Burlingtons Better Way

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-10-08 Print this article Print

On the other extreme are brick-and-mortars with Web sites that choose to keep the two worlds separate. I shouldnt say this, but theres a certain refreshingly honest quality to that approach. "We sell clothes and theyre good clothes. You buy from human salespeople. We sell clothes the way our parents did and you can buy them like your parents did." Oddly enough, one champion of that approach is the retail industrys most senior CIO, Mike Prince of the Burlington Coat Factory. In the more than 25 years that Prince has reigned over the technology operations of the company that is today an almost $3 billion retailer, he has consistently been on the cutting edge of technology, from launching a corporate Web site in 95 to early adoption of Unix, Oracle (Burlington is the single oldest customer of any Oracle application), e-mail, TCP/IP, symmetrical multiprocessing and—most recently—Linux. To read about Linuxs obstacles within retail, click here.
And yet here we have this technological pioneer and trend-setter who is proud to use technology where it helps and to not even try where its not necessary. Is Prince interested in creating a Web-based tailor program? Nope. His response is the same one my grandfather—a onetime veteran of New Yorks garment district—would have given. "You come in, you try it on, and if it looks good, you buy it," Prince said. "If it doesnt, you dont."
Burlingtons business model has merchandise distributed nationally to some 315 stores in 42 states, but in relatively small quantities. "We do a lot of opportunistic buys so there is not necessarily enough depth to put it in all stores," he said. "We scatter it throughout the whole country, so theres not a significant stock in any one location." That makes fulfilling lots of Web orders difficult. Even though Burlington doesnt now allow a lot of integration between its online and offline worlds, Princes team is dramatically upgrading IT infrastructure so that it can support integration as soon as the business decides it wants to. "From an IT standpoint, were enabling it. Transactions done that way would certainly flow through the system cleanly," he said. To read about why some store managers are rebelling against CRM with kiosks, click here. Hows that for refreshing? Instead of some Web site that uses technology because it can, Burlington can and chooses not to. Its looking at its customers and its business and deciding that it is confident enough and savvy enough to not deploy without a good reason. But like Paul Newmans Henry Gondorff character from "The Sting," it would be unwise to underestimate Burlington. "Dont kid yourself," Newmans character says to Robert Redfords Johnny Hooker. "I still know how." Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com. To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here. Check out eWEEK.coms Retail Center for the latest news, views and analysis of this vital industry.

Evan Schuman is the editor of CIOInsight.com's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.

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