AManaged Improvement

Anna’s Linens originally transitioned to a private wide-area network (WAN) to secure its credit-card transactions. Now the network supports many other applications that can “increase productivity and improve communications between stores and corporate,” according to Scott Gladstone, COO, Anna’s Linens.

Anna’s Linens, Costa Mesa, Calif., is a 20-year-old company that operates more than 250 stores in 20 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Five years ago, though, the company’s footprint was much different. Comprised of 100 stores, Anna’s relied on a dial-up network to keep locations connected to corporate—not the ideal solution to support a growing company. Credit-card processing could take up to 40 seconds, and the unreliable configuration often had trouble supporting nightly store polling operations.

“Each store has three registers, but dial-up only let us poll one register at a time,” said Lynn Negrete, the chain’s senior IT director. “Depending on how well-established the connection was, polling could be spotty at times.”

Anna’s began searching for a technology partner that could provide a broadband DSL (designated subscriber line). The installation had to be non-intrusive at store level, and the new network had to be deployed within three months—just in time for the holiday season. Vancouver, Wash.-based New Edge Networks provided the best solution—a managed private WAN supported by DSL.

Rather than creating a virtual private network that runs through the Internet, the private WAN is a multi-layered network comprised of two or more LANs (local-area networks). The LANs are linked through low-cost broadband connections that securely carry data and voice traffic between stores and corporate. Rather than installing servers and applications at each store and managing resources locally, Anna’s remotely monitors data activity from a central location.

Since the network relies on cabling, Anna’s was determined to utilize the infrastructure already available in each store. New Edge’s project team worked with Anna’s IT team to install new circuits and routers, and the project went live in time for the holiday rush. It also helped the chain slash card-processing time to between four and five seconds.

The company more than doubled its stores since adding the network, “yet we never needed to add headcount at our support center to manage the network as we expanded breadth,” Gladstone said. “Between the network’s stability and the ability to remotely manage the network, we are saving resources and money related to installation costs.”

These early successes pushed the chain to expand the functionality of the network, “especially regarding applications that could drive productivity,” he said.

The first step was to migrate toward Web-based applications. This eliminated the need to add local servers behind the company’s firewalls.

One of Anna’s Web-based applications is a time-and-attendance and labor-scheduling solution that allows all employees to log into their shift or access their benefits files electronically. The network also supports inventory management. As merchandise is scanned via handhelds at the warehouse or store level, the network transmits the data into the retailer’s inventory-management system.

“Prior to adding DSL, we manually updated our system. New information was often faxed and handled multiple times before it was manually keyed into the system—a process that could take up to four weeks to update,” she said. “It was time-consuming and inaccurate. The new polling functionality eliminates those huge delays and errors.”

The network also supports e-mail communications, online hiring, supply ordering, even software patches and updates.

Now Anna’s is exploring how to use the network to improve its store polling operations. Currently, corporate polls stores once a day, however, the network supports trickle polling, which pulls data from POS in real-time.

Anna’s is in the process of choosing new POS software. As it upgrades this application, it hopes to transition to trickle-polling as well. Anna’s plans to add both in 2009.