London Drugs is mid-way through a project whereby it hopes to make better use of its data by implementing the reporting capabilities Microsoft recently introduced into its business intelligence software line.

The West-coast retailer, which has 59 locations across Alberta, Saskatchewan and British

Columbia, has been beta-testing the technology since last October and is moving into full production in a couple of weeks, executives said. London Drugs has been a longtime Microsoft customer, having used BizTalk Server as a hub to integrate multiple business applications.

Scott Riddell, manager of solutions information technology at London Drugs, said the retailer had been moving applications off an IBM AS/400 in the early 1990s and switching to Microsoft’s SQL Server database platform. Though it had amassed a great deal of data about its operations, the challenge has been getting it to its users. The company had been running a variety of SQL scripts to find data anomalies in its supply chain, for example, but these could take half an hour or more to run, bogging down the business intelligence (BI) reporting process.

“”People would be running scripts and other people would be trying to make purchase orders, and they’d be getting mad at each other,”” Riddell said.

The timing of London Drugs’ search for a solution was opportune for Microsoft, which earlier this year began offering Reporting Services as a free add-on to its SQL Server 2000 product. Darren Massel, SQL Server and BI product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., said the company sees BI reporting as a necessary ingredient to streamline the personal delivery of information.

“”We call it ‘the other last mile,'”” he said. “”This is data that used to be available only to power users or specialists. Now it’s about extending that to all employees.””

London Drugs evaluated the reporting tools from a number of other vendors, including Crystal Decisions and Cognos, Riddell said. In the end, however, he said few vendors understood the retailer’s business needs and didn’t “”do the homework.””

“”We gave them a case of scrambled data and hoped they could get it. We found they were more into demonstrating the product.

“”The Cognos (reporting tools) presentation (capability) wasn’t good enough,”” he said. “”It would have been a lot of work putting

it together.””

Presentation is important, Riddell said, especially since the reports are distributed across all of its stores in PDF format. “”How do you take all that information and present it properly? How do you choose the right font?”” he said. “”Those are the kind of things we’ve been working out.””

Massel said other Microsoft customers share London Drugs’ concerns, which is why the company has worked to achieve tight integration with other Microsoft applications such as Office and SharePoint. “”They want to be able to look at the history of the information, but also ensure it’s in the right form factor, whether that’s in an e-mail or on a Web site,”” he said.

Free pricing model was key

Riddell admitted the free pricing model for Reporting Services weighed heavily in London Drugs’ decision, which has helped lower its total cost of ownership for SQL Server 2000.

“”The price of the product made it attractive because we had already made the investment in SQL server,”” he said.

More important, he said, was the way the technology allows store managers to go through their offerings and identify categories of products that may not be right for them.

“”We’ve had suppliers who say they’re No. 1 in their category,”” Riddell said. “”Then we look through the reports and we can say, ‘Well, not according to this data, you’re not.'””

London Drugs has so far offered 25 reports through Microsoft Reporting Services. Following an additional week of consulting help from Microsoft, the company plans to extend that to 60 reports, Riddell said.

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