The Warehouse Group needs no introduction. As one of NZ’s largest retailers, Warehouse Group deals with a wide range of products from clothing, entertainment, technology and music to sporting, gardening, grocery and many others, across multiple brands, since 1982.
As group business intelligence (BI) manager, Kevin Rowland knows the responsibility he carries on his shoulders and takes it seriously.
“My role is to work with the business to make sure that we are supporting them according to their priorities. Am an unusual beast in that I am not an IT person. I am a professional retailer. I have been in the retail industry for more than 36 years. I have spent around 17 years in IT and BI I still consider myself foremost as a retailer.
“What that means is I understand what is going on with the business, understand how retail works. I spend a lot of time in business meetings, as opposed to IT meetings. That way I can understand what the priorities of the business are. And then understand what I can do to support them better,” says Rowland.
The 100-strong IS team works like a centralised provision office offering technology services for the internal customers, which includes most businesses within the group.
“Most of us are covering multiple brands these days because group has changed so much since what it was less than two years ago. Then it was the Warehouse and W Stationery, whereas now we are full retail group,” says Rowland.
As befits a leading retail group, the organisation has strong infrastructure investments with production, mostly lying with Unisys, and focuses strongly on disaster recovery provisions, which is part of the internal audit requirements.
“The BI team is responsible for the data warehouses and reporting for The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery and Noel Leeming. Within my team, for The Warehouse we are running MicroStrategy on Teradata, Warehouse Stationery we are running Qlikview over primarily Oracle, and Noel Leeming we are running Business Objects over SQL server database,” says Rowland.
According to Rowland, the different solutions are a legacy of the group.
“Initially, The Warehouse and Warehouse Stationery ran quite separately. it was only really when Mark Powell became group CEO at the beginning of 2011 that we really started to work far more closely together. By that time decisions had been made separately between the red team and blue team within IS as to who was doing what and who was using what. Then obviously we brought in Noel Leeming only about a year ago and again they already had a structure in place,” says Rowland.
The IS and BI teams are still working through what is going to happen in terms of consolidation, but one way or the other, Rowland sees Qlikview as a part of it.
Hitting a data chord
“I started looking at Qlikview five or six years ago. We did a proof-of-concept back in the day, and I was all for making it happen then. For various reasons that didn’t happen. Then three years ago, I realised that the business was in the right space to start talking about going down a proper BI route,” says Rowland.
At that point in time, Warehouse Stationery was running Discoverer, a SQL generation engine, as the main reporting tool. However, the team felt that it was not giving the company what it needed in terms of responsiveness, and data capture seemed to slow down even further with the deployment of Oracle’s eBusiness Suite.
“All we were really doing was producing data that was nothing clever in terms of graphical reporting or visual insights on top of it, which was okay, but it wasn’t what we needed to take the business to the next level.
“Given that I had previously seen Qlikview and was pleased with it, I then brought it in for a demo. And the amount of interest was incredible. The hardest thing I had to do with this project was slowing the business down. I had to make sure that I had the data in the right format, make sure I had everything in place to make it happen. Once the business saw it they were just really ready to have it in straight away,” says Rowland.
The initial deployment started in Warehouse Stationery and was carried out in a progressive format. All necessary elements were in place for the company by May 2012.
“The biggest amount of Qlikview use is still within Warehouse Stationery. But we also produce group data sales reports, which is taking data from nearly all the companies within the group. There are yet a couple that I have not gotten access to yet, for various reasons, so that’s happening. We produce all the daily sales reports for Torpedo 7. We have a collection of companies in its own right that’s Torpedo 7, Shotgun Supplements, No1 fitness and R&R sports, and multiple channels within that.
“We set up a new business last year called TV International Brands. That was set up from scratch with Qlikview, and have no other reporting solution. They have full Qlikview dashboards and data sets.
“We are looking to deploy into three other companies in the very near future within the group. So Qlikview starting to tough way more than just Warehouse Stationery,” says Rowland.
Fit to functions
Besides moving the solution into more companies within the group, the BI team is also understanding what more can be done with the solution itself.
“It is not just about what’s my sales, my stock, what’s my margins, and what is happening with products. We are actually quite a way beyond that. We still do that obviously. We are retailers, we sell things. But we are using it far more embedded in other areas,” Rowland says.
He elaborates on this with a few examples.
“Probably towards the end of 2012, WS decided they were going to bring in a count mechanism, which was based on thermal imaging, so they can understand how many people were coming into the store.
“So what we did was we took the information from the counters and fed that to Qlikview, and then we took transaction counts and fed that to Qlikview. And we very quickly managed to create a series of dashboards that showed by hour, by day, to store level, what was going on in terms of counts through the door and the conversion rate of that.”
With these reports the group was able to analyse conversion trends, and target conversion within particular stores.
“We designed the whole thing within my team, and we showed the central operations team what we had done. It was all dashboards, not tables, all graphical. And at the end of it, the GM of operations stood up and said, ‘I could kiss you,’” recounts Rowland.
Now the team has not only annualised the process to track year-on-year conversion trends but also worked with regional managers and integrated data on labour to help identify spots where more or less labour is required in order to ensure the best conversion rates.
“Another example is click and collect - a retail term for when you go online, and say you want to purchase a product and then collect the purchase from a store. You don’t want it sent to your home. Now, last year we were given a very short time frame at Warehouse Stationery for putting in click and collect, right after the company became an authorised reseller of Apple products.
Knowing that a full-scale system to enable click and collect, the team decided to use Qlikview to manage the process centrally. By this, all data from all relevant systems are fed back to Qlikview which generates dashboards that can be used to view stock movements and collections in a central manner.
“So it allowed us to react quickly to a situation we weren’t expecting. And it has really given us the flexibility to be able to move and do things on the fly. Now this is all stuff that we didn’t think of when we put it in. We were only thinking of sales, stock and margins when we put it in. But this has made a fundamental difference to us,” says Rowland.
The solution has also automated daily sales reporting, sending out reports early in the morning to all relevant parties seven days a week. These reports are used by central headquarters to analyse situations on the ground, and are used by individual stores to plan for the day ahead and brief staff accordingly.
“If you think of Easter, you used to get a sales report on the Thursday morning and the next sales report wouldn’t come out till Tuesday. Now we get a sales report seven days a week,” says Rowland.
The solution has also been used to automate reporting to suppliers, going out from the merchandising department, leaving them to “get on with their work and not worry about admin”.
At the back end
The process of data clean up and integration to enable Qlikview was made relatively simple by the BI team by having in place the eBusiness Suite, which provided “one point of truth”.
The team had to integrate spreadsheets as well into the data capture, and managed to get around this potential complication by insisting that they sit on the Qlikview servers. And significant changes to the spreadsheets, such as removing a store for a short period of time, can be done by the BI team based on business requirements.
With Noel Leeming and the newer companies that have been added to the group, the team works to verify the data that is being produced against what used to be produced and provides it back to the business through the set models.
“We are giving the data back to the people who own it, but at the same time we have the control of the system. We understand what is going on and it has been signed off by the right people,” says Rowland.
According to Rowland, the biggest challenge faced by the team was moving people off an Excel-mindset.
“We were going back to the business and giving them a blank paper. OK – we have group data models, agreed how we are going to bring in them, but how do you want to see it? People are so used to seeing Excel, the initial reaction is I want to see a lot of excel and maybe couple of graphs.
“And that is the biggest single issue – first getting people out of that excel head space. And then delivering something that is visually exciting.
“If I was to do the whole thing again, I would actually design something in the beginning and give it to the business, and ask them what they think, as opposed to going to the business with a blank page and asking them what they want. Now they understand what the tool can do but back then they didn’t. So we have all learned from this,” says Rowland.
Plans for the future
Though the Group started off with just 50 Qlikview licences, it has grown to 100 user licences and five super-user licences, in an enterprise version mode. This is run off production servers with 196GB RAM, which gives people the services that they require in the fastest time possible.
“I know I will have to purchase some more licences in the near future.
“We have just purchased PDF publisher. This helps out send out docs in a more effective manner. We are also putting in full disaster recovery on Qlikview. And then I am looking to move Qlikview into three more of our companies within the next four months, which is going to be a significant investment, especially in terms of time,” states Rowland.
The Group is also looking at demos of KliqPlan and another product called QVSource that allows Qlikview to easily lock into social media.
Meanwhile, the move towards consolidation continues across the companies.
“It is going to take a period of time. We have gone from two companies running disparate systems to 15 in less than two years. We are starting to work now in understanding the best path forward, not just for BI but for everything, to make sure we have the best platform possible for all the brands.
“We also want to ensure that the customer still understands the real point of difference between the brands as they see them. So they know they can go to Torpedo7 for something, The Warehouse for something else and Noel Leeming for something else – even not having to understand that they are all owned by the same group. That’s a goal for us – to maintain that point of difference at the front but then consolidate where we can at the back,” says Rowland.
He warns that consolidation, especially across big back-end software like ERP and SCM, might not take place in the short or, even possibly not, in the medium terms.
“You are looking at some substantial companies. I have lived through full ERP implementation before and they are never pleasant. There are so many things going on. It will come. What it looks like and when it comes I am not sure about, but certainly not in the next couple of years,” says Rowland.
He states that while he would like to have more staff on his team, the act of prioritising with the business enables him to meet all business demands with the current team numbers. Meanwhile, the IS team continues to invest heavily in training existing staff to ensure that they are able to retain them at the skill levels they require them at.
"In a perfect world, I would like more staff. However, we are always working with very tight financial constraints. We actually run very lean. So at the moment the answer is no. if you ask me if I would like more staff, the answer is yes. Are we delivering what the business needs at the moment, yes,” concludes Rowland.