Retailer Target rolls out CRM system

Target Corporation this month began to roll out a new customer relationship management (CRM) system that was designed to not only combine customer information from its 900 stores, Web sites, call centers and catalogs but also update that information instantaneously.

For instance, if a Target customer shops on the company's Web site and decides to call customer support a few minutes later, the call center representative will already have information on that shopper's most recent Web transaction.

Having access to this kind of up-to-the-second customer information should help Target improve the quality of customer service and open the door to more cross-selling opportunities, according to Deb Bauman, vice president of technology services at Target.

"We wanted to improve the whole customer communication process," Bauman said.

Zero Latency Front-runner

Target is among the few pioneers trying to build so-called zero-latency enterprises, in which the flow of customer information across the organization is greatly accelerated, according to Roy Schulte, an analyst at Gartner Group.

Among the companies pushing hardest to build these kinds of enterprises are airlines and financial services firms, said Schulte.

With traditional data warehouses, customer information is cleansed and updated in batch fashion at specific intervals of time.

But in zero-latency enterprises, the emphasis is on combining real-time transaction processing capabilities with the data mining and analytical processing functions of data warehouses, Schulte said.

"The idea here is that you are doing online, real-time business intelligence" using live information collected from various divisions within the enterprise, he added.

While such technology is relatively uncommon today, it's poised for fast growth, said Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group.

"By 2002, 2003, we believe the leading bricks-and-clicks e-tailers will have interwoven their operations infrastructure and CRM technologies," Alvarez said.

Building such an enterprise is no trivial task because it involves tying together information and databases from multiple customer channels, according to Alvarez.

To build its new CRM environment, for instance, Target had to cleanse and meld data from 20 different databases and CRM systems into one giant multiterabyte repository containing more than 50 million unique customer records, Bauman said.

Layered on top of that is a set of enterprise application integration tools, messaging software, transaction brokers and rules engines that manage the flow of information to and from the database and multiple customer channels and applications.

Target's new CRM environment is largely based on Compaq Computer's Hiamala fault-tolerant server technology, database and Non-Stop Kernel operating environment. Target, which started work on the project last July, wouldn't disclose its cost or the estimated return on investment.

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