PracticeConsultingIT at work: e-retailing

IT at work: e-retailing

This month Guy Matthews focuses on projects in electronic retailing and manufacturing systems. He examines a partnership between e-Net Software and Ready2, a fashion and lifestyle-oriented business venture, which put online, and how iGroup, the e-business consultancy division of Computacenter, helped Tesco Direct safeguard customer access to its Internet shopping site. Many bricks and mortar retailers are struggling to develop an effective Internet strategy, as they try to reconcile the disparity between operating both online and offline sales models. Meanwhile, their already competitive marketplaces are facing additional stresses thanks to web-only startups, unencumbered with the baggage of a bricks and mortar high street history.

It is early days for many of these web-only retailers, and pretty well none has yet to show a profit, a fact well noted both by a cynical press and by a hard headed investment community. But the signs are already there that customers may well come to favour online outlets over conventional operations because of their ease of use, compatibility with busy lifestyles, and, of course, low pricing.

Ready2 is a fashion and lifestyle-oriented business venture set up in 1999 by Trinny Woodall and Suzannah Constantine, both women by no means unfamiliar with the worlds of haute couture and high society. With Ready2, both are committed to forging a whole new style of retail, in their case run by women for women, beyond even the scope of many of their online peers.

Their aim is to provide various interactive services for busy, professional women to enable them to make lifestyle and clothing choices using a variety of media, such as the web, digital interactive TV and mobile and broadband services., the first part of this service, was launched in December 1999, and is currently backed by a high profile advertising campaign.

According to Woodhall: “It provides women with attitude and little time to shop with advice and information on what, how and where to buy the latest and greatest high street and designer products. It is an interactive site offering a unique personalisation service that is not available elsewhere on or off line.” Prior to the launch, Ready2’s proprietors set about the task of tendering for an e-business solution that matched their vision. The winner was consultancy and software developer e-Net Software. A partner of software vendor Oracle, e-Net implemented a solution using Internet-ready database software and application development tools from Oracle, supported by enterprise servers from Sun Microsystems, and its own ISP hosting services and web implementation services.

The database has been configured so that advice given to women on fashion and styles is based on their previous purchases and profile. A customer’s individual selection criteria can be dealt with and retained to give vital information for future market analysis, leading to high quality strategy decision making. The service is projected to attract several thousand regular users within the first year, and will expand well beyond this in 2001. With each user projected to represent a high volume of sales, this modest sounding forecast should prove a strong generator of revenue.

David Griffith, e-Net’s Oracle business director, says: “Our hosting services mean that Ready2 gets 24/7 support, which they need as a dynamic web retailing business. They wanted a proper web-based infrastructure, but not all of the hassle that goes with it, which is why they chose us for our hosting and service experience. Our business is not just about selling software licences, but about helping our customers develop by being an ongoing partner.”

Now, with the Ready2 brand established on the web, the company is poised to follow up with 15 different advice channels available on digital TV, WAP and the web. These dedicated channels will cover a range of issues including health and beauty, travel, careers, money, decoration, weddings and divorce.

e-Net is to help steer Ready2 through the forthcoming phases of its IT development. With offices in Bath, London, Cambridge and Coventry, and partnerships with Oracle, Sun and Cisco, e-Net is already the force behind many leading e-business operations. With so many businesses keen to emulate the flexible models being created by operations like Ready2, a profitable few years lie ahead for e-retail consultancies like e-Net.

Tesco Direct

Tesco was the first of the UK’s supermarket groups to offer Internet shopping, trialling the concept in the Leeds area three years ago. Since its launch, Tesco Direct has grown steadily and the company has refined its offering constantly.

Currently shoppers in over half of the UK’s postcode areas can use the service, which is being rolled out to a further five stores each week.

Says Richard Davis, Tesco’s Internet systems manager: “Of course, there will be some parts of the country where we will be unable to offer the service, either due to distance from the store, or other practical reasons.”

A concern that has played a large part in Tesco’s thinking is that of customer access to the web site. Davis says: “There’s no point in having the most sophisticated web site going if the customers can’t even log on because the server’s down or the network is overloaded.”

To combat this potential problem, Tesco’s web servers operate in a load-balanced cluster and access the Internet through a broadband link. Sophisticated counters and monitoring systems manage the server farm, but even that does not offer Tesco enough confidence. Davis explains: “What we get from our internal server monitoring is quantitative information about how busy the cluster is at any time, but it does not give us a picture of how our customers see the system. It means that we could well respond to a report that there is one particular node going flat out, when all that’s really happening is that the service is working hard, and in fact customers are getting through with no problems. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that our systems could report that everything at our end is running smoothly, when in reality customers are waiting for ages to log on.”

To help deal with this threat, Tesco turned to the iGroup, the e-business consultancy division of Computacenter, and has deployed its SiteAlert application. Tim Taylor, account manager from the iGroup responsible for the implementation, says: “SiteAlert pulls together technologies from Computer Associates and Micromuse to deliver a service that can be used not just to check site availability and response times, but also the probity of data being delivered. In Tesco’s case we set it to poll the servers every five minutes. If there is an outage or slow performance, or data is being corrupted, then the system alerts Tesco directly, through a pager, telephone call or mobile number message.”

He says the service is backed up by a help desk, so that if an alert is sent and Tesco can’t see a problem at its end, it can call and work through the chain to find out where the problem is occurring. Davis says: “The fact that it is both a monitoring tool and a support service means that I can be confident that I am alerted to any events before our customers, regardless of time of day. In many instances, SiteAlert provides confirmation of situations that our internal monitoring has spotted, but it has also shown us that there were other times when customers were getting through perfectly well, even though our internal monitors were flagging warnings of potential overloads. It gives us a very useful reality check by following the path that our customers take to get to our servers and reporting on how that is working.”

iGroup consultant George Anderson says that e-business consultancy is an extremely hot space to work in. “There are a lot of companies out there who want help as they try to become e-businesses. They need someone to monitor their systems, to tell them when something is going wrong and to fix it. Because an e-business is a 24 hour business, lots of our clients can’t manage to have someone watch over their system on that basis, so we’ll do that for them.”

He adds: “Through Computacenter, we can supply all the hardware and software they need as well. We can take a lot of the pressure off them as they adapt to a new business model.”

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