February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Webogram

(Page 2 of 3)

Last year, Sears identified problems in getting its more than 870 full-line stores to carry out merchandising and promotional initiatives distributed by headquarters in a paper-based Action Planner. It found inconsistency in the way different stores executed plans, for example, and a lack of an effective way for headquarters to monitor store compliance. After completing the rollout earlier this year of an intranet-based StorePerform Workbench store planner system, it realized several improvements, including a 10% reduction in the time required to execute store promotions. “The Workbench enabled us to throw away paper-based store planners, and made it far easier to distribute policies, monitor compliance and take timely action to address distribution problems throughout the chain,” said Michael Buxton, vice president of operations.

The Reflexis and StorePerform applications are designed to operate on the web or a corporate intranet or as a portlet within a web portal. By providing browser access to all parties, the applications facilitate communication among executives and stores, where personnel can print out electronically distributed promotional materials. Store managers, department managers and others check the application for assigned tasks, then enter information to indicate when the task was completed. “It allows us to track verification of projects in stores,” Roh of Home Depot says.

Headquarters can also supplement distributed planners with electronic alerts to a store manager’s desktop or laptop computer or handheld device. The store manager can then manage in-store usage of the planner by forwarding alerts and other instructions to appropriate store personnel.

Alerts can also work in reverse. By setting a completion time for a particular task, executives at headquarters can receive alerts to their computers or handhelds about whether a task was finished on time once a store manager or employee clicks a button in the task manager to indicate completion. Regional managers can then focus on stores that have not completed tasks on time, relying on store managers and disciplinary policies to assure that received verifications are authentic.

No more ambiguity

In addition, store managers can enter information in the task management system regarding time spent on spontaneous tasks-helping customers or working out problems with store deliveries, for example-to provide regional managers an overall view of time spent by store personnel.

The electronic store planners can support more personalized one-to-one communications as well as one-to-many. As regional managers or auditors visit stores to check for compliance, they can enter notes onto a handheld device, such as PC Tablets used by Home Depot or PDAs used by Dunkin’ Donuts, regarding what adheres to policy and what doesn’t. The auditor can then send immediate alerts to store managers in cases of significant discrepancies as well as enter instructions into distributed store planners regarding common oversights.

The system is designed to remove ambiguity in central office and store communications. “It removes the variability between what headquarters intends to happen and what actually happens,” says Rob Garf, AMR analyst. “There can be a lot of interfaces between headquarters and stores, and a lot of plans change, so there can be a lot of confusion in the store.”

This can be a major help particularly with promotions, which rely on coordination of pricing and merchandising instructions with the delivery of materials like aisle end-cap displays. “In the past there was no easy way to confirm whether or not, say, Sears stores in a certain region, had received their materials,” Garf says. “Then you’d get calls from stores to headquarters and go through an ad hoc process to carry out a promotion.” But with the ability to instantly check confirmations online that each store has received its promotional materials and instructions, a retailer can remedy oversights by sending whatever stores still need in time to meet promotional schedules, he adds.

The system is also geared to improve how central policies affect the workforces in each store. Rather than ordering tasks through a less flexible and less frequent paper document, Home Depot can adjust employee workloads to match changing demand. “We eliminate overload of things to do for employees, so they can concentrate on the most important tasks for serving customers,” Roh says.

The system also saves time for field managers responsible for checking stores’ compliance with policies. “They don’t have to call on all the stores to see if they’re in compliance, they only follow up with stores not in compliance as noted in the system,” Sharma says.

Roh adds that Home Depot set up its own employee training system, which entailed showing workers how to enter a portlet, click on task messages and send back verifications of completed tasks. “It’s very user friendly,” she says. To support its training exercise, Home Depot distributed a training video through its task manager system to 1,500 stores.

But to realize the benefits of these web-based store-planner systems, retailers cannot rely on the software applications alone, AMR’s Rosenblum says. Senior management must still communicate to store employees the importance of using the new web-based systems as a tool for more effectively carrying out store merchandising plans and promotions. “A governance policy for promotion management, much like IT governance policies, must be put in place and taken seriously by senior management before the benefits promised by these applications will be achieved,” she says.

The benefits of web-based store-planners can result in a return on investment within six months, Rosenblum says. “This is relatively inexpensive if you already have the infrastructure for operating in a web environment,” she says.

Although store planograms are at the heart of new web-based task management systems, they’re designed to work best as part of a broader system, experts say. Operating as part of company’s web portal or intranet, they can complement other applications used to communicate with a retailer’s store network, including workforce management/labor scheduling applications.

Broader enterprise applications, including enterprise resource planning systems, could be configured to support electronic distribution of store planograms, but they won’t offer the same functionality of a Store Perform or Reflexis system, Rosenblum says. “Most ERP software has workflow, but where it breaks down is in one-to-many relationships,” she says.

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