Working at Web Speed

TORONTO (06/28/2000) - In the new economy, it has become all too common for retailers to slap up a Web site, take an initial stab at supporting on-line ordering and then spend the next few weeks correcting the mistakes they've made. Last year's holiday season generated numerous tales of product delivery problems, lost orders and consumer frustration.

With most on-line organizations working at Web speed, it's no wonder haphazard strategic planning and shortened development cycles have led to order fulfilment problems for some e-tailers.

But not all Web retailers have given short shrift to accuracy in favour of focusing on speed. Despite having only 12 weeks to build its e-commerce site, from the initial planning stage in June 1999 to full-fledged roll-out in September 1999, RadioShack Canada Ltd. managed to go live with its entire product catalogue available on its site ( -- without experiencing any major technical difficulties throughout the 1999 holiday shopping season.

How did it do it? By building cross-departmental consensus wherever possible, leveraging existing technology investments, and bringing in outside experts to develop the e-commerce site while RadioShack concentrated on integrating it with its back-end legacy systems.

In short, good project management was the key, says RadioShack Canada's vice-president of IS, Margo Weeks. The Barrie, Ontario-based consumer electronics retailer turned to Compaq Services as its e-commerce development partner. RadioShack was already a user of Compaq's Tandem NonStop Kernel platform for its back-end systems. The challenge was to integrate the new Web storefront with the existing legacy systems without making major changes to them. "If you're going to [develop an e-commerce site] in 12 weeks, you have to use as many of the existing systems as you can," Weeks advises.

The sooner an organization realizes it can't tackle massive e-commerce projects on its own the better, she adds. "Pull in as many experts as you can for security, networking, connectivity, everything that you can pull to your advantage, because you can't do it alone," Weeks says.

Through weekly status meetings and having six or seven Compaq Services consultants on-site in RadioShack's headquarters, the retailer was able to provide input into every step along the way. In addition to the Compaq consultants, the core project group included about five internal RadioShack IT staff members. To build consensus within the company, a 50-member team was drawn from all areas of RadioShack's business, including the marketing, merchandising and warehousing departments.

"You can't put a system in that affects every single aspect of your business without involving everybody," Weeks says. "It even involves the stores because we're trying to complement the stores with the Web site, not take business away from them."

To keep the project on track, Weeks was appointed project leader with final signing authority and change authority. "Wherever possible, we tried to get people to agree. That's the idea of the whole thing -- that they buy in and agree. But eventually you get to the point where you can't talk about it any longer, you've got to put your stake in the ground and do something," Weeks says.

Unlike a traditional "best practices" IT implementation approach, there was no time to set aside problematic elements of the project with a plan to revisit them another day. "In this project, there were no tomorrows. If we wanted [the Web site] up in 12 weeks, we had to make the decision on the spot," Weeks says.

The back-end system couldn't be taken off-line while the project was underway, so RadioShack created a mirror development system to build and test the integration piece. After the Web site went live, RadioShack continued to use the development system to frequently refine the e-commerce site to address the changing needs of its customers.

Some of the main enhancements to the site attempt to deliver on RadioShack's corporate tagline "You've got questions. We've got answers." In addition to the Web site's existing FAQ (frequently asked questions) section, on-line help guide and 48-hour e-mail response system, RadioShack plans to add a "call me now" button to answer consumers' questions more quickly.

Ongoing changes to RadioShack's site are focused on the two principles of speed -- in terms of helping customers locate and buy products quickly -- and ease -- in terms of making it easier for consumers to navigate the site and find the information they need, says David Mack, manager of the e-commerce and sales support group of RadioShack Canada.

The latest major change to Radio Shack's site involves a new strategic alliance with Chapters Online that expands the company's on-line product offerings to include books, music, movies and game software. In return, Chapters Online is now offering consumer electronics products to its customers through a new electronics section on the site.

Mack says RadioShack has an ongoing initiative to increase the breadth and depth of products it offers on-line.

One pleasant side effect that has emerged since the launch of the Web site has been an increase in traffic at RadioShack's brick-and-mortar stores. "A surprising number of stores have repeatedly mentioned customers are walking in all the time with shopping lists they've printed off the Web site," Mack says.

While the company's Web site metrics may show abandoned shopping carts, Mack says, there's a distinct advantage to having a sale finalized in the store. "We would never discourage someone from wanting to shop on-line," Mack says, "but buying from a sales associate in one of our stores would probably give customers more of an aided purchase than shopping on-line -- especially when it comes to accessories and what they really need to make the product work best for them."

Another surprising Web customer behaviour is to purchase products on-line but to choose to pick them up at a RadioShack store.

"Greater than 10 per cent of our customers opt to have their orders shipped to their local RadioShack store for pick-up," Mack says. This not only eliminates the delivery charge for these customers, but it may be a more convenient way for them to receive their purchase. "Quite often couriers deliver during the day and many customers aren't home during the day, so they may end up having to go in their car to pick up a product from a centralized courier depot," Mack says.

"If there's a message I could send to somebody, especially a brick-and-mortar or a multichannel retailer, this would be it: There are so many benefits to driving people back into your store," he adds.

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