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.
How the InfoLink System
Is Actually Used”>
“Mostly you have to worry about the UI [user interface],” Bradshaw said. “And you have to take into account that probably a lot of the users arent familiar with computers. So you really have to make it easy. And training has to be quick and the UI simple and intuitive.”
A typical workday for an RM begins with the individual plugging his or her InfoLink into a phone jack to connect with a Hallmark SQL Server 2000 database, which then synchronizes the mobile devices data and downloads any messages from the RMs manager, FPG officials said.
During the day, the RMs use a built-in bar-code scanner to reorder cards and other products. And the RM can scan the back of a misplaced card to see exactly where it should go in the card display, company officials said.
At the end of the day, the RM plugs the InfoLink in and transmits stock orders, query replies and other data created during store visits, while synchronizing with the database and picking up new messages, company officials said.
Overall, the new system has given Hallmark a 10 percent boost in productivity, Blades said.
“Our applications are fairly customized to our work processes,” ODell said. “Hallmarks key roles in this project were defining the business requirements of the application, completing field testing to ensure functional performance, training … 10,000 part-timers and orchestrating a three-month 10,000-user base deployment with our business partners at FPG and Intermec.”
Data sourcing and in-bound data processing were handled by Hallmarks in-house IT Solutions team, ODell said, using “our legacy application systems such as product tables, payroll, order processing and retail inventory management systems.”
Bradshaw said performance of SQL Server CE has been very good. “In fact, a typical SQL query against the 60MB database takes two-tenths of a second,” he said.
Meanwhile, Blades said that FPG serves as an ASP (application service provider) and maintains the central database to handle all the information supporting the InfoLink mobile devices.
FPG hosts the database on SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition, which is running on the Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition operating system, which is the foundation of the Microsoft Windows Server System integrated server software, Blade said. The database runs on an IBM xSeries 365 four-way server with 16GB of RAM and is located at FPGs headquarters. A second copy of the database is hosted at Hallmarks headquarters. The two servers are connected through a VPN, FPG officials said.
Bradshaw said the rollout for the InfoLink system started in June of last year and more than 10,000 users have received new handhelds. “This month [November], were rolling out to the Netherlands and the U.K. and [to] Canada in December,” he said. “We also have a pilot for Hallmarks Gold Crown stores.”
ODell added, “The business case for deploying 10,000 devices was predicated on delivering a productivity boost to Hallmarks field service organization.” With a 10 percent increase in productivity already, the company plans to expand the effort.
“The InfoLink is now under development for deployment to several of our non-U.S.-based subsidiaries, and we are also preparing to deliver extended functionality to our Gold Crown card shop channel beginning in 2006,” ODell said.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.