HBC: There’s sales data and then there’s sales data

ORLANDO – Hudson’s Bay Co. is hoping an effort to get more business intelligence out of its data warehouse will also lead its various retail businesses to agree on what the word “sale” means, an executive told this week’s Teradata Partners user conference.

The company is in the final stages of deploying the Microstrategy reporting tool to an operation that includes The Bay department stores, Zellers discount stores and specialty shops such as Home Outfitters. It is also struggling to create a common set of business rules that will be used by each of these “banner organizations,” senior business systems analyst Zenobia Deboo told fellow users of Teradata’s Retail Logical data model. That means someone handling data at the Bay will consistently define terms such as “markdown” and “regular sales” the same way someone at Zellers does, she explained.

“It’s like pulling teeth. In some cases they can’t agree,” Deboo said during a presentation that took place the day before the official start of the Teradata conference. “We’re still working through that, and I don’t know if it will ever be resolved . . . there are hundreds of definitions for sales.”

HBC, which decided to adopt the Microstrategy reporting tool as it moved away from Cognos, has also spent the last three years developing a business intelligence (BI) strategy that consolidated the individual data marts it had set up for each business unit, Deboo said. Centralized reporting by creating one data warehouse was intended to ease the creation of common business rules, as well as making the system easier to maintain.

The retailer has “suffered along the way,” Deboo said, in part from management turnover over the course of the project (including its former CIO, Gary Davenport) and resistance from staff to new processes. Like many enterprises, HBC is trying to offer senior managers executive “dashboards” to view BI data, but some of them refuse to use them, Deboo said. Training, communication and phasing of the project have also created headaches.

“We didn’t do (phasing) as well as we could have,” she said, “and perhaps next time we’ll look at a pilot approach.”

HBC has had its share of IT problems in the past, including a botched project to set up a system to manage “big ticket” items that ended up costing $10 million in lost sales. It continues to invest heavily in analytics in BI, however, including the recent selection of SAS Institute’s Merchandising Intelligence software suite.

Deboo said one of the sticking points with business users was getting them to give up an unnecessary level of detail they expected in previous reports. Instead, HBC wants to move to “exception-based” reporting, where business events or problems trigger a report. It has moved from creating reports from the UPC bar code level to the item or SKU level, which has also rattled some users, Deboo said. Getting the business and IT to agree on requirements was also tough.

“Have you ever played the broken telephone game with your children? Try playing it with your co-workers,” she said, referring to the way a message gets distorted as it passes from one person to the next. “We told (business users) we wanted to replicate our data warehouse – they heard ‘duplicate.’”

Alison Torres, Teradata’s director of strategic warehousing and technologies, said IT departments tend to base data warehousing and BI strategy on one of two models. Either they build whatever users ask them for, or they assume users don’t know what they need until they see more data. In either case, the same problems creep in, she said.

“They don’t see limitations – they see the data and they want it,” she said. “You can ask them, ‘Do you really need this detail now?’ And they’ll say, ‘Not right now, but we might later.’”

Although many companies talk about creating an enterprise data warehouse, Torres said some of them are simply co-locating data marts without really integrating them. They still have multiple versions of the truth, she said.

“You don’t go out and buy a data warehouse, you build one,” she said. “It’s a process, not a product.”

Deboo said the HBC project will have an impact on at least 5,500 users, and will give an unprecedented level of access to the 50 per cent of its user base in stores that have been shut out of the data warehouse until now.

HBC is scheduled to discuss how it is using Teradata technologies to combat fraud at the Partners conference later this week.

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