SmarterKids.com Prepares Network for Christmas

NEEDHAM, MASS. (06/21/2000) - Christmas in July? That's the way it is around online educational toy store SmarterKids. com, which is retooling its supply-chain management process and bulking its network to prepare for the holiday shopping season.

"For Christmas, you have to plan your merchandise mix now," says CEO David Blohm, who says the retailer has a base of 200,000 customers but probably won't be profitable until a year from now.

SmarterKids.com is rethinking the fulfillment process to make sure items get from suppliers to online buyers, with returns handled, if needed.

Until now, the retailer has outsourced its item fulfillment to J.L. Hammett, a nearby school-supplies distributor. J.L. Hammett stores the goods and fulfills orders for SmarterKids. com, which has a private-line connection into the J.L.

Hammett internal systems to view order status.

Just this month, Smarter Kids.com decided to run its own warehouse operations out of a Mansfield, Massachusetts, facility.

"Our growth is such that we anticipate exceeding the capability in the J.L.

Hammett warehouse," Blohm says, adding SmarterKids.com thinks it can cut up to 40% of fulfillment costs by doing them in-house.

To that end, SmarterKids. com purchased Logility Inc.'s Warehouse Pro application and is integrating it into its DB2 database applications.

SmarterKids.com is also upgrading the Microsoft Corp. systems it uses for more direct interaction with customers, such as its Web server farm hosted by Exodus, says Rich Secor, the company's chief information officer. The retailer is seeking improved performance and reliability to handle increased customer demand.

The company, which uses Microsoft Site Server Commerce Edition, SQL Server and Windows NT 4.0, is migrating to Windows 2000.

While SmarterKids. com has fared pretty well with Microsoft server products, Secor says the software has come up short at times.

"Windows NT had some reliability problems that would require us to occasionally restart servers," Secor says.

SmarterKids.com has devised a Win 2000 migration plan based on testing done at nearby Microsoft labs. "We set up a complete test lab for load-testing the Windows 2000 software, duplicating what we now use at out Web site," Secor says.

The results show a 15% to 32% improvement with Win 2000 based on number of concurrent users compared with NT 4.0. Using the RSW Software Inc. e-Tester to simulate Web use, SmarterKids.com found Win 2000 was 15% faster serving Web pages and 32% faster in keyword searches done by 100 simultaneous users.

The testing showed that Win 2000 did not require rebooting, although this was necessary several times with NT 4.0.

In other network changes to boost speed, SmarterKids.com is evaluating Intel's Secure Sockets Layer accelerator hardware to speed user order processing because the firm does all transactions using SSL encryption between Web browser and server.

The online retailer is also redesigning its database architecture using the TimesTen in-memory caching software so if hundreds of customers try to buy simultaneously, the shopping-cart transaction process will be isolated on a separate caching server optimized for that action.

"We'll isolate that processing in a small database so there's no contention with any other back- end processing," Secor says.

For Web-based customer service, SmarterKids.com is migrating from its older home-grown application for e-mail and chat to Cisco Systems Inc. Customer Interaction Suite (formerly WebLine). This means SmarterKids.com won't need to develop customer service applications in-house, and will test new capabilities that Cisco adds, such as voice over IP, when the time seems right.

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