Best foot forward

Sneaker time: the number of hours employees are paid to run around looking for photos. That's the phrase Cole Haan's e-commerce managers coined after the Yarmouth, Maine-based shoe and apparel maker launched its Web site in December 1999.

Prelaunch, Cole Haan's product images were shot on film, so hundreds of photos had to be scanned. The Web team eventually switched to digital photos, but that still posed a problem: With 600 to 800 new product images posted to the site each season, locating the CDs that stored the right photos became a major hassle, explains Buzz Morley, e-commerce project manager at Cole Haan.

"You put on your sneakers and run all over the building to find that image," he says. "I was paying somebody (US)$35 bucks an hour to run up and down the stairs."

Then Bruce Damon, director of brand marketing, told Morley about digital asset management software, which stores, manages and sorts digital images. After researching it, Morley was sold. Since installing the system in January, he has happily seen the phrase sneaker time fade from the company's lexicon.

Better yet, Cole Haan has been able to cut staffing costs and the time it takes to get products to market, says Morley. Before installing the software from Atlanta-based MediaBin Inc., Morley paid a contractor $1,700 per week to scan, retouch and repurpose product images. The contractor spent 90 to 120 days each season getting the photos ready for the Web site. Now, through automation, a staff member can perform the same tasks in 11 minutes, says Morley.

"I get a lot of accolades for it, but I really didn't do all that much," he says. "I wish all my projects were that easy."

Morley has shown the digital asset management system to members of Shop.org, an online retailer association he belongs to, and they've all been fascinated with it, he says.

Such systems are already popular in entertainment and advertising because of the vast quantities of digital photos and video those industries use. Since most corporations don't deal with such volumes of digital content, the cost savings aren't always clear, and the technology is seen as a luxury by many, says Connie Moore, a vice president at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. But she predicts that will change in the next 12 to 18 months.

Last year, Documentum Inc., a document management vendor in Pleasanton, Calif., acquired Bulldog Group, a Toronto-based digital asset management firm. Moore predicts that there will be more mergers and acquisitions in these fields, which will expand the customer base, boost the visibility of the products and, in turn, lower costs. And as Web sites become more sophisticated, enterprise content management is likely to catch on, she says.

Keeping It Simple

Morley didn't have to sell Cole Haan's senior managers on the MediaBin system -- he found a back door to sneak it through.

When he first pitched the system in the first quarter of 2000, it cost $80,000 for the hardware and a handful of software licenses for staff in Yarmouth and in Cole Haan's New York design office. That was a no-go.

When the company was upgrading its storage network the following year, Morley repurposed two old servers for the digital asset management project. That cut the project cost almost in half, he says, which brought it under the $60,000 threshold required for executive approval.

Morley bought the MediaBin software in January. The system itself consists of three pieces: a SQL 7 database (single-box license), a Web server and the MediaBin software, which acts as an intermediary between the database and the user interface or Web front end. The system can be coded with Java or Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic.

Training consisted of two days: The first was for basic end-user training, and the second was spent with a MediaBin Photoshop expert, who taught Cole Haan's QuarkXPress electronic publishing software gurus exactly how the system works and what's going on in the background.

The system went live on Jan. 27. Morley says he won't have hard return-on-investment figures until the end of the fiscal year, but he suspects the returns will far exceed the $40,000 investment. The company's Web site is profitable, and one-third of sales come from customers in areas that have few or no Cole Haan retail stores, so getting products on the Web quicker can directly contribute to the company's bottom line, he says.

"I've been very impressed," Morley says. "It was a big win for me."

Solomon is a freelance writer in New York.

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