May 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

Web-Based Planning

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Most retailers are keeping the benefits they`re realizing from web-based task management close to their vests, due to their competitive positions and the newness of the technology, though a few have been willing to share basic information. Using the Task Management system from Reflexis throughout its 1,400 U.S. stores, office supplies retailer Staples Inc. is saving store managers 7-12 hours per week through real-time access to a central view of instructions from headquarters, producing $1.5 million a year in soft or indirect savings resulting from more productive store employees. The system is also producing direct savings related to the electronic distribution of surveys to stores, the retailer says.

In addition, Staples field managers are saving 10 hours per week thanks to their ability to manage inconsistencies in store operations through web-based alerts. Store managers and employees check off the completion of assigned tasks into the Reflexis Task Management application. When tasks aren`t completed according to schedule, the system automatically sends an alert to the computers or cell phones of field managers or headquarters personnel.

The Home Depot Inc. is also using Reflexis Task Management to streamline communication of nearly 250 projects per month to its 1,700 stores and has reported a sharp reduction in the level of task overload at the store level through improved workload and labor planning.

13,000 store walks

"We integrate task management and labor management to send the right tasks to the right person with the right skills," says Raju Sharma, director of marketing at Reflexis. "If a task takes four hours, we say that, for example, it requires one each by a store manager, an assistant manager, a department manager, etc."

In addition, Home Depot has deployed the complementary Reflexis Risk & Audit Manager, which has enabled it to conduct 13,000 store walks within the first six months of deployment. Field managers conduct store audits with web-based tablets that let them check the status of assigned tasks against the original instructions and schedules, and record how well each task was completed.

Reflexis Task Management is an enterprise application designed to sit on a company`s corporate intranet. Costs range from $1 million to $1.5 million for each of the three applications of task management, compliance management and labor scheduling, Sharma says. Deployment takes from eight to 16 weeks.

Borders Group, which presented early results of its web-based task management system at a trade show in January, began using the web-based Task Manager system from StorePerform in August, rolling it out to 450 stores within three weeks. The system replaced a method that relied on e-mail to distribute instructions on how to merchandise products and perform other store operating tasks.

But where the old system forced store managers and employees to spend a lot of time compiling and figuring out the scope of required tasks, the StorePerform system presents instructions from headquarters in a way that both saves time and provides assurances that the tasks are actually carried out, Borders says.

"StorePerform puts the information in front of employees in an easy-to-understand manner," says Edwards, the director of store operations. "Before, store employees had spent a tremendous amount of time to figure out their tasks."

More sales

The new system`s ability to carry out instructions faster, he adds, cuts to one of its major advantages: extra time that employees have to serve customers. "We see a 7% increase in sales from people who get directly helped by store employees," Edwards says.

In addition, the new system is designed to help store employees get the proper promotional material on display on time, making it easier for customers to find advertised products, adds Srikant Vasan, CEO and co-founder of StorePerform.

Borders executives say the new system is helping both headquarters and store personnel to get better control over what can be tight deadlines to roll out new pricing and merchandising displays, improving relations with suppliers as well as customer service. Now, if a supplier questions whether Borders priced a product according to an agreed-upon level, Borders can show actual price and other information from vendor promotions scanned into the web-based store management system, says Paul Kundrat, Borders` project manager for the StorePerform project.

StorePerform`s Task Manager is the core product in the integrated Workbench suite that also includes two complementary products, Feedback Manager and Workflow Optimizer. Feedback Manager is designed to let retail executives gather comments from individual stores throughout a retail chain on how well promotions and other store activities occurred, such as whether customers requested additional products that could have been made part of the same promotion, then mix up the responses by products or regions to run analytical reports that can help plan future promotions. "Getting that information has always been a challenge for retailers," says Manav Misra, director of corporate development and co-founder of StorePerform. "Retailers would e-mail 1,000 stores asking how a promotion went, and get back a flood of e-mails that they couldn`t get around to opening and analyzing."

Up to date feedback

Now, Borders store managers can immediately respond through the web application if, for example, their store didn`t have promotional signs to go with a planned promotion. "Field feedback in the past was two to three weeks out of date," Kundrat says. "It was nice to have, but no longer actionable."

The Workflow Optimizer is designed to let retail executives match the expected time of carrying out in-store tasks to the amount of labor that has already been scheduled for other tasks. "It allows retailers to see the impact of sending additional work to stores and how many man-hours are still available," Misra says. "If headquarters already sent 35 hours of work, it might decide to move another project to the following week."

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