The folks at Hallmark Cards Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., are experts at acting on feelings. So when company executives felt that the mobile application devices used by the companys retail merchandisers were just plain getting old, the company reached out to Field Performance Group Inc. of Georgetown, Ontario, for help. FPG, in turn, reached out to Microsoft Corp. to provide some of the core software that would make up the application, known as InfoLink.
Besides FPGs FieldWeb application, upon which InfoLink is based, Hallmarks new mobile solution features Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Microsoft Visual Studio .Net 2003, Microsoft Windows CE, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Microsoft .Net Compact Framework and Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services, FPG officials said.
InfoLink runs on a mobile device hosting SQL Server 2000 Windows CE Edition.
Hallmark sells its products in nearly 44,000 retail outlets in the United States, including 30,000 mass merchandisers, such as drugstores and discount and food stores.
The company employs 10,000 part-time RMs (retail merchandisers) who stock new deliveries, place orders and sort misplaced greeting cards into their proper display pockets. The RMs work an average of 10 hours per week and service approximately three stores each, according to a Hallmark spokesperson.
The old devices were DOS-based Telxon Corp. Telxon devices, and the new ones are Windows-based handhelds from Intermec Technologies Corp.
"We moved them to a new device with a ruggedized scanner," said Stuart Blades, president of FPG. "This is one of the largest, if not the largest, implementation of CE in the world."
Time better spent
In merchandising, time is money, and the older devices were unable to help RMs with misplaced cards. That added to the time they were in stores working, said Scott ODell, IT business development director at Hallmark. So when FPG moved the Hallmark system to the newer Intermec handhelds, that was one area that needed to be addressed.
"We didnt even look at the code they had in place," said Tom Bradshaw, vice president of technology at FPG. "We didnt try to replicate it."
Meanwhile, "from Hallmarks perspective, the Windows CE environment has worked quite well," ODell said. "The field part-time service organization likes the look and feel of the applications and the touch-screen, stylus-based navigation. Our applications are fairly customized to our work processes."
Bradshaw said Hallmark wanted a device and system that could support a mobile database that would enable RMs to scan a cards bar code and immediately determine in which display-rack pocket it belonged; provide inventory, ordering and shipment data; support two-way messaging between managers and RMs; and easily synchronize with Hallmarks master databases.
Indeed, synchronization had been an issue with the older devices, Bradshaw said. Synchronization that used to take as long as 20 minutes is now done in approximately 3 minutes, he said.
Each night, the RMs must connect via modem to the master database to synchronize, Bradshaw said. The devices hold 60MB of information.
"Originally, we were using a Web services-type communication method, sending XML files back and forth, but SQL Server has a technology called RDA [Remote Data Access], and Microsoft recommended we use that," Bradshaw said. "It has its own compression built in, and it scales very well."
"The processing and synchronization of data sent back and forth from Hallmark to FPG and then from the InfoLink host system to each handheld device required work by both Hallmarks IT Solutions [team] and FPGs programming team," ODell said.
FPG developed the InfoLink application using the Microsoft Visual Studio .Net 2003 development system and the Microsoft .Net Compact Framework. The solution includes Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Windows CE Edition (SQL Server CE), Version 2.0, running on the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, Version 3.0. SQL Server 2000 is part of the Microsoft Windows Server System integrated server software.
Moreover, InfoLink is hosted on a rugged Intermec CN1 mobile device with 256MB of flash card storage that holds a 60MB Hallmark account and product database. Bradshaw said the device is designed to work with function keys rather than with alphanumeric code to make it easier for RMs to enter data and has a built-in UPC (Universal Product Code) bar-code scanner.
Indeed, Bradshaw said FPG had to make "significant" adaptations to its code base to account for the mobile environment.