Heading into the future with Future Shop

Ask any IT person to make a top-10 list of things they don’t like to do and replacing legacy systems invariably makes the list. The choices are a bit like removing a Band-Aid: do you do it slow or do you do it fast?

With a fast expanding retail and on-line market, Future Shop Ltd. decided it was time to get rid of antiquated technology. Given the fact the company lives in the extremely competitive retail market, the decision was made to bring in the implementation all at once during a three-day period last June.

The legacy systems were an intertwined maze with no apparent beginning or end. Essentially all the technology had to be changed, from the call centre and home delivery systems to the financial and product inventory environments. In all, the two-year program included 11 projects, 134 interfaces, a $60 million investment and millions of records to be transferred to the new system.

“Looking at what all of these other projects needed to do, I recognized that they were really all integrated and had been for a dozen years,” said Larry Needham, CIO of Future Shop in Vancouver. “It was almost like a [giant ball of string] – to even find both ends of a particular string was a challenge enough, but to pull on one particular string we couldn’t even tell what the rippling effect and impacts would be across the other systems,” he explained. Implementing a change using a piecemeal solution was not going to be an option.

The legacy systems had the unenviable combination of old computer code, poor documentation and lots of fixes and patchwork.

“So the decision was made to throw out the hairball all at once,” he explained. “In order to do that we had to have a whole bunch of systems come together, big bang.”

The systems were shut down June 19, 2000 and the new went live two days later.

doing it all at once

Alan Freedman, research manager for servers and workstations with IDC in Toronto, said decisions to bring on an implementation all at once are strictly case by case. He said corporate strategy and available resources, both human and monetary, play a big role in making the decision.

“The intuitive benefit of doing it all at once is the fact that you know everything will integrate properly…when you are doing it piecemeal, first of all you don’t know if the same people are going to be around and also with the new technologies that are changing day by day you don’t know if you are going to have a seamless integration,” he explained.

But if an all-at-once implementation doesn’t work properly you can kiss it all good-bye. “You are up the creek because you are betting your business on this one implementation as opposed to going piecemeal, where if something doesn’t work hopefully you can take it off and fix it without disrupting your customers.”

Needham said the Go Dark to Go Live went smoothly and that 99.9 per cent of the transactions were successful.

“The individual projects were a piece of cake compared to the pulling it all together with the 134 interfaces and the enterprise testing,” Needham explained. “We were right on schedule (for an October 1999 implementation) through to August 1999, all unit and system testing worked, everything worked.”

The Renaissance implementation included adding an Oracle financials system and systems to deal with warranties, call centres, remote inventory, home delivery and points of sale. These implementation then had to work seamlessly with PeopleSoft HR software, which itself was a separate implementation outside of the Renaissance umbrella.

the end user

For this implementation end users are both employees and Future Shop customers, though the latter may not really notice it.

“Better efficiencies for the people running the company will hopefully turn to the ability to reduce costs and though it may not be a ‘Wham this is really cool’ to the customer it will be a noticeable improvement,” said Wes Skitch, executive vice-president at Future Shop based in Mississauga, Ont.

“Primarily what we are trying to do is reduce our costs and increase our gross margins, increase our turns and our efficiencies,” he added.

One of the difficulties the retailer had was streamlining and organizing the delivery of big-ticket items such as fridges, stoves and large-screen televisions, Skitch said. The new system has a database of all Canadian postal codes so locations can be easily pin pointed. “It is kind of like a cross reference program for us,” he added.

“One of the things we are working toward is trying to integrate the delivery system so it becomes more efficient,” said Mike Chuback, director of operations for Future Shop in Ontario. With a lot of items sold on the Web as well as in stores, the goal is to deliver all ordered items at once. As it stands, if a customer buys a fridge in a store and then goes on-line that evening and orders a stove, the deliveries are not integrated.

The on-line portion of the company was not part of the Renaissance implementation. The complete integration of the company’s on and off-line systems will occur in the future.

Skitch said the new system also allows for better tracking of items brought in for repair. Though he admitted it wasn’t exactly a Fed Ex-type tracking system, it is a monumental improvement over its predecessor.

a helping hand

The LGS Group Inc., an information technology and management consulting firm in Vancouver, helped Future Shop with the huge implementation. According to Dave Stanton, regional manager of LGS in Vancouver, the company started off by doing a gap analysis to help Future Shop create a road map for replacing the legacy system. LGS assisted with the implementation of the core corporate Spark system (the kernel of the information system) which acted as the interface from the store to all of the other back-end systems, Stanton said.

“We found that we had to work very closely with the users (Future Shop) because what they were doing is building a completely new system,” Stanton explained. “The key (to our success) was the communication between the users and the individual teams…if you look at our senior people who were there, part of their job was to act as a communications conduit to make sure that everybody knew what was going on.”

For Needham the work is not over, since more projects are on the horizon.

“Renaissance was just one piece, it was the first piece of the puzzle, you have to have that foundation,” he said.

“I am not sure how long you are going to gaze in wonder at a spectacular house built on sand – you have to have that foundation,” he concluded.