T he WAN was the easy part. When Dress Barn moved forward with what is fast becoming a "no-brainer" retail IT initiative these days - a move from dial-up networking to a broadband WAN - it did so for specific reasons. The company wanted to add applications that would complement its planned CRS Retail Systems POS software upgrade. It wanted to establish an intranet for internal communication. It wanted to digitize, standardize, and simplify store documentation processes. It wanted to facilitate store-level Internet and e-mail access. It wanted to centralize credit authorization, which allows consolidation of credit transactions and results in serious communication and card processing savings. Centralized gift card, CRM (customer relationship management), and returns management rounded out the list of immediate network-driven applications that justified the company's decision to upgrade. So the retailer moved quickly, chose a fractional T-1 WAN solution from MCI, and had all of its nearly 800 stores connected in three months.
Get End User Input Prior To POS Selection
That Dress Barn would remain a CRS POS software customer might have been a foregone conclusion, but the POS upgrade that followed the WAN was nonetheless a painstaking and thorough affair. The retailer called on Clicks & Mortar Consulting to help it choose a hardware platform and ready its new CRS RetailStore software, which kicked off four months of research. Phil Giusto, CIO at Dress Barn, called the process exhaustive and comprehensive. Dress Barn began its hardware selection process by creating a separate RFP (request for proposal) for each targeted upgrade area - the POS hardware itself, the debit/pinpad terminal, the payment authorization switch, etc. Then the retailer researched the service approaches of several leading hardware providers to ensure that its ultimate selection would be outfitted with the appropriate nationwide support infrastructure. "We sat down with each vendor's SLAs (service level agreements), compared them to other vendors', and talked to other retailers about their experiences," says Giusto. Specifically, he says his criteria focused on the vendors' credibility in the industry and the type of retailer it typically served. "A vendor that hangs its hat on the fact that it's worked with Wal-Mart is probably not the vendor for a midsized specialty retailer like us," he says. As the retailer narrowed its options, it began a discussion with the leading contenders. "We shared our business model with the vendors, told them where we thought we should be in terms of technology, and asked their advice," Giusto says.
Next, Dress Barn asked its end users for feedback on the short list of hardware vendors it had compiled. More than 20 store operations associates were called on to participate in blind testing. CRS' Encore POS product was loaded onto generically marked machines, and the store ops people were asked to process simulated transactions and take notes on their hardware configuration preferences. "At this point, we focused on our associates' reactions to the cosmetics of the hardware, the feel and placement of the peripherals, the functionality of the touch screens, the size of the monitors, the layout of the keyboards, and so on," Giusto explains. "Surveying our end users helped us gather critical feedback that assisted in deciding which hardware and peripheral selections we would be making."
Giusto says the feedback gathered from users exposed a couple of key trends that led to the company's selection of Fujitsu POS equipment. Touch screens were a clear favorite, with end users citing the helpfulness of their GUI (graphical user interface) and a newfound ability to engage customers eye-to-eye while processing transactions. Giusto says the hardware-software combination created the perception of a PC, as opposed to a register, which users indicated they were more comfortable with.
With the support of store operations associates, it was up to the IT staffers to ensure the CRS-Fujitsu combination would perform. Giusto admits that the hardware, outfitted with Pentium's new M chip, came as close to the bleeding edge as the relatively conservative company has ever been - a position it was leery about being in. But the fact that the hardware vendor agreed to roll Dress Barn's existing MMF cash drawers and Epson receipt printers into its service contract helped sell him. "You have an obligation to save money whenever possible and continue using equipment that still has value," says Giusto, "so the service of this existing equipment was built into the service contract." The comprehensive nature - and length - of Fujitsu's service contract had a positive effect on the hardware's total cost of ownership, and staffers at Dress Barn, Fujitsu, and CRS expressed confidence they could bring the project together. This would be proven during the aggressive testing and pilot stage that would ensue.
Transaction Variables Require Testing
Quality assurance was at the root of Dress Barn's three-phase test, retest, and pilot approach. First, CRS and Dress Barn conducted standard quality assurance testing in CRS' lab. Then, what Giusto calls the alpha test began. Ten store managers were once again called on, this time to test software scripts by doing everything they could think of to break the system. For a week, these store managers conducted mock transactions of every sort imaginable. When problems or glitches arose, the problem was duplicated so the data structure leading up to the snafu could be carefully recorded, giving programmers the step-by-step context clues that would help them eradicate the issue.
"With so many peripherals and payment options involved, there are many transaction variables. Each of them needs to be tested," advises Giusto. Following identification of problems in the alpha test, the program went back to CRS, where it was recoded and prepared for the beta round of quality assurance testing.
Dress Barn's beta test followed the same mock transaction cycle, albeit with fewer problems and requiring considerably less repair time. It was during this phase, however, that CRS released a service pack for its new Encore release, a service pack Dress Barn wanted. "At that point, we had to stop what we were doing and build that in, and it took us off schedule. I consider it an unplanned opportunity. We could have gotten away without it, but then we would have chosen to live with issues we knew we could have avoided," says Giusto. The service pack installation pushed the next planned testing phase - what Giusto calls conference room piloting - out by more than a week. The company had planned on running pilot tests of its "final" POS configuration in a controlled, yet distributed, network. In reality, an abbreviated conference room pilot followed by an in-store pilot program was to unfold. "We ran into the classic situation where we had testing yet to do, but our end date was not moving. We needed to be in the stores before the fall season, a very critical time for Dress Barn. And we still had to train well over 800 store managers plus trainers, district, and regional managers," Giusto recalls.
Field-Testing At Crunch Time
Giusto says his team knew that it still faced some bugs, but the system would have to be field-tested, rather than lab-tested, to meet the looming deadline. Fortunately, members of the store operations team that helped with research and testing were willing to pilot the system in their stores. "We had some struggles with the first few stores, so we worked them out, waited a week or so, and installed a couple more stores. After a two to three week period of ironing out bugs that popped up in the live setting, we pushed forward very hard," says Giusto. In a matter of days Dress Barn had ramped up 60 stores in hopes of hitting 100 stores before stalling for a month or so to observe the new system in action. But as the deadline loomed and the impact of its development, testing, and service pack installation cycle delays all started to be felt, the implementation team pushed on. "We got to the point where we conceded that we could test for six months and not catch everything, because the real world is far different from a lab environment. The executive sponsors of the project calculated the risk and went full-speed ahead with our implementation plan," says Giusto.
Originally, the team planned on handling physical installation Mondays through Thursdays and using Fridays for cleanup and troubleshooting time. But because a couple of weeks were lost to the testing and service pack installation process, the team decided to install on Fridays also. "We didn't want to impact stores on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but we wanted to bring up a minimum of 25 stores per day and be done installing in eight to nine weeks," says Giusto. In fact, Dress Barn got back ahead of schedule during the installation phase. At its best, it completed 39 store installations in one day, part of a week in which it completed 135 stores. Prior to tackling the next day's list of installations, each team member involved was required to sign off on the completion of his or her responsibilities prior to going live.
Because it was concerned about employee safety, the Dress Barn installation team also made it a priority to handle its work early in the morning, prior to store opening time, as opposed to late at night after stores closed. "Most of our associates are women, and we didn't want them working late into the evening," says Giusto. "Starting at 6:30 in the morning is more comfortable for them than staying after hours, sometimes until 1 a.m." But what's good for associates isn't necessarily good for IT, which the installation team soon realized as it worked with a narrow window of opportunity to complete the installation. "We had 3 to 4 hours per day in which to work, because we had to be ready to open the stores at 10 a.m. at the latest," says Giusto. "We knew this would give us very little time to fix things that didn't turn out right." For insurance, the team developed emergency parts kits for each site, complete with spare hard drives. This way, in the event the hardware technician showed up and there was an ISP (Internet service provider) failure or a problem with an IP (Internet Protocol) address, for instance, the hard drive could be plugged in and the store could open without incident. Each kit also contained extra motherboards, RAM (random access memory), and flash cards, among other miscellaneous components.
In the midst of the installation phase, the project team set up five training locations throughout the country with 16 registers each, which enabled rapid training of Dress Barn's 800 store and district managers. "Store operations led the training initiative and established a separate team that was responsible for training. "By working with us during the testing and conference room pilot phases, they created a training package complete with policies and procedures," says Giusto. "We directed key store management associates to these training sites and prepared them as we were rolling the installation out."
Configuration Supports Gift Cards, Payment Options
The RetailStore software product from CRS also handles some of Dress Barn's back office systems for receiving, transfers, and promotions. The retailer is also considering CRS' returns management solution, which allows sales clerks to scan receipts and create a centralized receipt database. Dress Barn turns to NSB Group for loss prevention and sales audit and to SVS (Stored Value Systems) for its gift card and merchandise credit program, new to the retailer in October 2004 along with its PIN debit terminals. Gift cards are among the payment options managed by AJB Software's payment processing switch, which handles central credit authorization.
All of these are applications the retailer would have been unable to handle - or at best would have had great difficulty deploying - prior to its WAN/POS upgrade. "We went from running a legacy POS system on an aging hardware platform and a dial-up network to a brand new software release running on cutting-edge hardware via a high-bandwidth WAN," says Giusto. "The project consisted of many small steps that resulted in a big, positive change for our store-level associates."