- 25 Nov 2011
Systems Integration – getting it right in retail
Alan Morris, Managing Director at Retail Assist and Ian O’Rorke, Managing Director at Triquestra UK, debate the issues retailers need to consider when integrating multiple systems such as supply chain and EPoS, and the challenges that they might face.
Within any retail business, the IT solutions used on a day-to-day basis require integration. Retail systems integration is very different to interfacing. For example, within retail stock management, an interfaced solution may include product files in two separate locations being used by different systems. Once an item has been purchased in store, the shop’s product file will recognise this has happened immediately. However, this information will not be fed back to the central solution until polling occurs overnight. This can obviously lead to difficulties if a customer attempts to purchase the same product online before the central database recognises it is no longer in stock.
By contrast, an integrated solution has a single database, utilised by a number of systems. This ‘single view’ of stock is invaluable for any retailer. For start-up businesses, the desire to ‘get it right’ from the outset is emphasised, as poor initial interfacing or integration will result in further expense down the line.
A joint client of Retail Assist (Merret for supply chain, merchandising and warehousing) and Triquestra (for point-of-sale) is new womenswear brand Mint Velvet, who can be credited with getting integration right from the beginning.
Ian: How should retailers go about selecting a systems integration partner?
Alan: It is vital that the suppliers involved in systems integration projects prove they have the capability and experience to deliver in this area. It is always a challenge when you are building links between different applications, but if the development is carefully thought through, well designed and well implemented, there is no reason why there should be any major problems.
Alan: How can retailers benefit most from systems integration?
Ian: Rather than having a ‘jack of all trades’ system that does everything not very well, I’d advise them to start by choosing ‘best-of-breed’ solutions, and have the best of PoS, ERP and finance. If they go for the ‘middle of the road’ solution, they’re more likely to have problems down the line. Investing in the software at the outset is a big outlay, but ‘best of breed’ solutions will last retailers 15 years.
Ian: What do think retailers should be looking for?
Alan: Better products, better locations, more customers and higher net margins. All retailers should be looking to achieve these objectives, and systems suppliers and IT professionals should use their resources to help retailers find what they’re looking for. These four items should be the cornerstones underpinning any IT strategy.
Ian: I echo your comments. You have to agree all these things up-front. Retailers should also look for references, speaking to users of the system before they commission them. Talk to other customers, and make an informed choice.
Ian: As you recall, the Mint Velvet solution required a lot of integration. Looking back, how difficult do you think it was it to bring it all together?
Alan: Mint Velvet required significant integration because they are a multichannel retailer, but our combined supplier and MV teams knew what was needed and executed the tasks with skill and precision.
Ian: Yes, it was an exciting project once we understood the customer’s requirements and were able to get to grips with the extensive functionality of Merret. Good co-operation and a pragmatic approach from all parties ensured the objectives were achieved. Mint Velvet are one of the most professional retailers I’ve come across. They know what sells, what makes customers come into their shops. The brief was very specific and they had a realistic view of what systems can do. The fact that there were a lot of like-minded people within the implementation team (suppliers and Mint Velvet) helped this project to a successful conclusion.
Alan: What do you see as the major challenges for EPoS and supply chain integration?
Ian: To make sure the integration is robust and reliable. Anyone with a coding background can join together two bits of software. Integration of two advanced systems needs to be spot-on. The other challenge is keeping integration up-to-date with retail, which is changing day-by-day. For example, ‘pick and collect’ is the latest innovation that needs to be built into proposals.
Alan: In its most raw form, EPoS data can look strange and, to people who are not used to it, wrong and inconsistent. When you think that the raw transactional data is in effect a complete record of every till keystroke you can begin to imagine how the transaction might look. I think that translating, processing and managing EPoS transaction data is always a tricky exercise the first time you do it with a new system.
Alan: What do you think are the most common concerns when retailers install a new POS system?
Ian: Resilience, as in will it work and integrate with all other systems. This includes advanced functional integration of, for example, ERP, finance and warehousing and web presence, multi-channel presence for ‘phone, shops and web orders.
Alan: I agree. If the EPoS system fails, then the ability of the store to trade is at best significantly hindered, at worst taken away completely. The need to transact sales in-store is the most critical aspect of any retail system; sales provide the life-blood for the business. So, my biggest concern as a retailer when swapping EPoS would be reliability. Function and feature, integration and point-of-service are all fine, but nothing is more important than making sales.
Ian: How do you think multichannel distribution is affecting retailers when it comes to systems integration?
Alan: Retailers need to have the right products at the right prices available in the right channel to meet their customers’ needs. They also want to be able to link customers into a standard “service promise” which will ensure they receive the same high level of service regardless of whether they are visiting a store or at home using a website. Significant systems integration is needed to achieve this.
Ian: Yes, it’s evolving all the time. Who knows how much more it can change but, for example, using iPhones and mobile devices for shopping is likely to be commonplace within the next 2 years. In the end though, there is always a need for human interaction with a sales assistant and the product.
Alan: Finally Ian, what in your experience is the recipe for a smooth integration?
Ian: Two things: Firstly, a detailed analysis of the end users’ business to start with, resulting in clear objectives. Secondly, a pragmatic approach to setting realistic expectations from all parties. IT systems should help run the business, rather than the business needing to be set up to run the systems. And, of course, the human element is important. All parties need to be talking to each other.
Alan: That’s for sure. To make integration work, there has to be a lot of togetherness: the retailer and the supplier must work as one in defining the requirements, designing the integration, planning the implementation and then dealing with the subsequent issues that arise from any project. If there is not a pulling-together of the human resources then the systems resources will never integrate: at best they might interface.