March 18, 2008, 12:00 AM

REI combines 20 sources of customer information into one data warehouse

Recreational Equipment Inc. is in the final stages of a three-year project to combine information collected in stores, online and through contact centers and tour operations into one database. The result is marketing “nirvana,” says an REI manager.

Recreational Equipment Inc. is in the final stages of a three-year-long project to combine information collected in stores, online, through contact centers, tour operations and other customer touchpoints into a single database. The end result is marketing “nirvana,” says an REI manager.

Like many multi-channel retailers, Recreational Equipment Inc. has customer information stored in several databases. Unlike most, REI is on the verge of having all that data combined into a single customer data warehouse.

The three-year project was especially complex because REI, a consumer cooperative that’s been in business since 1938, had data in 20 separate systems, says Jennifer Cofer, business intelligence analyst for the customer data warehouse project. Not only did REI store data separately for store, web and catalog operations, but also for its Adventure tour business, clinics and other activities.

That meant an individual could be in one database with an old address and e-mail address, and another database with newer information. And, like most companies, much of the information was flawed, with names misspelled, invalid addresses or duplicate data, such as a customer identified as Jim in one file and James in another. AMR Research Inc. estimates 30% to 50% of customer data in multiple systems across retail companies is incorrect, and REI’s data quality was on that order, Cofer says.

“We had to clean all that data, so it’s standardized,” Cofer says. “It’s been a bit of a nightmare. But the end result is nirvana.”

Once fully functional, the data store will let REI deliver highly targeted messages, such as to a customer who signs up for an Adventure canoe trip. “We’ll know what supplies they’ll need and from their transaction history we’ll know what they’ve already purchased from REI,” Cofer says. “Then we can target e-mail them to let them know what they might need for the trip, along with promotional coupons.”

“Before we could see this information, but we couldn’t tie it together,” says Ben Viscon, online merchandising manager. “We could see what you bought online, but to see what you bought from retail we’d have to look into separate places.” REI, No. 61 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, can track most store purchases to an individual by member number because the 3.4 million active REI co-op members-who receive annual dividends based on their purchases-account for about 85% of transactions.

The data store, which REI expects to go live next week, will maintain the last six years of transaction data, plus the current year’s. Members eventually will be able to access their data online, perhaps next year, Cofer says. Four full-time REI staffers will maintain the database, ensuring data quality and helping REI departments use it effectively

The project required a multi-million dollar investment, including a large personnel commitment: 15 to 20 REI employees and outside consultants worked on the implementation team at any time, including six working full-time. To facilitate easy communication on a project that touches all of REI’s businesses, the company moved the team into a single building and tore down cubicle walls to create an open space.

“We all just sat next to each other, with a big table down the middle. If we needed to have a meeting, we all just turned our chairs around and rolled in,” Cofer says. “It’s been very team-oriented, and that’s worked well for us.”

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