Clothing chain White Stuff markets itself as a provider of ‘lovely clothes for lovely people’ – but behind that twee descriptor stands an organisation savvy enough to know that, in order to succeed in the cut-throat world of retail, it must ruthlessly exploit customer data for competitive advantage.
Two years ago, however, its networking capabilities hit a most unlovely buffer. The company’s existing Prologic network did a good job of transferring electronic point of sale (EPoS) data from tills in the company’s 55 shops nationwide to its headquarters in Clapham, South London, but little else.
For a start, it didn’t have the bandwidth capacity to support a fully functional back-office environment that would allow in-store managers to exchange data with colleagues in the HQ, says Venn Luscombe-Mahoney, White Stuff’s head of IT.
Nor was the network designed to tackle another pressing business imperative – the impending relocation of the company’s distribution centre away from Clapham to a new facility in Leicester. That, says Luscombe-Mahoney, called for an urgent decision on how the retailer would connect the two sites.
He decided that the best approach would be to retain the Prologic network for electronic funds transfer (EFT) communications (needed by retailers in order to process Chip and PIN payments) between shop floors and HQ, but also to build an entirely new wide area network (WAN) connecting all stores, Clapham and Leicester.
The new network, managed by Vodat using Thus’s infrastructure, is now up and running for around three-quarters of the company’s stores, with the remainder scheduled to be online by June 2008. As a result, store managers can send and receive real-time point of sale and store performance data to stay abreast of bestselling items, speed of sale per item, best-performing staff and so on, directly from back office-based PCs.
In the distribution centre, meanwhile, it is used to receive orders and exchange inventory data with stores, resulting in “dramatic” steps forward in allocation and replenishment cycles.
But that’s just the first step in an ambitious programme of improvements, says Luscombe-Mahoney. Because the network is managed by Thus on White Stuff’s behalf, he and his team have been able to devote their time and attention to analysing what other applications it could underpin.
“In the two years since the network was rolled out in pilot phase to a handful of stores, we’ve never had a situation where employees have had to report a network failure and we’ve had to take time out to deal with it. Thanks to Vodat’s monitoring service, its engineers have always spotted faults and rectified them before staff and customers have been aware of any impact,” he says.
Freed from the onerous and timeconsuming task of network management, White Stuff is currently testing the network’s ability to support footfall data collected by thermal imaging cameras in its flagship shop in East London’s trendy Spitalfields retail development. The retailer is also considering the network’s potential for a planned voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephone system, for distributing display plans to in-store visual merchandising staff and for relaying music throughout the store network.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface, yet we’re already reaping the benefits of having a private network at about the same cost as standard business broadband,” he says.
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