November 29, 2004, 12:00 AM

How Circuit City built on success when it relaunched its web site using BroadVision`s newest release

When Circuit City Stores Inc. planned its relaunch of this year, it knew it wanted to maintain the site’s industry-leading services, including such innovations as real-time store inventory and the ability to order online and pick up at a store. A year ago, it began weighing its options for the framework around which to build its new site. It had been using BroadVision Inc. software, but wanted to see what else was available.

In the end, Circuit City went with BroadVision Commerce 7.1, an upgrade on its existing BroadVision installation. “The odds tipped toward the incumbent because our record with them was so strong,” says Joe Reilly, director of systems/operations with Circuit City Direct, the division that runs the web operation. “Pair that with the investment we had in place already and the graceful path BroadVision offers toward modern technologies, for instance toward J2EE and gradually away from server-side script and C++, and the choice was never difficult.”

That BroadVision offered that capability was an important part of Circuit City’s decision to use BroadVision Commerce 7.1 as it launched its new web site, Reilly says. “The BroadVision framework allows easy integration with CORBA- and J2EE-enabled services,” Reilly says. “With a relatively unique value proposition, such as offering in-store pick-up and real-time inventory, no software suite can support our model out of the box, so custom development is required to use existing services. BroadVision offers a development and run-time paradigm that makes that a relatively straightforward effort.”

The ability to integrate is key to Circuit City’s web approach, Reilly says. “The web drops its output directly into the POS network, allowing seamless store inter-operation for functions like in-store pick-up, price-matching at the time of pick-up and the ability to bring returns into any of 600 stores,” he says.

BroadVision software has served as the foundation for web sites and with the BroadVision Commerce 7.1 release it also provides an applications framework for e-commerce. “A lot of the research and development went into applications and supporting tools,” says Neil Pisane, regional sales director for Redwood City, CA-based BroadVision. “The framework was very solid; now we’ve beefed up the applications.”

BroadVision Commerce 7.1 is the culmination of a couple of years of development which BroadVision undertook during the technology-buying drought during the recent recession. “We hunkered down in R&D; pretty heavily during the dark period of 2001-2003,” Pisane says. “This is the fruit of that labor.”

Among the major enhancements was the ability for merchandisers to use BroadVision software to manage product display on the web site. For instance, merchandisers who have the proper access and entitlement use a web interface to a console to manipulate pricing, product descriptions and product bundling. Such information is then disseminated, also via the web, to the appropriate parties within an organization for posting to the web site. “Whatever merchandisers can do in a brick store, they can do with BroadVision Commerce 7.1,” Pisane says.

The system also allows cross-merchandising, so merchandisers within individual product lines can create their own information and promotions, and a category manager can bring the information together. “For instance, a TV merchandiser can be working on that group of products and a DVD merchandiser can be working on those products, then the information goes to someone who brings it all together on the web,” Pisane says.

Reilly notes that Circuit City was far down the path of site management and merchant tools when it relaunched but still took advantage of some BroadVision Commerce 7.1 features. “Blending the new version with custom development, we added considerable flexibility in the product hierarchy, such as the ability to put products or entire categories in multiple places; great structure in product features, now grouped in logical ways; flexible means for merchandising category landing pages; and a more flexible manner for assigning accessory items to products,” Reilly says

Before this release, the applications were more like samples of what could be done, rather than a foundation for what was done. “We’re showing our customers this is what a world-class application is,” Pisane says.

For large sophisticated retailers with long-time web experience such as Circuit City, the applications are useful in that they serve as guides to implementation and standards against which to measure a retailer’s approach, rather than as the foundation for the site. “We used the representative applications as a learning vehicle and a benchmark for making key design and implementation decisions,” Reilly says.

The application enhancements are one of the ways in which BroadVision stands out from competitors, Pisane says. “The applications are the starting point so new customers don’t have to start from scratch,” he says.

Other aspects of BroadVision that Pisane stresses are scalability and experience. “Web architectures are very complicated. It’s easy to get started at one point but then you’re faced with how to scale,” he says.

The ability to grow with volume is especially important with an e-commerce web site, Pisane notes. “Retailers need to be concerned with whether their web sites can handle the load because it’s all about money,” he says. “From a business standpoint, that’s what Circuit City cared about--could they handle the volume and build revenue.”

“We’ve been through five Christmas selling seasons and scale has always been a concern, but never an issue,” Reilly says. “Over five years, our team has become adept at managing and tuning a BroadVision implementation and that is reflected in a very strong performance and availability record.”

In addition to applications and scalability, BroadVision emphasizes its experience. For instance, Pisane says, in the group that worked with the new Circuit City installation, the least amount of tenure was four years. “Our people are very experienced,” he says. After 10 years in business, he notes, “We have a lot of people experience and intellectual property.”

And, he adds, they know that success on the web isn’t just about technology. “They know how far the software gets you and how far people get you,” he says.

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