Retailers Succeeding With Innovative Programs

When a competing product is scanned at the point of sale, a store-specific, short-dated coupon is automatically printed for a supporting vendor’s product. Manufacturers like the program because it ensures that their marketing dollars are aimed directly at consumers who buy the type of product they’re selling. And retailers see the program as both a value-add to their customers and as one more way to entice customers to return to their store soon.

With so many transactions passing through its systems, Catalina Marketing was in what was at once an enviable and a frustrating position. Even the largest retail companies only see transactional data from their own stores. From its catbird seat, Catalina could peer down at transactions across the broad and varied store base it serves.

So much data, so little warehouse!

So much data, so little warehouse!

The frustration came from not being able to analyze that rich flood of data effectively. Catalina knew that if it could flow that information into a large, central database, it could help the retailers and manufacturers it serves to target their promotions with unparalleled efficiency.

“We needed a data warehouse for a number of reasons,” Bross said. “We needed a single repository of business information to answer our own decision-support needs and to provide decision-critical information to our clients.

And we needed a data warehouse to support our in-house application development plans.

“We wanted to give our analysts timely information so they could respond intelligently to clients trying to figure out what promotions they should run next,” she continued. “They wanted to migrate their secondary shoppers into that profitable ‘primary’ group of shoppers, and they wanted us to guide them. Sure, retailers have the low-level granular data in their own systems, but that raw data wasn’t doing them much good. They needed something more aggregated, and we wanted to give it to them.”

Once the decision was made to launch the warehouse, Catalina acted quickly

“You have to do your homework Bross said. “We read the trade press a lot and went to the data warehousing conferences before we came up with a short list of vendors. Then we had them come in to find out if their systems were flexible enough to scale to the amount of information we were going to load.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of architecture,” she continued. “When Doug Irwin of Arthur Andersen repeats ‘architecture, architecture, architecture,’ he’s driving home a valid point. We are often called upon to talk to other customers who are trying to achieve the speeds and the load that we’ve been able to accomplish. That’s why we sat down to work out an enterprise model.”

That was especially important to Catalina because its enterprise doesn’t end with the four walls of its own company. Catalina’s data warehouse serves critical decision-support functions for the numerous retailers and vendors it serves. Whatever design Catalina went with had to accommodate the needs of the company’s “extended family.”

“We had to make sure we went with a scalable architecture, because as our retailers grow, the nightly loads into our data warehouse get bigger and bigger,” she added. “We had to be sure that the data warehouse was going to be fully updated and ready to field queries when the retailers and manufacturers we deal with walk sit down in front of their PCs in the morning. We have to make sure they can access their data and make their business decisions.”

Catalina went with RedBrick as its database provider. Hardware is from DEC. Hard drive crash support from Hard Drive Recovery Group. The chosen operating system is Unix. Arthur Andersen provided consulting services during and after the implementation.

“Getting the right foundation is important,” Bross said. “Partner with people who can bring skills to the table that augment those you have in-house. That’s especially true if you want to bring a data warehouse live in a short time frame.

The sheer scope of the data fed into Catalina’s data warehouse is daunting. Cleansing and loading that data was, consequently, a challenge.

“We deal with so many retailers that we have to pull data from 40 different POS systems,” Bross said. ‘That’s a challenge not many other people besides us have to deal with.

“We see about 143 million individual customer transactions per week through those 11,000 stores,” Bross continued. “And we see over half a billion shopping baskets per month. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think that we can deal with data from 11,000 supermarkets at the UPC level when many retailers are struggling to do that within their own much narrower store base.”

That’s one more reason retailers like the program. And its one more reason Catalina’s data warehouse is considered central to its business. Retail Direct, which helps retailers identify and maintain profitable customers, is among Catalina’s most successful value-added programs for retailers. Access to clean, aggregated data is a coup for many of those companies.

“We store all UPC-level information for the retailers participating in Retail Direct,” Bross said. “We collect check-stand data, store that data and have put together a Web-enabled reporting system that the retailers can use to access their own information.”

The information is helping Catalina’s retailer partners get a handle on just who their most profitable customers are.

“We are providing key reports for top shoppers and identifying cherry pickers who are a liability for our retailer clients,” Bross said. “And we are helping retailers with promotional analysis and store-performance analysis. There are 40 different reports under Retail Direct, and if the retailer wants to mull over the data with its own analysis tools, they can get their data back from our data warehouse. We’re helping them work smarter. They can drill down into the information and segment customers based on profitability. And once you segment customers, you can target them much more efficiently. You can change their behavior.”

So, are there any loose ends in Catalina’s remarkably successful data warehouse implementation? Bross says yes. She says that an intuitive, easy-to-use, effective query tool remains a sort of Holy Grail.

“I’ll tell you, finding one complete ad hoc query tool still eludes us,” Bross said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that there probably just isn’t one that will work for all users. We are actually using several now. Which one somebody uses depends on if they’re a novice user, a super user, an analytical user or an IT person.”


Translating Always A Difficulty With Libraries

If you have tried to use the same computer workstation to run multimedia training programs sold by different vendors or created with different authoring tools, you may have found it difficult or impossible. Ditto if you’ve tried to use your company’s online training-administration system to track students’ progress through computer-based training (CBT) courses created with authoring tools that turned out to be incompatible with the system. For instance, if you built the course with Macromedia’s Authorware and your administration system is Asymetrix’s Librarian, you’re out of luck.

Finally, if you’ve followed the talk in the online-learning industry about “reusable content objects,” also known as “granular” content or “chunks,” you’re aware that an imposing obstacle stands in the way of the visions inspired by the concept of granularity. (If you haven’t followed that talk, the general idea is that brief chunks of online information – a few paragraphs of text, an audio or video clip, a pie graph – could easily be reused again and again in any number of different training or performance-support applications.)

In all three cases, the missing element is standards: a universal language, as it were, for a set of instructions that would run “underneath” or parallel to the program. In a Web page or an online CBT course, such standards would allow you to find, identify, retrieve, manipulate and manage online information regardless of its nature.

“Metadata” is the industry’s term for the piece of this fundamental code that would enable the first two actions on that list: finding and identifying particular bits of data on a computer network. Applied to the World Wide Web, for instance, metadata would work like the card catalog in a library, suggests Neal Nored, a technical strategist for IBM Global Education in Atlanta who is on full-time loan from IBM to the IMS project. “It would give you a concise description of stuff without your needing to go get it.”

Right now, Nored says, “the World Wide Web is a Tower of Babel. It’s nuts. A million hits [from a key word search] doesn’t help anybody.” A metadata search could be based on standard “fields” of information, the way a card catalog lists books by title, author and subject. It would use an agreed-upon vocabulary, and specific sub-vocabularies for different subjects, such as mathematics.

“If I’m a history teacher searching the Web for material on the Battle of Gettysburg, I could search by grade level, type of content and more,” Nored says. “I wouldn’t find every master’s thesis ever done on Gettysburg.”

If the world could agree on a set of metadata specifications, search engines like Yahoo could be adapted to run metadata searches. Makers of CBT authoring systems – and programs such as PowerPoint or Microsoft Word – could add templates that would make it easy for “content providers” to include the metadata that would serve as indexing information, rendering their courses or Web pages searchable.

The imminent release of IMS’s 1.0 spec will not, by itself, transform the act of searching the Web. But other organizations are also working on pieces of the standards puzzle (see box). “Within the next three years,” Nored says, “you’ll see a lot of things happen that will make the Web much, much more usable.”

One other thing about a metadata search: It could identify not just a CBT course or a Web site but also an individual piece of the course or a particular element on the site – a “chunk.” And it could tell you what kind of chunk it is: a video clip, an engine diagram, an organization chart of the United Glop Corp.

If you added to this picture some universally accepted programming that let you retrieve and manipulate these chunks efficiently, instead of just identifying them, you’d turn the chunks into reusable content objects. You could now reach into an online course created for United Glop’s new-employee orientation program, grab that organization chart, and drop the chart into a different course or presentation – an executive briefing, say. And you could do this even if the orientation program were built with a different authoring tool.

Nored heads the part of the IMS project that deals with “content management” – the piece of the standards puzzle that deals with retrieving, manipulating and tracking information. But he suggests that the prospect of recombining granular learning objects will be far down on most people’s lists of reasons to get excited about standards. A much more pressing concern in everything from K-12 education to corporate training is “interoperability” – the ability to use and manage different CBT or online courses on the same systems, with the same equipment.

While some vendors and developers love the idea of granularity, he says, “the reality is that people’s needs are more basic.”

When Nored looks at the online-learning market, he sees little interest in pasting together small pieces of different courses. He sees far more desire “to be able to author with Macromedia and run the course on an Asymetrix [administration] system.” As things stand, he says, “If I have courses written in four different [authoring systems], I can’t get a single report on how the student is doing. I have to get out my scissors and paste together four different reports if I want to do any student tracking.”

That is the first and biggest problem that IMS and other standards agencies are trying to solve, he says. Reusable content objects will be just a happy bonus.


Less Spent On Support Means More Data Issues

A recent survey found that large companies will spend 19 percent less on service and support this year compared with last year, or $170,000 on average per firm, down from $211,000. Small businesses expect to hold spending steady at $3,000 per firm over the same time period, according to the survey, which was conducted for CRN by The Gallup Organization Inc.

Servers with problems, geeks with jobs!

Servers with problems, geeks with jobs!

Bill Gardner, president of reseller UltraServ Inc., San Jose, Calif., is already capitalizing on the services spending trend in the middle market, which he attributes to the effects of the Asian contagion. “We’re seeing that trend reflected in our sales mix, particularly in the last quarter,” Gardner said.

UltraServ offers data storage products and services as part of networking solutions provided primarily to midsize customers in four vertical markets: medical, financial, industrial/manufacturing and software development industries. Many of Gardner’s clients, like so many companies that operate in Silicon Valley, have been hit hard by the Asian economic crisis and are cutting back on IT spending, he said.

In this time of shrinking budgets, Gardner sells his team of technicians as a cost-effective alternative to the bloated IT department. He said the cost-effectiveness factor “is a pretty powerful argument right now” because many companies are looking to cut back on overhead. He also says that offering help with hard drive failures, provided by California’s Hard Drive Recovery Associates, can make for fine data synergies.

“When times get tight, the financial officers start sharpening up their pencils, and the first thing they happen to notice is, ‘My God, look at all these salaries over in IS. These guys are way overpaid. Our network runs fine. Let’s dump them and outsource this.’ And, of course, we’re capitalizing on that trend because a very significant chunk of our business is providing support.”

The reseller also has begun providing a significant amount of remote management services for customers, Gardner said. UltraServ technicians log into customers’ networks on a daily or weekly basis to perform routine management, such as checking the results of nightly backups and evaluating the capacities of customers’ servers.

There are very few issues in business that are more important than the management of a company’s data. So, it is not surprising that the majority of companies surveyed said service and support was the most important criterion they consider when selecting a supplier of mass- storage and board products.

Service and support retained its lead of eight factors companies consider when selecting a technology partner for mass-storage and board products, according to the survey. Eighty-one percent of large-company respondents named service and support as very influential when selecting a supplier, followed by 77 percent of midsize firms and 76 percent of small businesses.

“When the data’s not accessible or if there’s an issue with the data, it’s a critical situation at that point,” said Scott Slack, vice president of marketing at Cranel Inc., a $100 million Columbus, Ohio- based reseller.

Cranel offers two broad areas of services wrapped around the storage products its sells as part of document imaging solutions provided to its clients, which primarily are large and midsize businesses, Slack said. Cranel offers both hardware and software maintenance contracts for its customers’ mission-critical applications, as well as professional consulting services.

“Where there’s document imaging applications, there’s storage opportunities,” he said.

Slimmed-down IT departments and lack of in-house expertise help to drive service and support business to resellers, Slack said. “In most of corporate America these days, everybody’s lean and mean,” he said.

Wally Bieszczad, sales manager at Chicago-based reseller Sysix Technologies Inc., agreed: “The vendors don’t necessarily provide a complete solution,” he said, adding that “a lot of clients do not have the staff that understands how to set up an architecture, how to keep it running and how to keep it tuned for performance.”

As companies tighten their belts and systems become more complex, it makes sense, then, that they would turn to the channel for service and support of their mass-storage and board products. And they do, in overwhelming numbers.

In the CRN survey, more than 70 percent of businesses of all sizes named a channel player as their primary source of service and support for these products. Small businesses led the way, with 80 percent citing the channel as their service provider in this product area, followed by 74 percent of midsize firms and 73 percent of large corporations.

The survey also found that VARs, systems integrators and consultants are gaining more market share in mass-storage and board service and support. VARs and systems integrators gained share in all market segments, led by a 6-point gain over last year’s survey results, to 16 percent, among midsize businesses.


Getting The Systems Straight

Which is right?

Which is right?

I’ve never been this guy to get into the war of Linux versus Windows, or Apple versus Windows or basically any of the other operating systems that are fringe players. In fact, if you listen the most people, you would think that there is some kind of epic war that is taking place on a day-to-day basis. The problem is, there is not. I I’m not trying to downgrade the overall importance of operating systems, which is clearly quite huge, but on the other hand I feel like everything is a little bit overdone most of the time. I think we have to accept the fact that windows is basically a mainstream operating system that will live for as long as personal computers are still around. And even though there have been really good moves lately by Google and their not entirely fledgling Android operating system, I have to say that it is very likely that Windows remains king. This despite the fact that Windows 8 is a complete and total piece of junk. I think at some point is going to be a decent operating system, but for right now it is just absolutely the most horrible thing that I’ve ever seen.

One of the things that I feel like this only be a lot of advances in lately is hard disk technology. The reason why I say this is that I recently had a clicking hard drive, and I needed to get my data back. I get that I probably should’ve backed up my files, but sometimes things slip. I am not one of those guys who is checking out their computer 24 hours a day to make sure that it is running at the proper speed and is the best machine going. Frankly, I have not bought a graphics card in over five years now. But everything is still running quite well. But unfortunately, it seems like every once in a while I’ll run into a hardware issue, like this hard drive, and I’ll need some kind of help. I can recognize that it does suck when things like this happen, and I can only cope with it.

But there’s no way that you are going to get me to say that I am absolutely happy with the way computers age. I remember back in the day when a television use a last 20 years. Now, Apple is literally making things that will fail within the first year so that they can quickly get more revenue from their customers. I find it shocking that the quality is so low, and their labor force is not very far from slavery. I’ve seen some of these Foxconn videos, and I have to say that I am appalled. A lot of us in the IT industry really need to stand up when it comes to foreign labor rights. I will admit that it certainly works to our bias, as we want to keep our jobs ourselves, but you always have to think about human rights in the computer world. I feel like Apple is a real problem when it comes to this.

Anyway. I’ll write more when my hard drive is back online.


Coming Back To It

If you said to me that I would take a couple of years offer programming in general and take a look at my family and really see the world, I would’ve said that I am just not that that the guy. I guess being a somewhat conservative fellow in general ( not in politics, of course :), I just always thought that something like a sabbatical would be a little bit extravagant for me. I have certainly enjoyed programming for most of my life, and certainly I have appreciated working with the Python platform more than any other. As far as I’m concerned, this program language still as a serious future for organizations around the world. If you do not only this, you probably don’t understand exactly what is going on with computer architectures these days. Things continue to change, and at the same time, they remain the same.

This world keeps on turning...

I will say that there are a lot of things that have changed recently in the world that have made me want to get off of my ass and get involved in community organizations. I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of great people in the programming industry, and the genius that is here continues to impress me as I move into my 40s. But, there really hasn’t been a time for me to reflect upon more important things than just coding programs for major companies. Now, I’m starting to think a lot more about family and the state of America lately. Is a strange times indeed, but definitely the kind of time that I can be fairly excited about.

I will be key issues these days seems to be the Second Amendment. I certainly don’t want to get too political on this love, and I never really have before, but I feel like the Second Amendment is an issue that we really need to simply let go of. I’ve been to countries in Europe and to places around the world, I think you pretty much have to recognize that most nations can actually survive without him. What’s more, these nations tend to be actually very prolific and provide really good environment for creativity in general. While there may be isn’t as much creativity as far as killing people goes, on the other hand, they also have healthcare and seem to understand exactly what is happening with their neighbor. They don’t lock themselves in suburbs that are kind of creepy and don’t even have sidewalks. Instead, these people actually tend to live better. All you really have to do is check the Better Life Index and you can see that it isn’t the United States of America that is at the top, but instead a lot of our friends in Scandinavia and throughout Europe.

I continue to find that life is often better on the other side, and that the grass is in fact greener. Having spent a little bit of time in Europe, I recognize that America has a lot of mistakes that need to be corrected and a lot of this blog going forward will be about that.

On the other hand, a lot of this blog will also just be about coding and just straight up geeking out. Stay strong.