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Airport retailer leaves Excel behind with BI tools makeover

The Paradies Shops’ search for BI tools to access data quickly and break away from Excel spreadsheets started with data discovery vendors but didn’t end with them.

For adults, a 10-year stretch marks milestones and celebrations; for kids, it’s a lifetime. When it came time for airport retailer The Paradies Shops to evaluate its more than decade-old merchandising system and business intelligence (BI) capability, the company approached it like kids.  

The legacy system may have served The Paradies Shops well years ago, but the business environment has changed. Today, Paradies, which operates more than 500 retail locations in 70 airports and hotels across the United States and Canada, wanted a more agile edge to remain competitive.

“Our business doesn’t look the way it did 10 years ago,” said Tony Dudek, chief information officer for Paradies.

Modernizing the system meant investing in BI tools to overcome slow data access and a lack of consistency when reporting from Excel spreadsheets.

Surveying the data scene
Dudek has been with Paradies for eight months, but in that short amount of time, he could see how difficult it was for merchandise buyers to create reports and gain insight from data. (Dudek was reluctant to divulge how much time employees spent on researching data, simply calling it “a good portion of the time.”)

Tips on searching for new BI tools

  • Value the relationships. “If there’s an issue with a vendor early on, push them to the side. Problems don’t go away.”
  • Know the business; collaborate with the business. “It’s rare that anything’s an IT project anymore. It’s a company project. You’ve got to involve the business.”
  • Know your capabilities. “Know what your corporate limitations and appetite for change are. In other words, know your sphere of influence.”

-- From Tony Dudek, chief information officer for The Paradies Shops

For a company like Paradies, that’s a big strike against the business.

“We are not a destination,” said Dudek. “You don’t go to an airport specifically to shop like you do a mall.”

Paradies’ shops, which include CNBC, the New York Times Bookstore, Express News & Gifts, Brooks Brothers, Lacoste and KidZoo, to name a few, have to make good use of store frontage to attract customers who aren’t necessarily looking to shop. That means not only staying on top of the most sought-after styles of the day, but also understanding the most sought-after items at a particular location.

While accessing data is one problem, another involves how data is stored. Most retail organizations sift data into multiple hierarchies, or data categories, such as product type, store type and merchandise buyer. Doing so enables companies to look at the business from different viewpoints.

It’s like a prism, Dudek said. A single ray of light comes in at one end, and multiple rays spill out on the other side. But Paradies’ system only sifts data into one hierarchy, which means its legacy system doesn’t produce those multiple rays -- or multiple views -- of the business.

 “You need to look at the business from all perspectives,” Dudek said. “It’s all the same data underneath.”

That becomes particularly challenging at Paradies’ hybrid locations, which offer a blend of store types in one location. Sales from the restaurant-convenience store combination, for example, are funneled into food and beverage categories, but the merchandise buyer for convenience stores also needs that data.

Dudek could pinpoint the weaknesses of Paradies’ aging architecture, but his former experience as an employee of Home Depot’s IT department also provided the insight to know an overhaul is a painful process.

“I liken it to a heart and lung transplant,” he said.

Although Paradies is constructing a custom data warehouse, Dudek believed faster access to data and better reporting was an immediate need. So he made a decision: tease out the operational system and find a BI product to layer over it. The BI product needed to be light, easy to use and produce data-driven insights for merchandisers. And Paradies’ search began with data discovery vendors.

“We were looking for tools that come under the umbrella of BI that give you the opportunity to go directly at your operational data stores,” Dudek said.

A little more than data discovery
Dudek and Paradies are not alone in seeking out an alternative to the BI heavyweights. According to last year’s Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms, the 2010 BI platform market saw a struggle between tools touting flexibility and intuitive use and those known for standards and controls.

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“With ‘ease of use’ now surpassing ‘functionality’ for the first time as the dominant BI-platform-buying criterion in research conducted for this report, vocal, demanding and influential business users are increasingly driving BI purchasing decisions, most often choosing easier-to-use data discovery tools over traditional BI platforms -- with or without IT’s consent,” the report states.

While data discovery tools can be implemented and produce results quickly, Dudek said, they do not capture data or create metadata.

Dudek said Paradies needs to be doing both: Capturing more data means adding in more details, which can help with analysis and uniformity as the business grows in size and depth. Creating metadata will, in part, enable more consistent calculations than the variations found within independent Excel spreadsheets currently in use.

But data discovery tools also need to be pointed directly at the data stores. For Paradies, that was a problem because its data is not aggregated the way the company wants to view the business.

Paradies’ search also included a more traditional BI vendor: Information Builders and its WebFocus platform. “It’s nimble enough and presents a speed to market, but it met other needs as well,” Dudek said.

With the WebFocus product, Paradies will push its BI into the cloud and use a Web-based interface to access what Dudek refers to as exception-based dashboards. These dashboards are built on key performance indicators and can pinpoint anomalies or changes in the data.

“The ability to create exception-based dashboards gives the business units a proactiveness rather than a reactiveness,” Dudek said.

WebFocus also enables Paradies to connect with data and dashboards through mobile devices, a big win for a general manager who may be in charge of all Paradies’ locations scattered across the multiple concourses of a single airport.

Paradies has yet to deploy Information Builder’s WebFocus BI platform, but Dudek said the company hopes to begin a systematic rollout of live production in March or April. Regardless, change is in the air. And Dudek says he can already tell processes that used to take hours will dwindle down to seconds.

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