Zellers stores across Canada have sold their employees on the benefits of advanced business intelligence reporting.

Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC), the company that owns the chain, recently completed an upgrade across all 300-plus stores

of its LIDS (Listed Inventory Database System) application.

Based on Microsoft’s SQL Server database technology, LIDS helps manage stockroom inventory and ordering from suppliers. The project was piloted in April and reached every Zellers store early last month.

“”The fact that we now call this application LIDS 3 should be a giveaway that it has already gone through a couple of evolutions,”” said Chris Marinis, manager of development services and information services at Toronto-based HBC.

“”The idea is for the store to know exactly what’s in their backroom, so as soon as their shelves become a little less than full, they know where to go in the back, get the merchandise and bring it to the front.””

LIDS was largely designed in-house, but there are several pieces that comprise Zellers’ inventory management. The point of sale devices are IBM technology. Once an item is scanned for sale, the POS writes the information to the database in real time and the inventory list is automatically deducted by one unit.

When products are shipped to the store by suppliers, barcodes on the bills of lading are scanned using Symbol LRT (Laser Radio Terminal) guns running over a Cisco 802.11b Wi-Fi infrastructure. That information is communicated to the database via QVS software.

“”As soon as you scan that (information), we explode it,”” explained Marinis. “”Then the associate knows from there everything that needs to go to the sales floor and everything that needs to stay in the back.””

HBC has a history of working closely with multiple vendors in order to achieve a specific goal. In July 2000, then-CIO Dave Poirer gathered Microsoft, IBM and Oracle (and later Cisco and Symbol) into an alliance to work on a comprehensive IT upgrade throughout all of HBC’s retail properties. All of the vendors sat at the same table in order to come up with a solution that could work in concert.

That mentality is still in existence at HBC and most recently garnered the company a Best Corporate System award at the Retail Systems Achievement Awards in Chicago.

“”We leverage the alliance so we can be a real retail showcase in Canada,”” said Marinis. “”As new solutions get developed . . . we are not waiting on the tail . . . but we’re right up there at the front so we can get benefits from the products as they are available.””

HBC is also using Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Services to provide specific information on inventory management. Introduced at the beginning of this year, Reporting Services now ship standard with SQL Server.

Those business intelligence tools can generate key performance indicators by querying the database with questions like, What is the dollar value of the backroom inventory in a specific district?

“”The different levels of the organization — right from your store associates to store manager to VP of district to VP of the entire chain — all have the ability to consume the information they need at the level that they need it,”” said SQL Server product manager at Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada, Darren Massel.

Retailers require this level of detail now in order to stay ahead of the vagaries of the industry, according to Rena Granofsky, a retail analyst at Toronto-based J.C. Williams Group.

“”The retail industry is really suffering in the stores from a lack of access to information,”” she said. “”It’s absolutely essential that the information get out there in order to manage the stores better, no question. The issue is that you can be flying blind in a store if you don’t have access to the right information.””

The feedback from Zellers employees at all levels has been overwhelmingly positive, said Marinis. “”They’re already thinking about how they can further advance this and maybe moving to a LIDS 4.””

Store employees used to take inventory by manually checking shelves and writing down the items that were running low, then check the stock room to ensure that there was enough inventory to replenish them. Now they have more time to attend to customers, said Marinis.

HBC estimates that LIDS will save the company $5 million annually.

Marinis wouldn’t say whether LIDS will be rolled out across HBC’s other properties, which include 99 The Bay department stores and 45 Home Outfitters locations. He also wouldn’t speculate on what a change of ownership in Zellers could mean for LIDS. Rumours of a sale of part or all of the Zellers chain to Minneapolis-based Target Corp. have become persistent amidst HBC’s second-quarter loss of $10.1 million which the company reported on Tuesday.

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