March 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!

When information overload strikes, retailers can winnow data with an executive dashboard.

Running an e-commerce site has been compared to flying an airplane. A ton of data is coming in in real-time and someone’s got to keep tabs on what’s happening. In the early days of the Internet retailing revolution, a few web site staffers could keep up with everything.

But no more. With such areas to keep tabs on as site performance, marketing campaign results, site navigation and usability, fulfillment speeds, delivery rates and on and on, e-retailers can no longer simply ask staff to keep an eye on one more thing.

And so, just like in airplanes and cars, e-retail technology is starting to come equipped with dashboards-graphical representations of key performance indicators. With the information, e-retailers make decisions, often in near real time, that immediately affect their web sites’ operations. “A dashboard is a really nice thing to have,” says Bob Frauenheim, co-owner of Putters.com, a web-only retailer of golf gear. “It’s simple to use and everything is integrated.”

Putters.com’s dashboard, which is part of the NetSuite Inc. software that runs the entire company, provides by day, week and other time periods such e-retailing-specific metrics as orders, sales, reversals, new customers, orders fulfilled, orders in the pipeline, open customer inquiries, as well as broader business statistics such as income, expenses, profit, cash flow and bank balance.

While companies like Putters.com use dashboards to run their entire businesses, e-retailers more commonly use dashboards for specific purposes. In fact, companies that specialize in dashboards that integrate different technologies into one view were unable to produce a single e-retailer who could talk about such comprehensive dashboards, some saying they have no e-retail customers yet.

But drill down into specific applications of dashboards, and there are many e-retailers that use dashboards to manage a certain set of technologies, such as site search or web analytics. “Many people assume that dashboards are for the CEO,” says Bill Gassman, industry analyst and research director at research and analysis company Gartner Inc. “But there are dashboards for marketers, web operations managers, buyers and so on.”

NetSuite’s dashboard is integrated into the NetSuite software and comes with 15 pre-set roles that a company can add to as needed. But the dashboard is highly configurable depending on the user. “Everyone’s dashboard is different,” says Baruch Goldwasser, NetSuite senior product manager. “The dashboard can be easily personalized with the information each user needs. The CEO can see the overall sales trends while the fulfillment manager can see only the data pertinent to that position, such as the number of orders going out today.”

Site search and navigation technology developer Mercado Software Inc. is one company that has recently incorporated dashboard-style functionality, called by Mercado a console rather than a dashboard, into its core product. Mercado released Mercado Version 4 in January with a console that gives marketers insight into such areas as conversion rates, number of clicks on products, units sold and so on.

“It gives merchandisers tremendous power that they had not had before,” says CEO and president Corey Leibow. “Now they’re not focusing on just keeping the site going, they’re looking at exceptions, at the anomalies and at the things they can do to make the site run better. They’re stepping away from keeping all the plates spinning.”

Leibow reports that Mercado already has eight customers installing Mercado Version 4 with its console. “It’s still early, but we’ve been very pleased with the reception so far,” he says.

Increasing the cycles
While dashboards may have grown up focused on particular applications, some have now grown into broader use. Web analytics provider Omniture Inc., for instance, now offers a dashboard that manages not only analytics applications, but also marketing and customer management as well. “We’re no longer a player just in the web analytics space,” says Mikel Chertudi, senior director of online marketing. “We have become a full customer analytics provider.”

Overstock.com Inc. uses an Omniture dashboard to manage large portions of its business. Without a dashboard, the company would not be able to engage in the continuous improvement of its web site experience that it feels is key to success, says Brig Graff, director of web site marketing for Overstock. “The dashboard allows us to monitor the web site and go through many more cycles of analysis and decision making,” he says. “Cycle time to creating improvements is a strategic advantage.”

Successful dashboards allow business managers to run their web sites using key performance indicators. “The dashboard is really good for top-level management; it gives a quick visual representation of business metrics,” says John Tannone, business systems manager of Eset.com, developer and marketer of antivirus software and another NetSuite customer that uses the NetSuite dashboard to run its business. “The data is presented graphically and it’s easy to compare numbers.”

Ease of use aside, there are challenges to implementing and getting the most out of dashboards. For one thing, there’s the issue of what constitutes a key performance indicator and how to know when to act based on what the indicator is saying. “At the start, there’s often a tendency to over-monitor,” Gassman says. “You might start with 10 metrics in a certain area, but only three or four are key.”

Educating managers
If a retailer relies on technologists to identify key performance indicators, he adds, business managers may have too much information and be unable to make quick decisions. “Technical people like to feel the hum of the machine and so they often push dashboards onto people that are not actionable and that leads users astray,” Gassman says.

The next hurdle is educating managers on how to use the dashboards and act on the information. The key there is making sure users understand dashboards’ role in business management, Gassman says. “Sometimes users can feel threatened that the dashboard is watching their jobs too closely,” he says. “If it’s just keeping track of them and not helping them do their jobs better, then they’ll resist it. Some feel that the dashboard is a way for their job performance to be measured, so they find ways to game the system.”

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