A little more than a year ago, executives at 188-store multichannel retailer Body Central decided an IT upgrade was in order, and for good reason. While the retailer sells edgy clothing to a young demographic, its core IT infrastructure heading into 2007 was far from fresh. Body Central sells what it terms 'disposable clubbing clothing' aimed at the 16 to 26-year-old female demographic through its stores, catalogs, and an e-commerce site at http://www.bodyc.com/. But as it grew in popularity (thanks in part to fashionable clothes and a midrange price point right around $19.95), the retailer's dial-up network and DOS-based IBM 4694 POS hardware couldn't keep up, and were, in fact, breaking down.
Store Hardware: The IT Foundation
Jerry Kerr is the CIO who oversaw Body Central's tech transformation throughout 2007. Kerr said the starting point of the project there was obvious upon his arrival. Aging hardware and no technical support were a tough combination for stores to handle. "Our old hardware was breaking down all the time, and we didn't have the support system in place to properly maintain the machines. As a result, some stores would go for weeks without the service they needed from a hardware perspective," explains Kerr. Prior to his arrival on the scene, Body Central had no help desk, so some hardware service needs fell through the cracks indefinitely. While the situation was problematic, Kerr stops short of calling it dire. Body Central stores have between two and four checkout lanes, and its IBM hardware ran in client-server configuration, so if a machine went down, stores were not completely out of commission. Still, customer service was negatively impacted when the stores were busy and lines formed behind two out of three registers. Kerr planned to replace the retailer's aging hardware while simultaneously building a tech help desk.
Hardware Upgrade Complete, Network Underway
Body Central replaced the hardware in its stores with the DigiPoS Retail Blade Store Architecture (see sidebar on page 22), but it's still running its old CRS RA DOS software on that hardware right now. When Kerr took over, the retailer was running that software package on IBM 4694 POS terminals. The configuration didn't allow integrated credit card reading and scanning, which the retailer has established since the upgrade (see sidebar on page 23). It also wanted a PC-based system that enabled real-time sales data visibility for corporate reporting purposes and real-time electronic communications among stores and corporate.
Kerr chose DigiPoS primarily for the serviceability of its Blade architecture. "We wanted a PC-based, client-server system that was ready for software right out of the box. We looked at all the major hardware providers, but I liked DigiPoS from a maintenance perspective. These machines are easily serviceable, and I liked that they could be serviced without sending someone on-site." The front cover is easily removable for access to the plug and play blade for service or swapping. Each machine also comes with what DigiPoS calls a first aid kit, which includes a motherboard, a logic board, a disk drive, and a power supply, the most common hardware elements that might need to be swapped out in case of failure. "For most service events, we don't need to disconnect any cables or anything. It's all done from the front of the box, and we can have store personnel do most of it," says Kerr. He says the biggest challenge his team faced was integration-level work getting the Retail Application DOS software to work on the blades prior to rollout. That's the only element of the install that the retailer outsourced to a third-party integrator.
Simple serviceability and plug and play functionality were important elements of the choice for more than TCO (total cost of ownership) considerations. Simplicity was important because Kerr hired his own technicians to handle the rollout. "I put teams out on the road, and they did all the hookups, ran the wiring, and even made modifications to some of the cash wraps," he says. "Over the years Body Central acquired locations that were previously retail units [it inherited some old County Seat and Merry Go Round locations, among others]. These locations were equipped with preexisting fixtures, so we had to take those cash wraps and make them usable with the new hardware."
The old system was also connected via dial-up, which limited the retailer's bandwidth. Thus, it could not roll out e-mail or any network-dependent applications to its stores. Body Central is therefore in the process of rolling out a DSL-based VPN (virtual private network) to connect stores to corporate.
Interestingly, Body Central chose to manage its VPN internally by aggregating services from various local carriers. Kerr says internal management of the network was possible because he has a communications specialist on staff. "I like to be in control of what I do, and with an excellent infrastructure guy on the payroll, it made sense from a dollars and cents standpoint to take this in-house," says Kerr. "The infrastructure guy understands VPNs and network hardware, so he helped put a package together; then all we had to do was source the local carrier services." Body Central now runs a NOC (network operations center) from its headquarters and has hired support staff to manage it. The retailer used to run an e-mail application called MaxMail, but that only enabled dial-up, corporate-to-store communication. "Now, the goal is to get everybody up and running on e-mail over DSL and to build an intranet to really simplify communications and share the knowledge base across the enterprise."
Building An Experienced Help Desk — From Scratch
To hire qualified technicians, Body Central shopped for talent at local job sites and colleges, as well as through a referral program. "We trained the technicians prior to rollout, supplied them with thorough documentation and training aids, and put them to work," says Kerr. DigiPoS drop-shipped the hardware to the locations specified by Body Central and the retailer's new IT support staff took it from there. Kerr proudly admits he had an ulterior motive in hiring technicians to conduct the store-level implementation internally. The rollout, which took approximately three months for the 15-member installation team to complete, prepared the technicians Kerr brought on board for their current role with the company as help desk support staff. "Handling rollout and installation internally eliminated the need for help from a VAR or integrator, and it created a training environment for our support staff, a department we needed to build anyway," says Kerr. "Organization and coordination were the missing key elements of our service department," he says. Now, the help desk at Body Central is staffed from early morning to late night to cover all of its stores' hours of operation. If the office is unmanned, staffers are assigned to take calls on their cell phones. "If a level-one person isn't available, there are level-two and level- three people on call to back them up. Because they were involved with the implementation hands-on, when they talk to the store-level execs they're very efficient and effective — they built the configurations they're servicing." To ensure jobs don't get lost in the shuffle as the retailer expands, the help department now tracks phone and e-mail service requests until they're closed out in the IT support system at Body Central.
Kerr says the need for new store systems software was the impetus for the hardware and network upgrades at Body Central. Ironically, with the hardware installation complete and the WAN project underway, the retailer has yet to select a store systems software vendor. "We recently upgraded our catalog and e-commerce initiatives, too," says Kerr, "and our software decision will ideally result in an enterprise solution that serves all three channels from a systems standpoint. Body Central should be able to see business performance accurately and efficiently in total and by channel or store, but I'm not sure there's a single system out there that meets our needs," he says. For now, the retailer treats its channels as separate entities, with the exception of some overlapping purchasing and promotions initiatives (it runs an Island Pacific inventory management system). But Body Central executives planned on using the just-ended NRF (National Retail Federation) show as a shopping mall for software systems that would unify those channels, though no public decision had been rendered at press time. Stay tuned for details on that. Meanwhile, Kerr says store traffic is flowing freely as a result of increased POS hardware uptime, and faster hardware and network performance is pleasing store-level associates.