Pressin' all the right buttons

A brick-and-mortar cellular-phone distributor faces special challenges as it went ahead with plans to adopt e-commerce solutions. Two years later, during ePhone's first Christmas season, on-line sales boosted revenues US$300 000.
Written by Jacqueline Emigh, Contributor on

Two years ago, wireless phone retailer Skyway Communications (doing business as ePhones) embarked on a bricks-to-clicks adventure. The company turned to XML infrastructure specialist OneSoft to help build an e-commerce system that boosted revenue by $300,000 during ePhone's first Christmas season. "Our overall business model is central to what we need in a Web site. OneSoft has shown the ability to come back and replicate our business requirements in software," says Steve Yeffa, Skyway's CFO.

After experimenting with a storefront on Yahoo in 1998, ePhones concluded that moving into e-commerce could be a lot more cost-effective than building more brick-and-mortar stores. The company also decided to start selling additional products like landline and DSL services.

EPhones faced some special challenges attributable to the nature of the wireless industry. There was a particularly strong need for personalization and customization, for example.

"The availability of cellular-phone models and rate plans varies according to where someone lives in the U.S.," notes Srinivasan Jalakandapura, lead architect at OneSoft. As a result, ePhones needed to be able to serve up customized pages to its Web-site visitors, based on their locations.

Also, wireless rate plans can change quite rapidly, can the need for related Web content, such as seasonal promotions. EPhones needed to be able to reflect those content changes on its Web site as soon as they occur.

EPhones also wanted to offer co-branded sites to partners, a business model that founder, chairman and CEO Mike Merrill dubs "e-franchising." The "e-franchisers" are small regional dealers that want a Web presence but don't have the resources to build sophisticated sites of their own.

While researching available solutions, Merrill learned of the middleware products and integration/ consulting services offered by McLean, Va.-based OneSoft. According to Merrill, ePhones chose OneSoft as the foundation for its site based on the following: easy customization; quick time to market; and the scalability needed for rapid growth, particularly in light of ePhones' e-franchising strategy.

Work began on the new site in December 1998. Based on ePhones' project requirements, OneSoft built a set of business rules that deliver location-dependent content to site visitors, and a series of XML-based templates, which enable ePhones and e-franchisers to edit the look and feel of the content. Business managers access the templates through a client application called OneCommerce OneWorkstation.

OneSoft also integrated the emerging Web site to ePhones' legacy ERP system for back-end order processing and fulfillment, using the XML-based back end of OneSoft's OneCommerce Enterprise Solution 2.0.

OneSoft also hosts ePhones' HTTP server and its OneCommerce application server.

The ePhones site went live in May 1999. "At first, the ePhones site didn't have that many customers. We were mainly just experimenting," observes Jalakandapura.

OneSoft earned between $200,000 and $500,000 from the ePhones engagement, including software as well as services. Based on the results, ePhones staffers claim it's been money well spent.

In August 1999, OneSoft implemented a new feature on the ePhones site known as Wireless Wizard, which lets customers do side-by-side comparisons of cell-phone models, wireless service plans, and other products.

"A lot of consumers don't know that much about the intricacies of the cellular industry. By using this feature, they can see which phones have browsers, and which rate plans are month-to-month, for instance," Jalakandapura says.

From May through August, ePhones' Web traffic skyrocketed by 82 percent, while sales shot up by 36 percent. That made ePhones optimistic about the critical holiday sales season. Most cell phones are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

At the start of 1999's holiday season, OneSoft enabled Microsoft Passport on the ePhones site. That feature lets shoppers enter person al checkout data, including name, address and credit-card information, only once, instead of each time they shop from the site.

The ePhones site generated $300,000 in sales during the month of December alone. EPhones asked OneSoft for more traffic capacity and received twice its original allotment within two days.

OneSoft now has an ongoing consulting job with ePhones. Recently, OneSoft wrote new business rules that enabled the addition of pagers, cellular modems, phone accessories, DSL and long-distance services to ePhones' product line. The addition of 220 e-franchisers also created new opportunities for both firms.

"OneSoft is a true partner, meaning everything that the word implies. There's been constant communication and clear direction. Whenever we've had a need for custom work, OneSoft has been right on the spot to help us out," Yeffa says.

There have been a couple of glitches along the way, but Yeffa attributes those to the unusual requirements of ePhones' business. "The toughest thing was learning what kinds of business rules to apply to the underlying data," explains Jalakandapura. No pain means no gain, he adds. "By giving us work that's leading-edge, ePhones has been helping us to add value to our product."

EPhones also gained physical integration between click-and-mortar and its existing brick-and-mortar business model. To get guidance on products and services, ePhones salespeople and customers can access the ePhones Web site from terminals in the stores. EPhones has no plans to replace its brick-and-mortar stores with the e-site, but the stores' roles have changed a bit. "We see the stores as a strategic complement to our business. They're a nice training ground for our customer-service staff. And, frankly, operating the stores helps us to get more attractive pricing packages from the carriers," Yeffa notes.

OneSoft's versatile repertoire of software, consulting, hosting services and integration skills ensures that it'll keep the lines of communication open with customer ePhones.

At A Glance

Customer: Skyway Communications (doing business as ePhones) Fremont Calif., www.ephones.com
Size: 155 employees
Business Problem: Expansion of brick-and-mortar retail chain into click-and-mortar
Lead Partner: OneSoft, McLean, Va., www.onesoft.com
Deal Maker: Easy customization of middleware, quick time to market, scalability
Hardware: 10 PC servers
Software: OneSoft OneCommerce Enterprise Solution, SQL Server 7, running on Windows NT
Results: Sales and productivity gains, plus addition of 220 e-franchiser partners

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