Many hands make site work

Supermarket Walmart takes its business online - enter Walmart.com
Written by Jacqueline Emigh, Contributor

Think wal-mart packs a lot of products into its superstores? Well, multiply what you see on a typical store's shelves by six, and that's what the retail giant's Web store offers—600,000 items. That was only one of the challenges that systems integrator Cambridge Technology Partners and eight other partners faced in upgrading and expanding the click-and-mortar side of the world's largest retailer.

But thanks to a solid communications and management strategy, the players successfully welded together the myriad components of the massive e-com effort. After eight months of collaborative work, Walmart.com relaunched in January.

Some have suggested that Walmart.com constitutes a superset of the issues that can come up in Web integration. "Cambridge and its partners adhered to the same basic approach used in most projects. The difference is the number of partners and the sheer complexity. This was a very ambitious undertaking," affirms David Schatsky, director of commerce infrastructure strategies at Jupiter Communications in New York.

Wal-Mart wanted to revamp its three-year-old online store and add to it the company's more recent photo-processing and travel sites. The project also called for integration between Wal-Mart's existing mainframe-based order-fulfillment, credit-card processing, inventory, and content-management systems, and BroadVision's One-to-One Retail Commerce software for customer-relationship management (CRM).

Walmart.com also sought to reflect the "look and feel" of its brick-and-mortar facilities. The store's departments that were accessible online needed to be immediately visible, and now are, via an interactive map.

For example, if you click on the shoe department, that's where you land. The same goes for nearly 30 other departments, along with clickable checkout and customer-service areas.

Also on Wal-Mart's wish list was a site architecture that would be easily extensible to other new features and online departments, recalls Art Lawida, BroadVision's engagement manager.

A gathering of equals
In one big break from tradition, there was no prime integrator for the whole shebang. Instead, Cambridge acted as program manager during the construction phase, and will stay on to coordinate communications and administration.

Cambridge also got the nod as project leader for the general-merchandise site. Quantum Leap, the firm that headed up development of Wal-Mart's earlier site, returned to its previous role of project leader for the travel site, again teaming with travel booking developer Sight & Sound Software (www.sight-n-sound.com).

The other two project leaders for the new Walmart.com included imaging expert Applied Graphics Technologies (AGT) for the photo site, and Hewlett-Packard in the infrastructure category. Fuji also helped to put together the online photo-processing system. BroadVision and Wal-Mart's own Information Systems Department teamed with HP on the infrastructure team.

But Wal-Mart preferred to maintain privacy about its back-end systems, and therefore decided to work only with Cambridge on creating software interfaces between its legacy systems and BroadVision's CRM tools, according to Srinivas Dranamraju, client partner at Cambridge.

BroadVision, however, helped to integrate its CRM system with front-end user-interface screens, Lawida says. Specifically, Walmart. com uses the CRM info for log-in profiles, plus a personalized "My Wal-Mart" section provides gift registries and order tracking, for in stance. Web-site visitors can look up the status of their UPS orders.

Grey Interactive, an online ad agency and media specialist, designed the user-interface screens for both the general-merchandise and photo sites. With the rise of e-commerce, this sort of cooperation between IT specialists and ad agencies is quickly becoming commonplace, observes Stephen Graham, VP of software partnering and alliances at International Data Corp.'s Toronto office.

Coordinating concurrent work
The fact that some of the players already had established working relationships with one other certainly helped Cambridge manage the project. "We have a strong, tier-one relationship with BroadVision," Dranamraju points out. And HP was already both a partner and a customer of Cambridge and BroadVision.

But even more importantly, Cambridge stayed in constant touch with Wal-Mart and fellow team members. Throughout the eight-month site-development process, the players followed Cambridge's e-Solutions methodology. Developed in-house at Cambridge, the software-based methodology covers "every phase of the program management cycle, from scoping and design to planning and execution," according to Dranamraju.

Dranamraju held a weekly meeting with reps from all participating companies, to make sure scheduling stayed on track. He and Cambridge's program management of fice used e-Solutions to track the "dependencies" between tasks assigned to the various players. "For example, until integration with the back-end systems was done, we couldn't build certain screens," he illustrates.

Some of the other team members, in cluding BroadVision, also used their own companies' methodologies internally, to help manage their portions of the project.

Dranamraju conducted meetings of the geographically distributed partners via conference calls. The photo site is hosted on an NYT server in Rochester, N.Y., while HP servers at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters host the general-merchandise and travel sites. Every two weeks, Dranamraju ap peared before an executive board at Wal-Mart to gather input and feedback from the Wal-Mart execs, and to deliver progress reports.

According to another industry analyst, Steven B. Weissman of Waltham, Mass.-based Kinetic Information, it's particularly important in the e-com space to keep corporate customers informed on the status of projects. Even in-house IT pros can find emerging Web tools and strategies tough to fathom, he adds.

Future Partnerships
What's up next for Walmart.com? An online edition of Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's discount wholesale club, is definitely in the works.

The company also is testing in-store kiosks, which are ideal for Wal-Mart's clientele. Most of the 3,000 Wal-Mart stores are in rural areas, where Internet access and credit-card use are relatively sparse. Cash customers will be able to order from the Web store's larger inventory and pay at the real-world checkout counter.

As Walmart.com illustrates, e-commerce projects are becoming increasingly complex, requiring multidisciplinary approaches. Few firms can do it all. The ability to form effective project partnerships will be the key to landing big jobs in the future.

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