powervar's power conditioning bricks for each register and one for the server, which has eliminated the electrical noise on the network and at the registers. "Hard ground spikes cause internal timing errors in computers. This can do everything from delaying the receipt of critical information to causing systems to crash," explains Fenton. "Since installing Wincor-Nixdorf hardware and Powervar power conditioning equipment, we haven't seen the problem come back, even in the stores that had significant trouble with it." With the power issue seemingly settled by the conditioning bricks, Fenton stopped short of purchasing UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) devices from Powervar for the registers. "If the lights go out, then the store's probably going to be closed anyway," he reasoned.

Maximize Project Management
Anyone who's ever been involved in a widespread IT initiative knows to expect the unexpected. For this reason, Fenton advises companies like his to take advantage of project managers if the hardware or software vendor offers one, even if it is a significant expense. "I would go so far as to say that the POS hardware project would not have succeeded without Joe Brajkovich, our project manager from Wincor-Nixdorf," Fenton claims. "We decided to install the systems at the store level ourselves, so we pulled one person from each store and trained them. Joe planned the whole project. He wrote the training documents, conducted the training, and made sure equipment was delivered on time." When problems arose, as they are bound to, Fenton had Brajkovich to turn to. "For some reason, two of our stores were sent the wrong mice. Joe bought us the right mice from local vendors. One store didn't get its kit cables for its cash drawers. Joe rounded up local contractors and had them made right away. I've decided that we will not do a rollout without him," Fenton asserts.

With more than half of its stores up and running on the BEETLE-Win/DSS POS combo, BAMM is pleased to report a near zero hardware failure rate. "We're positioned to move forward in ways we never would have been with our old system," says Fenton. For example, under the auspices of the American Wholesale Book Company (AWBC), BAMM also markets its fulfillment solution and 200,000-square-foot distribution center to other online booksellers as the answer to their fulfillment needs. The largest and most noteworthy of AWBC's fulfillment customers is "What we've done, in effect, is build a consumer-facing POS system on the Web. But it's much more than that, because on the back end it's a B2B e-commerce engine and an internal fulfillment system as well," says Fenton.

As little as two years ago, a maintenance philosophy prevented the company from peeling back the layers to get to the bottom of its IT problems at the POS. As it happens with home improvement projects, when it addressed its issues head on, the company realized that isolated quick fixes would no longer work. Now, with a sophisticated, enterprise-wide POS system running on brand-new hardware, the contractors on this improvement project are finding satisfaction in a job done well.