Retailer Forced to Don New E-Commerce Garb

 
 
By Ron Miller  |  Posted 2005-05-23
 
 
 

Retailer Forced to Don New E-Commerce Garb


When K2 Inc., best known for selling outdoor sports equipment, bought outdoor clothing manufacturer Ex Officio LLC from The Orvis Company Inc. last year, it marked the first time that the sporting goods giant had entered the consumer apparel market. Because of that, K2 had no e-commerce solutions in place to handle the new product lines.

As part of the acquisition deal with K2, of Carlsbad, Calif., Orvis, of Manchester, Vt., provided a six-month window in which Ex Officio could continue to use the old e-commerce system it had been sharing with Orvis.

At the end of six months, however, Orvis would begin charging for this service. This meant that Chad Luellen, Ex Officios e-commerce manager, had to scramble to find a new solution quickly. The solution also needed to work seamlessly across various back-end systems.

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"We had a limit of how much time we could stay on Orvis systems without having them charge us for IT support," Luellen said. "When we got purchased, we originally had six months to upgrade, but due to some changes in [plans], it got [squeezed] down to three months before we had to plug in a new system and go live. ... That included [integrating] our complete ERP [enterprise resource planning] system [and] our wholesale system, as well as the Web," Luellen said.

Luellen needed to find a vendor that could integrate all these back-end systems and complete the task quickly. He also said he had to make sure that the solution was scalable so that other K2 properties could use the same solution in the future.

Luellen began evaluating various products, including Microsoft Corp.s Commerce Server (the software that Orvis had been using), WebSphere from IBM and solutions from smaller development companies in Seattle, near Ex Officios Tukwila, Wash., headquarters.

But Luellen was most intrigued by MainStreet Commerce, of Lighthouse Point, Fla., and its BusinessFlow product. Luellen said BusinessFlow was easy to use and seemed to offer everything he was looking for at a reasonable price.

"After going through some demonstrations with MainStreet and looking at their back-end [configuration tools], I had a really good feeling about the technology," Luellen said. "It was more intuitive than some of the other demonstrations I had on other e-commerce platforms. They had the ability to turn it around quickly, and they had this great architecture that could be customized to do just about anything you want."

In addition, Luellen said he liked that MainStreet offered a flexible solution that gave him more control over design and configuration than the Orvis e-commerce system. MainStreet was also offering a hosted plan so Ex Officio did not have to deal with server maintenance; MainStreet could hit the ground running to meet Ex Officios demanding installation schedule.

Whats more, Luellen said he felt he could work with MainStreet after the initial installation to make changes and refinements that wouldnt cost him an arm and a leg.

Nick Laurie, chief technology officer at MainStreet, said the BusinessFlow software has been designed to work with back-end systems, whether its integrating with e-commerce or a telephone ordering system.

"We approach flexibility from our core architecture. All features are configurable. [Customers] can take our out-of-the box solution and configure it to the way they do business," Laurie said.

The old Orvis system Ex Officio had been using was a highly customized version of Microsofts Commerce Server that Luellen said was extremely inflexible when it came to making changes.

"The Orvis system had been customized [to the point that] there was nothing that we could really plug in," he said. "We were limited with our IT resources because we were sharing them with Orvis. It was difficult to make quick changes on the Web site, and its reporting abilities were limited. We were able to build our business, but it wasnt the optimum technology base for us."

Although Luellen said he was sure BusinessFlow was the right product for the project, convincing Ex Officio President Rick Hemmerling and Vice President of Operations Bob Carroll that MainStreet Commerce, a small company offering a reasonable price, could really handle the job was another matter.

"The hard part was actually convincing the president and the CFO that MainStreet was a solid company since their bid was coming in lower than companies that had less experience," Luellen said. "[I understood] it was based on the way they had set up their business and being able to reuse that technology, but its funny because it was a hard sell [at least initially] convincing them that the lower bid was higher quality."

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Ex Officio eventually decided to go with MainStreet Commerce, Luellen said, and engineers went to work rebuilding pages of the Web site using a template and setting up a staging area for testing.

"Obviously, it was a little frantic with the time constraints on us, but they immediately started the ball rolling and laid out the back end," Luellen said. "They actually took our site and duplicated it and rebuilt all the pages using a template system. I was able to create pages [more easily] and have more control on creating content pages [than our old Microsoft Commerce Server system], and they didnt just give us a template and say, Have fun."

Luellen said MainStreet took on much of the workload at a time when he was particularly busy because he was trying to run the old system and create the new one. Only a week or so after MainStreet got started, it set up the staging site and began discussions with Luellen about how he wanted to present items on the site.

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"The elegance of the architecture [is that] we dont [have to] code every integration. We take integration down a different path," MainStreets Laurie said. "Weve taken our code and built out the foundation for moving data to the front of the system. The last mile is a few pages of code that wraps the metadata to our objects so that the Porini system accepts an API shipping order and they provide us with an XML inventory file."

Laurie said that by taking advantage of the standard Porini integration methodology, MainStreet was able to build one small executable that runs on a schedule three times a day and pulls orders and presents them to Porini in less than one page of code.

Luellen said this method provided smooth integration across Ex Officios systems as information gets passed back and forth.

"When a customer places an order, it is entered and tracked through MainStreet, and three times a day a file is exported into Porini, and it goes into inventory and affects inventory," Luellen said. "Pick tickets are printed, and once [the process is complete] and the item is shipped, Porini updates the inventory and sends an advanced shipping notice to MainStreet."

After the MainStreet system pulls the tracking number from the Porini system, it automatically e-mails the client that the item is on its way and updates the inventory for the shipped item, Luellen said.

The MainStreet back-end configuration tools work on a simple attribution system (the ability to take different inventory items and select different settings) that enables Luellen to easily set up different items for sale on the site by changing a few settings. Luellen said this gives him tight control over site content without having to worry about coding.

"Using their attribute system, we were able to customize and automate a lot of the things that needed to be hand-coded on every item page on the old system," Luellen said. "If you go into our back end, there is a setup for each [inventory] item with check boxes and selections that do different things that we can make on every item, and I can add and change things without having to do programming."

Since the system went live at the end of last year, Luellen said, MainStreet has continued to deliver upgrades that add value. Recently, he said, the company delivered a code upgrade to accommodate the fact that Ex Officio does limited manufacturing runs.

When inventory drops below a certain level for any given product that has a limited production run, the Web site automatically changes. Instead of displaying a quantity box, it displays a drop-down list showing how many items remain. When the last item has been purchased, Luellen said the product disappears from the Web site; if there is a return or a problem with an order, the product automatically reappears on the Web site.

Luellen said that working with MainStreet was a great experience and that he believes the developer can handle any future challenges. "They did a good job. The engineering team has a lot of skills and are well-spoken and can tell you what you need to do," he said. "Weve gotten to the point now if anyone comes up with [an idea for the system] in our operations meetings, we believe MainStreet can do it, and we throw that into their court. We have been really happy with the experience."

Ron Miller is a free-lance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be contacted at ronsmiller@ronsmiller.com.

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