First Cut Previously, Virgin Megastores would receive information about store traffic and sales several days after the fact, said Steven Humphrey, senior consultant at Analysis Team. "It wasnt actionable, and it wasnt in context," Humphrey said. Using Microsofts Analysis Services, Analysis Team built a BI platform that integrated seamlessly with the clients SQL Server database, running on an AS/400. Simultaneously, Xavor created portals with Microsofts SharePoint Server, which enabled managers to access reports on store traffic every 15 minutes, Humphrey said. The solution also included sensors installed near store entrances, which reported the number of shoppers entering each store.Having this nearly real-time information was invaluable, since it allowed store managers to move slower-selling items closer to hot sellers, for example, Fort said. The data also gave employees insight into traffic patterns: One store determined it had a rush of customers at a particular time each day, so it added a sales clerk to improve customer service and revenue, he said.Training costs were minimal, Fort said. Via Web conferencing, the IT department spent about an hour with staff at each store, outlining the solution. Second Track Excited by the first phase of the rollout, store managers and corporate executives wanted more. The second phaseintegrating the POS solutionwas more complex, since it required the synchronization of line-item information on cost, price and marketing event data that had been pulled from the AS/400. Tapping Microsofts Vista and SharePoint Server, Xavor created easy-to-use portals for the entertainment retail stores. "There were a lot of customized Web pages integrated as part of the SharePoint portal," Xavors Masood said. "We ensured the point-of-sale system was integrated with the data warehouse. It was then up to the business users to determine how they wanted to slice and dice the data. Once that was implemented, as business users started to use it, they found certain aspects were very, very useful." Having this data at their fingertips was a far cry from business users prior attempts to glean data, Masood said. "They were really not utilizing it before," she said. "Information was on the AS/400, but they didnt know what to do with it. Now they get information in real time. Any authorized user in the company can get the information and use it for marketing or planning." Xavor further enhanced the user experience by tying in portals to traditional Microsoft Office applications, such as Excel, which employees already were using, Masood said. "We used Office Web components as part of the portal so they could use the same tools they were use to," she said. This tacticcoupled with the ability to access so much vital datasped user adoption of the POS solution, Masood said. "The adoption in the organization was very quick," she added. "The Virgin team did a great job in making the solution available in a format people were already familiar with." B-side Working in collaboration, yet somewhat behind the scenes, Analysis Team further enhanced the data warehouse and BI solution. "Throughout the project, Analysis Team performed extensive analysis to validate the input data as well as the results of the warehouse processes," said Stark. "This put many of Virgins systems, processes and business rules under a microscope, revealing more than a few issues." At that point, Analysis Team sat down with Virgin Entertainments IT group to explain the problem and recommend short- and long-term solutions, according to Alan Flaesgarten, senior manager of applications and development at Virgin. Analysis Teams Humphrey mentored IT staff and developed detailed documentation for Virgin Entertainments internal group. The integrator also created several reporting tools to help departments best use the now-accessible data. "We really train the companys employees to be able to troubleshoot and, hopefully, solve any problems," Humphrey said. To further improve performance, Virgin Entertainment is currently upgrading its servers from Intel-Microsoft hardware to Hewlett-Packard blade servers, Fort said. Grand Finale Just as a team of experts created the technical ensemble behind Virgin Megastores improved sales, so, too, did a team of marketing professionals, sales executives and other employees, Fort said. Therefore, he said he took a conservative approach to determine the effect the IT changes had on the companys improved sales. Back in front of the board of directors againthis time, with better news in handFort said he suggested conceding that 20 percent of the gross margin could be attributed to Crescendos role in Virgin Megastores enhanced financial performance. "You can see every single one of those stores made an improvement in conversion," Fort said. "[Crescendo] has absolutely changed our culture." The experience also changed Xavor and Analysis Team. Both companies, which hope to work together again on future opportunities, both within and apart from Virgin Entertainment, realized the importance of communicating, sharing a vision and consistently putting the customer first. "I think the people skills are every bit as important as the technical skills [in making] partners out of competitors," Humphrey said. In this case, that combination of communication and technical savvy resulted in musicclanging registers and the hum of shoppersfor Virgin Entertainment. Alison Diana is a freelance writer and editor in Merritt Island, Fla. She can be reached at email@example.com. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on servers, switches and networking protocols for the enterprise and small businesses.