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New retail business intelligence (BI) software, services give merchants an edge

As retailers look to business intelligence software to lower customer churn and better manage inventory levels, vendors respond with new products and services.

With multiple sales channels, 55 brick-and-mortar stores, and a complex online storefront, MarineMax is so awash in sales and customer data that it could use one of the boats it sells to navigate it.

Or it could tap business intelligence (BI) software to make use of its ever-expanding pool of data, which is just what the Clearwater, Fla.-based boat retailer did, according to Jeremy Wilson, vice president of IT for MarineMax.

Specifically, MarineMax turned to Cognos BI software from IBM to give store managers access to data to help them manage inventory and promotional campaigns. The company's finance department also uses the software to more easily collect and process company-wide budgeting data, Wilson said.

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Marketing employees, meanwhile, use their newfound analytic capabilities for event planning, determining the return on investment (ROI) the company gets for participating in boat shows across the country.

"Retail is a very challenging marketplace, so to get true ROI is key," Wilson said.

MarineMax is just one of a growing number of retail organizations looking to BI and other data analytics technologies to streamline operations and find and keep valuable customers. And vendors such as Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM are developing retail-specific products and services to meet the growing demand.

At the recent National Retail Federation Conference in New York, for example, IBM announced the creation of a new competency center focused on the retail sector called Retail Performance Analytics Services. IBM consultants will help the vendor's retail customers make the best use of technology to manage expenses, improve product development and better understand, track and respond to customer demands, according to IBM.

Also at the NRF Conference, data warehouse appliance vendor Netezza, based in Marlborough, Mass., unveiled its Retail Analytic Appliance. The appliance is a preconfigured bundle of hardware and analytic software designed for near out-of-the-box deployment to help retailers better manage inventory and reduce overstocks.

Other BI and data warehousing vendors, including Information Builders, SAP BusinessObjects and Oracle, offer retail-focused software and services.

Michael Corcoran, head of marketing for New York-based Information Builders, said the BI vendor has seen a dramatic increase in demand from retail customers since the economic recession began in 2008.

"Retail is one of our fastest growing markets right now," Corcoran said. "We've seen an explosion in retail customers." Information Builder's core BI platform, WebFOCUS, can be customized for retail-specific inventory and sales tracking, he said.

Corcoran attributes the rise in demand for retail-based BI tools and applications to the need of retailers to adapt to changing economic conditions. Specifically, he said Information Builder's retail customers like Ace Hardware are using BI and analytics to manage staffing levels at stores whose foot-traffic patterns have changed with the down economy.

"Things that you could count on for the last 30 years have gone out the window," Corcoran said. The vendor's retail customers are also using BI software to manage inventory levels and to maximize promotional campaigns.

Consumers are also becoming more tech-savvy. A recent IBM-sponsored survey of more than 32,000 consumers found that 75% want to use their mobile phones to find store locations, and 66% want to access inventory data before heading to a store. Retailers that fail to respond to such new demands with advanced data management capabilities do so at their peril.

Ultimately, in good economic times and bad, retailers need to minimize customer churn, maximize brand awareness and manage inventory levels in order to be profitable, said Jill Dyche, a consultant with Baseline Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California.

"Initiatives like corporate branding … supplier selection, loyalty programs and promotions are all made better because of BI," Dyche said in a recent interview. "BI is really a business enabler for retailers on many fronts."

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