It was once viewed as the gravest threat to the industry. But in the face of declining consumer spending, e-commerce may yet prove to be the retail sector’s salvation.
Just look at Woolworths: February 2009 saw the iconic high street brand return from the grave as an online-only outfit after it was bought by catalogue retailer Shop Direct.
iForce – an e-fulfilment and returns processing provider that helps clients including John Lewis, Boots and Fortnum & Masons run their online businesses – is therefore one of a very few companies entering the coming financial year with a sense of optimism.
“We feel very fortunate to be in this business,” explains Cliff Putterford, the company’s IT director. “Consumers are definitely moving from the shop to the website.”
Nevertheless, Putterford adds, it is a business that is still emerging, and iForce must demonstrate exceptional operational efficiency while accommodating rapid change.
“For our bigger clients, the evolution in their approach to e-commerce has been nothing short of astronomic,” he says. “The configuration for Boots’ warehouse has been completely redesigned three times in as many years; John Lewis’s site has seen daily orders go from a few hundred to tens of thousands in just a few years.”
“My clients, the operations team, therefore need highly agile and accessible systems,” Putterford explains. And that was not always supported by the most advanced technologies.
Until 18 months ago, the company’s reporting function was based on Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet package. As the sheer weight of data that iForce was handling mounted, that system became impossible to manage, and deriving meaningful analysis was too difficult.
iForce knew it had to put in place a sophisticated business intelligence platform if it was to continue to serve the growing needs of its customers. Its first move was to build a data warehouse, so that analysis could take place without degrading performance of its self-built warehouse management application.
For the analytics piece, iForce turned to Cognos, the business intelligence software provider that was acquired by IBM in November 2007. Coincidentally, iForce is an IBM shop as far as server hardware is concerned, although it had selected Cognos before that acquisition was announced.
It was the quality of visual presentation that attracted Putterford to the Cognos 8 BI package. “One of our USPs is to keep up with the times in terms of technology. With our Excel systems, we might have been able to produce the right information, but the way in which it is presented was not up to scratch.”
“In this regard,” Putterford adds, “Cognos frankly stood out.”
The improved ability to not only access data, but to see it presented in an easily understood and manipulated fashion, has allowed operational staff to divine emerging trends in business activity more effectively and more rapidly. (“Coffee machines sell particularly well over the Internet, for some reason,” Putterford says by way of example.)
That ability enables iForce to optimise its own operations, and to be a proactive partner for its retail clients, says Putterford.
The coming year is bound to see yet further evolution in e-commerce. A popular service to have arisen only in the last 12 months, for example, is ordering stock on the Internet for collection in the customer’s local store.
iForce’s business intelligence implementation has helped it keep abreast of these developments – something that all organisations in the retail sector would be well advised to do.