Published in An Armadillo Assoc Case Study by Joe Devlin & Emily Berk Click here for list of articles
  Jan 16, 2004 Using Blue Martini Software to Build the Belk Bridal Registry
Intoduction1-The Bridal Registry2-The Gift Registry3-ApparelConclusion

Picture associated with 04_BlueBelk


Happily ever after is big business for mega department chain Belk. "Revamping a bridal registry that tracks more than 50,000 registered brides is not a simple endeavor. Every day, we run more than a hundred concurrent bridal sessions. Each registry can include any of the 186,000 products currently held in the Belk inventory database. In a given week we may drop an extra 1,000 to 1,500 products on to the bridal registry site. To manage this well we neeeded a grat software solution." Jay Carothers, Belk's President, eCommerce.



Phase I -- The Bridal Registry

Something old: High tech meets white beaded gowns

Belk, Inc. is the nation's largest privately-owned department store. With more than 200 stores scattered throughout thirteen Southern and Mid-Atlantic states, Belk serves a part of the country where traditions like bridal registries are taken very seriously. Make no mistake on it, Belk's bridal registry is a mission-critical application.

Jay Carothers, Belk's President, eCommerce, emphasizes Belks' commitment to bridal registries with big numbers: "Our bridal registry currently tracks more than 50,000 registered brides. Every day, we run more than a hundred concurrent bridal sessions at a time. Each registry can be assembled by selecting from any of the 186,000 products currently held in my inventory database. In a given week we may drop an extra 1,000 to 1,500 products on to the bridal registry site." Obviously, happily ever after is big business for Belk.

These days, Belk's Blue Martini-driven bridal registry handles all the transactions that Carothers and crew and all those happy bridal couples can throw at it in real time. That was not the case when Belk first called Blue Martini in.

Jay Carothers of Belk explains, "Thanks to Blue Martini, our bridal registry is the best there is. It's a huge improvement over our previous 'system', which was little more than a typewriter. Previously, we had the scanners, but they were used for taking inventory. There were no kiosks. Each store had a PC on which bridal information was stored. This data could be printed, but the PCs hooked into our mainframes only once a day for updating and downloading bridal registry data. So, in reality what happened when a bride dropped in is that the sales consultant would jot down all the items the bride was interested in on a piece of paper and then hand it to a bridal consultant who would type the items into the system when she got the time."

Obviously Blue Martini had its work set out for it.

According to Colby Sheridan, Blue Martini's Product Manager at Belk, "Our mandate was to provide all of Belk's brides with access to a fully-integrated bridal registry system that they could access a myriad of ways--through in-store kiosks, via a wireless scanner while walking the store floor, by logging into the Belk website from a PC, or by picking up a phone and asking a Belk representative to add items to a registry listing. We were asked to import the last two years of data off the legacy system before shutting it down." Another requirement was the establishment of real-time links between the registry and all of Belk's important product databases. The goal was allow each bride to create an up-to-date registry, which was linked in real-time to every point-of-sale terminal at every Belk store. That way every time a bridal item was rung up, that sale would immediately be reflected in that brides on-line registry. No mistakenly duplicate gift purchases were going to be allowed at Belk.

Something new: The bride-centric data model

"Belk always rolls out the red carpet for every bride who enters one of their stores or who logs onto its website. What's good enough for other brides at other stores was not good enough for Belk. For example, Blue Martini comes bundled with a very nice gift registry sample application. Problem is that sample registry assumes that the same person might want to enter more than one gift registry at the same time. That approach didn't match Belk's very strict requirements for a bride-centric registry. Belk's emphasis on the centrality of the bride forced us into doing some unusual customizations," Kymberli Cassidy, a Blue Martini consultant who implemented the Belk wireless scanning system, told us.

Normally you set up a gift registry so that it allows a user to log into the gift registry section of a website. From that single login, each user gets access to every other gift registry. That's the approach our sample application takes. The way the Belk wanted us to set it up was that you started off by entering a bride-specific section of the website. Once within that site, the user is asked which bride's information they wish to see. From that point on, all the information displayed has to do with that bride and that bride alone. Meeting Belk's requirements necessitated changes in our sample business actions."

"In order to achieve Belk's vision of 'the bride is all' required one of the tightest integrations we at Blue Martini have done to date," says Colby Sheridan, Blue Martini's Product Manager at Belk.

"For example, some other chains have implemented a wireless scanner to help brides pick out items for their bridal registries. Belk wanted to take it to a whole other level. With other systems, the bride is given a scanner they use to capture items.

Once the bride has finished scanning, she turns the scanner over to store employees. Those employees hand it to someone else who hooks it up to PC and downloads the data. Store employees use that PC to print out a list which is mailed to all interested parties."

"The Belk scanner, on the other hand, links to the bridal registry in real time. As soon as the bride scans an item, she can walk over to one of the in-store kiosks to view her bridal registry."

And, a Belk bridal registry is no mere list of product names and numbers. Instead, each registry is a fully-populated website complete with prices, pictures and descriptions extracted from Belk's product catalog. As soon as she approves it, the bride's registry is available worldwide from any Internet-ready PC or any in-store Belk kiosk. She can also opt to have her registry e:mailed to her more computer savvy friends and family. "Another feature that I thought was especially neat was the ability to print out UPC codes as part of the printed list. This makes it easy for a sales clerk selling an item from the store floor to update the database about what items have already been purchased off the list. And of course, we provide the ability for the bride to log in and edit the list whenever she change her mind about any item listed or not listed in her bridal registry," said Sheridan.

Something Borrowed: Scanners that used to do inventory are now used by brides

One of the biggest challenges faced in pulling off the Belk Bridal registry project was the integration of the Telxon scanners. The developer in charge of this phase of the project was Kymberli Cassidy, a Blue Martini consultant and wizard of wireless technology.

"Each Belk store is equipped with a couple of these old Telxon scanners that are used to take inventory. They're huge old beasts; they look like phaser guns from an old Buck Rodgers movie. It took me 2 1/2 months to convert all of the scanners for use with our new bridal registry. It would have taken a fraction of that time if Belk had chosen to use more modern wireless devices. But they already had these and the wiring there to support them was already in place. Although these Telxons weren't designed to do what we were asking them to do, I was sure we could adapt them to our purposes."

The basic problem was the very idiosyncratic dialect of HTML spoken by the Telxons. "I had to convince Telxon to patch their proprietary browser so that the Telxons could accept standard HTML 1.0 input from our BEA WebLogic server and so the Telxons would not truncate the query strings we needed to maintain session information."

Cassidy's creativity was also tested by the Telxons' severely limited display capabilities: "text only, no fonts, no bold, no formatting, no tables, no graphics. I embedded some stars on the page to keep it from being so plain. But truth be told, the scanners do get the job done." Once Kymberlovercame these few technical and aesthetic hurdles, the rest of the scanner integration was accomplished using fairly standard Blue Martini customizations.

"We integrated the scanners into the bridal registry using custom Java business actions and few simple JSPs. Because of the Telxon's primitive display, we decided to host two different versions of the Belk HTML template -- a graphically-rich version for the kiosks and for users logging in via PCs and a minimalistic version for use by the Telxons. We run separate servers for our Web store and for the scanners, but both run on the same hardware box referencing a completely different set of templates."

Blue Martini exchanges data with both the scanners and the kiosks as it would with any other browser.

Data is formatted into pages for these devices using JSP. Having the Telxons on-line makes an enormous difference in the way the bridal registry works. It used to be that a bride or her bridal consultant was forced to walk around with a clipboard and a piece of paper and to jot down notes about items the bride wanted to add to her registry. Now a bride can zap a whole bunch of barcodes with the Telxon in a fraction of the time it took to jot down one note.

Something Blue: Blue Martini integrates data from a myriad of legacy systems

Setting up an eCommerce solution for a long-established brick-and-mortar company like Belk nearly always involves exchanging lots of information with the legacy systems. As Jay Carothers, Belk's President, eCommerce, matter-of-factly put it, "The Blue Martini system is pretty highly integrated with multiple mainframe systems. We use MQ to handle nearly all transactions between our mainframes and Blue Martini."

In fact, according to Carothers, "Belk's new bridal registry hits nearly every one of Belk's major legacy systems. Purchase an item from one of stores and you need to capture the store number--which comes from the organization database stored on one of our mainframes. Pricing comes from another database, as do special promotions. Belk wants to encourage its employees to use the bridal registry, and employees get a discount, so the registry has to tie into the EMP (employee) system. The bridal registry also ties into the Belk credit card database, so that each bridal purchase with a Belk credit card accrues all the benefits that warrants. In addition there are all the outside service providers used by Belk to provide special services for Belk's customers. These include SumbitOrder.Com and financials systems from Cybersource and FraudScreen."

Kiran Manur, a Blue Martini Consultant at Belk, told us that, "All the data was there; it was just a question of mapping it out. Whenever there was a need to interface to legacy data on a mainframe, we went through MQ. Blue Martini now natively supports MQ, but with the older version of Blue Martini Belk was working with, you needed an MQ adapter. For Belk, we wrote our own MQ adapter. It's working fine so there is no reason to upgrade to the new system. I could put the method into the MQ and forget about it. MQ provides mechanisms for guaranteed delivery."

On the mainframe side, says Jay Carothers, "We had to build some fairly complex interfaces. So, we hired Keen Consulting to take care of the MQ part of the equation. Now, when something happens on the mainframe, it automatically throws out an MQ transaction. To do so Keen had to change the way that the mainframes process data. Blue Martini had little difficulty dealing with the MQ input. But we had to parse it on the mainframe side to get it ready for Blue Martini."

Data clean up

In fact, Carothers pointed out, "As anybody who has ever had to tie into a legacy database (let alone half a dozen legacy databases) can tell you, legacy data is never formatted quite the way you want it to be. You need a data base administrator to help with data formatting and clean-up. We get descriptions of many of the goods in our stores from the vendors from whom we buy those goods. Problem is, theproduct descriptions you get when you do an electronic purchase from a company like Lennox cannot be site shown to a customer. For example, they might abbreviate the word 'black' as 'BLK', or it could be 'BK', it could be 'B', or 'ebony'. Our systems have to understand what all the abbreviations mean and translate them appropriately. That meant we had to spend a fair amount of time taking information from our systems and making it ready for the Web. That has nothing to do with a shortcoming of Blue Martini or anybody else, it has more to do with the quality of the information that comes in. Half of our translations are done by our DBA the other half by the people by our eCommerce group. We need a DBA to sort a lot of this stuff. The customer has to be shielded from the fact that Lennox labels stuff one way, and Notaki another way."


Colby Sheridan, Blue Martini's Product Manager at Belk, recalled one other challenge in the Belk implementation. "Blue Martini is architected on the assumption that you have one database, the main database, that resides at your headquarters. All your product information resides in that main database: products, SKUs, pictures and prices, everything that goes to the Web store is first loaded into this main database. You also have your WebStore database which sits at your hosting provider.

To get data from the main database at headquarters to the stored database, you stage." Staging is a nice feature of Blue Martini that nicely encapsulates all the data into files that can be FTPed or otherwise copied to the production environment where they are published. Publishing is actually the process of creating a Web store, or Web version. When that happens you over-write what was there before. Blue Martini provides a batch loader that will import information be that product SKUs, pictures of the products, promotions, whatever, into the main database. That's all out of the box Blue Martini functionality. The staging process, because of the amount of data that Belk has got, is pretty much an overnight affair. Once you stage and publish you're talking maybe 6 to 7 hours for the entire process. Were are talking about pushing maybe a gigabyte of data."

"Well," reminisced Sheridan, "Belk wanted more frequent updates of pricing, actually they wanted constant updates of pricing. To do, we decided to allow them to write directly to the Webstore database. Problem is that when you stage the next version you would normally over-write the whole Webstore database. So we developed a loader which does the extract from the legacy mainframe, creates these nice nifty formatted loader files that we load into the main database, but then we use hotfix to write directly into the stored database. That was the difficult part. Mostly the difficulties were associated with extracting information from the mainframe. But the other problem was that we are updating to two different databases at the same time, which added more pain. Making this happen was probably the most difficult thing we did in this installation."

"We had to customize Blue Martini's Web pricing system to write to both locations at once. The prices go to the store database at the same time that they go to the main database at headquarters. Because if we only wrote the price updates to the Web store, when we staged, those prices would get over written. What we did was we customized our native Blue Martini loader which is used to load prices into the main database.

Processing the updated data input stream.

"It took two developers maybe three weeks to write this customization in Java, and two weeks to test. By using the Blue Martini API, we can use all the tools that are inherent to the architecture. For example, we don't have to handle database connections, they are handled by the API. With Blue Martini, pushing and popping the database was not necessary."

Integration with external sites

Belk's Web pages are also asked to display data they obtain from external sites, says Jay Carothers.

"Say, for example, the end-user is looking at Lancome products. In this case, the products and descriptions and JPEGs are not coming from our side, we reach out and pull them in from Lancome's site." This too works with Blue Martini.

Out of the box integration

Cybersource credit card authorization

Blue Martini supported a number of other standard integrations out of the box, added Colby Sheridan.For example, "We integrate with CyberSource, for all the non-Belk credit card authorizations. We provide CyberSource integration out of the box, so we flip a switch and it's on. You pay a fee to CyberSource but the integration costs you nothing. Once you have all your ducks in a row with CyberSource, you provide them with your merchant id #, fill out all the forms. Complying with all the legalese can take a couple of weeks, but once you get the authorization you can go into a text editor, edit the configuration files and a day later you're on-line. It would take about a week to integrate with using the CyberSource integration tools; Blue Martini lets you do it in about a day."

According to Kiran Manur, Belk also uses a third-party service to handle fulfillment. "They process whatever needs to be done and send confirmations back to us. They tell us, 'your order has been processed' or 'we have received your order' or 'we're packing your order', 'we have shipped your order'." The interface to is implemented in XML which is easy for us to handle.


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