Nisa Today's is a distribution and services consortium comprised of over 670 retailers and 330 wholesalers, operating some 5,000 stores. Working mostly in grocery, the company aims to negotiate the cost of products and provide an efficient supply chain for its members, by strategically using their combined-turnover powerbase.
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Understandably, linking so many independent businesses into one concern is a complex task, and in 2004, after nearly 20 years of organic IT growth, the company faced the difficult decision to either upgrade existing systems with best of breed, and perhaps face a never-ending integration project, or replace and consolidate with an ERP system.
The critical factor in the success of Nisa Today's' ERP project was cleaning the data before migrating to the new database, says Wayne Swallow, the company's IT director.
The difficulty, says Swallow, is that the company does not follow a standard industry model, and off-the-shelf software always requires considerable customisation. "We're not a high-street retailer, we're not a wholesaler, we're not an airline or bank we don't necessarily fit with 'this is what the ERP modules will do for you'. We went into the project knowing full well we weren't going to get a 100% fit on our requirements list" he says.
Swallow engaged with over 30 suppliers, not only ERP providers but also specialist warehousing firms, and after shortlisting, decided that ERP with some bolt-ons was the best option. "We looked at our core mechanics and the things that we really needed to focus on, which were products and suppliers and promotions, and that fitted quite well into a merchandising system."
On the basis of previous strategic decisions to outsource non-core activities and not increase the size of the IT department, Nisa Today's appointed Enabler Wipro to implement the ERP system based on Oracle's retail solution.
"We had a lot of internally written systems - some in Cobol. Legacy solutions were on the AS/400 and others were DOS based. We had Access databases, SQL databases and various others, and they were all replaced," says Swallow, remarking how the only infrastructure elements that remained were the accounts system, which was subsequently upgraded, and the existing warehouse management solution. "They became the two major areas of integration," he says.
The consolidation and migration of data from the legacy ecosystem to the new ERP database was a major sub-project tackled in three roll-outs: Freeze, Chilled and Ambient, reflecting an increasing number of product records for each phase.
"We had a complete team of people, and all they did was concentrate on the migration. They did almost 20 test migrations of various elements before we actually did the live migrations over various weekends," says Swallow.
Together with the test migrations, Swallow is confident that careful record laundering saved time and money. He says: "The data take-on process has absolutely got to be cleaned up to the nth degree. If you don't do that, all you do is bring the problems of your old systems into your new ones. I'm not saying we got it 100% correct, but by doing lots of migrations prior to going live we ironed out virtually every single problem that we had."
Order processing entailed the largest area of bespoke development. Required to take feeds from a huge variety of retail ordering systems, including 49 varieties of EFTPOS, EDI, XML and assorted tele-sales operations, the consultants, Enabler Wipro, developed the system as a bolt on to the ERP system, accounting for all the channels.
To avoid repetitive re-work and maintenance Swallow elected to use an XML integration bus for every interface without exception. "We used Sun's SeeBeyond to give us standard import and exports. If you're writing individual interfaces, every time you change one of your systems you have to rewrite everything," he says.
With the first six phases and over 4,000 man-days of the project complete, Nisa Today's is able to take advantage of the ERP system to offer improved services.
"If we get a new customer with 30 odd locations, within two days we can set those locations up, range them and have deliveries made," explains Swallow. "Within a week of engaging in business we can have all their services set up. We couldn't do that three years ago: we had forms for every individual department and it would take weeks."
While there is an admission that the ERP system has increased the overall IT budget, Swallow says the goal was to be more competitive in an increasingly difficult market. "Our understanding of the market place, born from the likes of Sainsbury's and Tesco and the Co-op buying up a lot of our member's stores, is that we needed to compete more, and we couldn't compete using our legacy systems because we weren't able to offer the members what they wanted which was a lot more online services and smoother operations and a lot more information. To do that was one of the major drivers."