Grand & Toy says data tracking is crucial

Access to business intelligence (BI) software is crucial to running a company, according to the head of one office product retailer’s IT operations.

“I don’t know how anyone would run a business without tools like that,” said John Melodysta, vice-president of information technology at Grand & Toy. “They answer all the business analytical questions that a company needs” in order to stay competitive.

But in the last year, the Don Mills, Ont., firm has taken BI one step further by implementing a corporate performance management suite from Toronto’s Clarity Systems Ltd. that provides Web access to budgeting, reporting and customer retention information.

It was back in the mid-nineties when the retailer started looking for BI tools that would help it track how it was doing in a number of business areas. Although the firm might be best known by the average Canadian for its 70 stores across the country that sell office and computer supplies, paper and furniture, the “lion’s share” of Grand & Toy’s sales actually comes from businesses ordering supplies via phone, fax or online, said Melodysta. So the firm needed BI tools that could trace their progress in both the business-to-consumer and the business-to-business realms.

Clarity Systems helped Grand & Toy implement a number of tools, including Essbase, a multidimensional database made by Hyperion, and the Visual Basic functions needed to access the data residing on the databases. Grand & Toy was satisfied with the tools’ capabilities, but over time the firm realized that it would become harder to implement new pieces of software for its 800 BI users.

“The problem is that when you’re in a client/server mode, you’re always having to roll out new client pieces of software. As BI becomes more ingrained in your company nationally, it becomes more difficult to roll out all these client pieces of software” to all your locations across the country, Melodysta said.

Since Clarity built so many other multidimensional databases and datamarts for Grand & Toy, when the vendor came out with its corporate performance management suite, Clarity Performance Management (CPM), Melodysta was open to trying it out. “They kept showing [CPM] to me in infancy, it kept getting better and better with more and more features,” he said.

Mark Nashman, Clarity’s president, said such suites typically include tools for budgeting, planning, forecasting, modeling, financial reporting, sales analysis, customer profitability, dashboards and scorecarding. “We’ve brought all these types of systems into an umbrella suite that is integrated,” he said. Nashman said that initially customers usually come to Clarity with a single application in mind. “Often it’s their hot-button issue. One of the hottest out there is budgeting and forecasting or planning…That’s one of the most common parts of the business that needs help most urgently that we get involved in.”

CPM contains five modules; Grand & Toy has already implemented two — budgeting and reporting — from scratch. “We’ve done a bunch of sales forecasting…and reporting and analysis work using it, particularly on the sales side of things.” Something else the retailer is using is Defector Detector, a Clarity-developed tool for identifying customers whose orders are decreasing and who may be taking their business elsewhere.

“We are always trying to make sure that customers are still with us,” Melodysta explained. “There are only so many salespeople…but there are thousands of customers and so many touch points. One way of drawing it all together and being sure that we are still servicing the customer happily is to watch their ordering patterns. If they change, that is an indicator that something is going on. We want to be in there directly with the customer and find out where things are going wrong.”

Although Melodysta said it’s too early to quantify dollars or time saved by implementing CPM, he did note that the Web interface gives more flexibility for salespeople. “If you’re a sales rep on the road or working from home, you can access the tools home via VPN.”

There are a lot of other BI tools at Grand & Toy that Clarity built but that are not yet switched over to the CPM platform, including a product-profitability datamart. Melodysta said he eventually hopes to migrate such older tools to CPM to make them more accessible.

“Because it is a Web-based toolset and it sits on top of the database, you get very seamless integration and you also get away from whole problem of client-server,” he said.

Although the IT department hasn’t tried it yet, Melodysta doesn’t think migration would cause many problems because “the underlying database is not going to change — you just sit something on top of it to give you access to what’s underneath it.” Most of the time it would mean replacing a Visual Basic front end with CPM.

He likens the migration to a child upgrading his mode of transportation as he grows up. “It’s like starting with a tricycle, moving to a bicycle and eventually moving to a car. We started with these things in the nineties — now we’re building new ones with CPM.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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