Magazine Article | February 1, 2003

Custom App Cleanup

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Eliminating customization from its legacy systems allowed $380 million La Senza to pave the way for international growth.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, February 2003

The ability to mix, match, and customize an outfit might be an appealing option to a customer at a La Senza (Montreal) store, but the thought of so many variables sends shivers up and down Martin Thibodeau's spine. Thibodeau is the VP of IT at La Senza, a $380 million (Canadian) women's and girls' wear retailer that includes more than 500 North American La Senza, La Senza Girl, Anne.x, Silk & Satin, and Suzy Shier stores. When Thibodeau came on the La Senza scene four years ago, there were simply too many variables in the company's IT infrastructure.

With rapid domestic store growth and plans to distribute goods through international licensees, Thibodeau needed to rein in his retail systems. In IT, as in his preference of ice cream, Thibodeau chooses vanilla every time. Spare him the swirl of homegrown applications, scratch any customized candy coating, and kindly refrain from sprinkling unnecessary databases throughout his enterprise. Nonetheless, heading into 2000, the IT environment at La Senza looked more like a 10-year-old banana split. Thibodeau was faced with a 1989 legacy system surrounded by disparate databases, all of them created in-house.

Dissolving Disparate Databases
"Several departments were extracting data from the legacy system and loading it into disparate in-house databases," says Thibodeau. This created inconsistencies. For example, the sales audit information La Senza employees received from the legacy system and any one of these in-house databases was different most of the time. Why so much disparity from one database report to the next? Thibodeau explains that when data was pulled from the InterBase format of the legacy system and dumped into Microsoft Access and/or Excel and disseminated around the company, data integrity was sacrificed. Individual recipients of these databases could make changes that weren't reflected by the legacy system's core data (or anywhere else, for that matter). As a result, a person in marketing would be looking at one sales figure, an accountant would be looking at another, and the president of the company would see yet another. The reports were also untimely. By the time a report was prepared, disseminated, and viewed, the core data from which it came had changed.

Moving forward, Thibodeau decided it was time to scratch the hodgepodge homegrown and let his software provider define some of his company's business processes. "I've learned in past IT projects that customization usually causes pain and aggravation later on," says Thibodeau. "When the software vendor defines business processes, we don't need to deal with gaps created by modifications or be bothered with custom retrofits and upgrades." Thibodeau feels that more often than not, when the user requests a customization, you'll find that it's basically highlighting a bad business process. When all is said and done, he says, "We're not flying rockets. We're manufacturing and selling fashion." A good vanilla software package, therefore, does just what Thibodeau needs it to do.

To alleviate the pain caused by the disparate database situation, La Senza added a sales audit data mart to the STS, an NSB Company, Connected Retailer® portfolio it had already been running. The module takes advantage of La Senza's network of PC-based POS stations to manage all transactions captured at the POS, and acts as the central repository for that data. "Now, we have eliminated the disparate databases, and all sales, inventory, and stock movement information is coming from that one data mart. Everyone's talking about the same data now," says Thibodeau.

Solving Problems With PC-Based POS
Modern retail systems are growing more and more dependent on data captured at the POS, making a solid enterprise-wide network an imperative element. Simultaneous with Thibodeau's arrival, La Senza was on the verge of updating its ten-year-old electronic POS cash registers, a project originally spurred by the perceived impending issues of the Y2K scare. Y2K problems aside, switching to a networked, PC-based POS system would allow a give-and-take of data the enterprise had never seen before and provide the backbone of integration to come.

"Aside from the obsolescence of our POS hardware, we faced limited data availability at the store level," Thibodeau says. As with the legacy database problems La Senza was having, timely dissemination of data was a big issue with the POS system. To get sales information from a store in British Columbia, for instance, back to headquarters in Montreal could take as long as three days by regular mail. All data transmission was hampered by this distribution method. "Regular mail is how we were disseminating sales forecasts, visual store directions, marketing plans, and merchandising information," says Thibodeau. Without a networked, PC-based enterprise, how else could they do it?

La Senza is now equipped with a very sophisticated network for a retailer of its size. Its stores are equipped with a dedicated 56k frame relay, which disseminates data to the LAN in La Senza's Montreal headquarters. With three separate Montreal offices making up its headquarters, the company uses a 100 Base-T network and an ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) backbone to round out its communication infrastructure. It employs two major ISPs (information service providers), Bell Canada and Net Access. The store network created the framework for La Senza to build an intranet in 2000, which now facilitates the posting of merchandising, marketing, and store layout directions to all its stores. "The stores can simply dial in through a Web browser to access the intranet and see the information and archive it as they wish. They're integrated live, in real time, with our exchange servers through Microsoft Outlook Express," explains Thibodeau.

Sourcing Simplified
Data sharing problems aside, La Senza has been burdened by a data capacity problem as well. It's what Thibodeau calls the "infamous limitations of 32,767," a byte limitation of the retailer's legacy operating environment. What it meant for La Senza was the inability to place a single-item order for more than 32,000 units. As the company's sales presence grew, it began to require the ability to place larger orders, a pain the retailer felt particularly badly during the holiday selling season of 2001. "When one of our buyers wanted to place a single order for more than 32,000 units of a certain style, she often had to break the order into two separate lines in order for the system to handle the quantity," says Thibodeau. "The limitation was spread across numerous legacy systems." The manual intervention required by the ordering process created a labor issue and made it very difficult for buyers to do their jobs. "When a buyer was looking for purchase information on a single unit, she had to scan through every single PO [purchase order] by hand to make sure the order was accurate, because one order often had to be placed on multiple POs. It was very difficult for our buyers to handle the data they were gathering," says Thibodeau.

La Senza once again turned to its legacy systems provider, adopting the Connected Retailer sourcing solution, powered by Momentis (Montreal), to manage orders. La Senza's PO management process is now centralized, with all catalogs, intent sheets, and POs in one electronic location. La Senza dispatched Johanne Langelier, director of projects and implementation, to assist buyers during a three-month transition phase. More than 50 users are now using the solution. "Already, we generate 75% fewer POs and have reduced long-distance fax expenses by $13,000," says Thibodeau.

Punctual Polling
Thibodeau says these projects at La Senza are part of an 18-month-long complete revamp of IT systems, scheduled for completion in 2004. Even now, he is impatient to rectify inefficiencies that will be addressed during the course of the rollout. One such inefficiency, which will be alleviated toward the end of the project when La Senza completely integrates the STS merchandising module, deals with polling during holidays and peak sales periods. Under normal circumstances, nightly polling of stores takes all evening, but is complete by 7 a.m. However, polling of the stores during peak sales times can tie up the merchandising system all night long and well into the following day, sometimes until noon. In the 1990s, when the system was developed, polling had to be done in a mode that denied users access to the system. In today's retail environment, this downtime is unacceptable. "When sales updates are running as late as noon, our back office users [buyers, allocators, distributors, merchandisers] are not happy at all. They need the information sooner during this peak period because they need to move the goods out fast," says Thibodeau.

Fortunately, the only mixing and matching Thibodeau will have to do now is the selection of vanilla Connected Retailer portfolio modules. "Don't get me wrong," he says; "we are heavily involved in determining what the business processes are going to be, which modules to adopt, and what impact it will have on end users. But, the integration itself is the responsibility of our software vendor."