Canadian clothier Northern Group Retail Ltd. has capped a major upgrade that spanned several years with a gift card program designed to drive more business into stores.

Mississauga, Ont.-based Northern was once

part of F.W. Woolworth, then Foot Locker Inc. before being privately purchased in 2001. That was the catalyst for an upgrade that would affect the company’s offices and more than 240 stores (Northern Reflections and Northern Getaway) across Canada.

Northern moved off the homegrown legacy system that was used by Foot Locker and refreshed all of its enterprise and point-of-sale (POS) applications with a combination from Triversity Inc. and NSB Group.

The company also standardized on Dell desktops in its stores and offices.

“”Once we determined what our hardware solution was going to be in our locations, we ran six pilot stores for approximately four to five weeks,”” said Northern’s director of accounting and payroll, Bonnee Hildebrandt.

“”Of course, in any kind of large projects, you have setbacks,”” she said. “”(After) being on Foot Locker’s infrastructure, we were setting up our own here. We had to be ready to deal with the banks, handle it internally (with) seven-day support — all of that when you’re breaking away from a mother ship and taking on things that you haven’t had before.””

The store upgrades were conducted from east to west across the country. Equipment was installed and tested at night while the stores were closed, ready for 7:00 a.m. staff training sessions followed by store opening at 9 or 9:30 a.m. There were some teething problems with the equipment in some of the stores, said Hildebrandt, but “”because it was an aggressive rollout, we kept rolling out and putting (those stores) to the end.””

The store upgrades began in May 2004 and were finished in August. Mark Stevenson, director of IT for Northern, oversaw the project, along with some consulting services provided by Toronto-based firm Karabus Management.

Support from business management helped make the upgrade as smooth as possible, said Stevenson.

“”The business users were fully engaged throughout the whole process . . . from selection through to implementation testing and production readiness. It was a team effort. We’re not a particularly large organization, so that approach worked quite well for us,”” he said.

Once store upgrades were completed, Northern turned its attention to improving its gift card process, replacing paper with plastic. The company was already using Triversity’s GM point-of-sale software and Allegiance 1-to-1 for its loyalty program, so it made sense to use the same provider for gift cards.

The change wasn’t as fundamental for Northern as the refresh of its enterprise software and hardware, said Hildebrandt, but important for the company to accomplish in order to “”bring us up to industry standards.””

Triversity was also responsible for a major POS upgrade last year at Grand & Toy stores across the country. The two projects required a different approach, said Colin Haig, vice-president of business development for Triversity.

“”(Northern has) a very different market than Grand & Toy. People are in Grand & Toy all the time because they need office supplies. In the Northern environment it tends to be . . . they come in a handful of times over the year. Something like a gift card is a great way to get people back in your stores,”” he said.

The gift card upgrade was completed in five days in October, also rolling out east to west but by region rather than by individual store.

Since it parted ways with Foot Locker, Northern has replaced practically all of its IT. “”As strenuous as that two to three year period was, and people looking at us as though we were crazy, we have state of the art systems now,”” said Hildebrandt.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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