Managing Rollout for Growth-Oriented Companies

When you work in an extremely fast-paced environment like retailing and tie it to a growth-oriented strategy that involves both new stores and new selling channels, there is no time for downtime, and little, if any, tolerance for vendors that can’t deliver what’s needed on a nearly instantaneous basis.

Moreover, the fewer vendors a fast-growth company has to deal with, the better. The more complex the challenges involved in serving customers, the simpler and more straightforward the technology infrastructure, and especially, maintenance and management of those IT systems must be.

Those were just a couple of the hard-hitting and no-nonsense messages delivered by retailers during a panel discussion on POS maintenance led by John Pruban, president, TekServe POS at the Technology & Operations Store Summit (TOPSS) hosted by Chain Store Age and Retail Technology Quarterly in Las Vegas in October. Sitting on the panel were systems directors and managers from Eddie Bauer, Sharper Image, The Sports Authority, Neiman Marcus Information Group and Williams-Sonoma.

Paul Engle, director of POS at Sharper Image, cited his own experience of the past when he held a much different viewpoint regarding mixing and matching of vendor solutions. “It seemed like a good idea at the time—to have 10 vendors, one for each and every thing. But I soon realized it was taking all my time just managing them,” he said.

For Engle, Sept. 11 was the wake-up call when he found himself in a situation with quite a few stores near the site of the attack. When he tried to get the vendors to help with restoring some of their own systems, all he got was “lots of finger-pointing.”

“With the diversity of what we are trying to do in-store, online and via catalog, we can’t have one vendor, but we still try to keep the number small,” noted Beth Williamson, manager, store technology, Williams-Sonoma. But that small number of vendors each better produce. “As soon as I talk to a vendor and they say they can’t do this or that—I stop talking. I need ‘soup-to-nuts’ in each store so that I know what is happening in each store. I do not have time for any finger-pointing,” she said.

Ron Sims, manager, store systems and desktop support, Neiman Marcus Information Group, noted the challenges in going with consolidated services, especially if you are doing so under a cost-containment mandate. “We always used Tier 1 companies. No CIO ever got fired for using Cisco, as they say,” Sims noted.

But when the company got a mandate to cut costs, Sims had to go in another direction. “We had to become more simplified, for one thing,” he said. He also had to look for a different type of maintenance company to work with—Sims couldn’t afford an IBM- or a Cisco-type company. “There were risks involved, yes. But we have now gone with Consolidated Services and it is the way to go. They respond more quickly and there is much less bureaucracy. I am only a small player, however, with 40 stores.”

John Connolly, business systems manager, retail operations, Eddie Bauer, also cited advantages to doing with one or a very small number of players to handle POS. But he also urged caution. “One thing in having less complexity and building stronger relationships with one or a few vendors is you really need to avoid the big bureaucratic institutions. With the situation I have now, I can pick up the phone and know who exactly to call.”