Canada’s largest specialty photography retailer says it will develop a clearer picture of what’s going on in its stores through business intelligence software.

Black Photo Corp., which has already rolled out a series of online analytical processing (OLAP) cubes through a Cognos deployment, is

finishing up a basket and store operational analysis project slated for the end of this year. OLAP cubes are segmented portions of a database optimized for answering specific business questions.

The company is also hoping to track key performance indicators at the store level and roll out business intelligence for budgeting and planning to its finance department, says Ron Short, Black’s director of information systems and technology.

Short says since the company began using business intelligence to sort out its mass of data and provide more information to its vendor partners, Black’s has seen a 2,000 per cent return on investment — an achievement which raised eyebrows among its senior managers.

“”No one believed our ROI,”” Short says — especially given the 60-day turnaround on the project. “”They were like, ‘Yeah, right.'””

Part of that ROI can be attributed to a strategy whereby Black’s charges the vendors who stock its stores with product — like Pentax for example — to access OLAP cubes containing a week’s worth of sales data as a special service. “”The vendors paid for this product,”” he says.

Most of the photography vendors were surprised Black’s was willing to share its data, Short says, but the idea is to help all its business partners make better product mix decisions.

Internally, Black’s wanted to be able to offer its users more timely access to reports, which previously took days or weeks to complete.

There was also the issue of catering to individual report requests and customizing data, according to Short. The self-service capabilities of the OLAP cubes helped address that.

“”If you have 10 people sitting around a boardroom waiting for information, they all want it in 10 different ways,”” he says. “”I don’t even know what some of them do with the data, to be quite honest, but this puts it back on them.””

Michael Burns, president of IT consultant 180 Systems, describes business intelligence as the “”first mile”” in enterprise computing, as opposed to the “”last mile”” in telecommunications.

Companies that pursue these projects today are, for the most part, trying to extract more useful information from their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, he says, and spread it across the organization through the Internet.

This is why virtually all business intelligence vendors are offering customers a Web-based product.

“”I think that’s the price of admission today,”” he said in the conference keynote.

Short says Black’s is focused on providing a “”single view of the truth”” by extracting the most reliable data from the company’s AS/400.

“”You’d flip through from green screen to green screen,”” he said.

“”The data was there, but you just couldn’t slice it down to what you needed.””

Black’s is also working with retail consultant J.C. Williams Group on a business intelligence project involving assortment planning, Short says.

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