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One challenge facing many small and mid-sized merchants is finding a retail management system that provides the functions they need to operate successfully, yet doesn’t require a level of funding or IT expertise that’s beyond their means.

Tennis Express began 15 years ago selling a single brand of tennis equipment out of an apartment, says managing partner Brad Blume. The company now operates a 42,000-square-foot store in Houston that offers a wide range of tennis gear and apparel. The store also includes a full-size tennis court on which customers can test racquets and other equipment. Sales associates work from tablets, and customers have access to free wireless Internet through the store.

It’s one of the top three tennis retailers in the country, Blume says, and has been called a “candy store for tennis players.” Along with its bricks-and-mortar location, Tennis Express also operates a thriving, growing e-commerce business. Up to 30 percent of online traffic comes from mobile orders.

About five years ago, Tennis Express began looking for a new retail management solution, as the company’s legacy system had begun to lag behind the advances occurring in the field, Blume says. A key criterion was a system that was “all-in-one” — the company didn’t want to have to deal with a number of different partners.

Tennis Express also wanted a system that would easily allow expansion to additional physical locations. “We don’t have a big tech department,” Blume says. Implementing one IT system and working with just one partner “enables us to focus on our business — on growing our tennis business, versus adding staff for technical issues.”

Tennis Express now uses software from Celerant Technology as its enterprise resource planning, purchasing and receiving solution across all its channels. The software adjusts inventory in real time as sales are made, regardless of which channel generated the transaction. This minimizes confusion as well as the potential for customer service issues that can result when a product is out of stock but still shows up on a website as being available.

Flexible transitions

T he Celerant solution allows small and mid-sized retailers to deploy a full-featured inventory and enterprise resource planning system without the challenges of a larger integration or implementation, says Celerant CEO Ian Goldman. Key to the company’s success — as well as that of its retail clients — is the company’s decision to leverage a common database throughout its applications. Retailers have real-time visibility across channels, including bricks-and-mortar, catalog sales, e-commerce and mobile sites. Leveraging a single database eliminates the need to re-enter data and can reduce errors.

“For mid-sized retailers, it’s a game changer,” Goldman says. He provides an example: A retailer has six or so locations, and then adds an e-commerce store. Initially the retailer fulfills Internet orders from the stores, as the sales volume isn’t enough to warrant allocating warehouse space to the fledgling e-commerce channel. Celerant’s system allows the retailer to handle e-commerce sales this way, then gradually move to a dedicated warehouse operation for e-commerce.

The software offers “gradations of formality,” allowing retailers to transition their operations at a manageable pace as their business grows and changes, Goldman says. “If the software doesn’t have the flexibility to evolve, it will fail.”

For instance, this flexibility allows retailers to shift from printing e-commerce orders that arrive via e-mail and manually filling them to an automated electronic order fulfillment system. The transition can take place gradually as the e-commerce business grows and becomes predictable enough that it makes sense to dedicate inventory and warehouse space to it. “You can become more formal as you learn,” he says.

Goldman points out that it’s not the software itself that needs to change so drastically once retailers grow, but the culture. “Once companies get very large, the manner in which they approach a deployment like this is different culturally,” he says. “Large companies typically make decisions by committee. Therefore, there are more opinions and more information needed.” Because the data typically passes through more hands, the migration cost and time frame can increase.

Celerant’s solutions are hosted within the offices of its retail clients, or at an off-site hosting facility. By offering these options, retailers can make their own decisions regarding security and data management. The cost is calculated as a charge per license, so the exact fee varies based on the number of licenses used and the way in which the software is deployed. Celerant does not currently offer a cloud-based solution, although Goldman says the company may add one geared to very small retailers.

While Celerant already offers retailers the ability to process orders that were initiated from customers’ mobile devices, the company is launching Stratus Retail, a robust, web-based retail system that can be accessed from any smartphone or tablet. The release is scheduled for second quarter, Goldman says, starting with several beta clients.

The mobile functions will be incorporated within the overall Celerant solution. That differs from some other applications in which mobile capabilities are bolted on, Goldman says, adding that bolt-on applications can present challenges when it comes to integrating systems and data across channels.

Serious sales growth

S tages West is a Pigeon Forge, Tenn.-based multichannel retailer of “cowboy couture,” says spokeswoman Jen Mears. Among the retailer’s offerings are boots by Ariat and Stetson, jeans by Miss Me and jewelry by Montana Silversmiths.

Until early in 2012, Stages West filled online orders by physically removing the products from the sales floor and manually completing the transaction via the point-of-sale system. Management had a goal of making the company a national, multichannel online retailer — and that laborious process wasn’t helping the retailer reach that goal. Along with its own website, orders are also filled through Amazon and eBay. In addition, a growing number of its virtual sales now come from mobile devices, Mears says.

Celerant’s “focus on the customer experience online and via mobile” appealed to Stages West, Mears says. For instance, the retailer wanted to ensure that branding was consistent throughout its site. If a customer clicked on an advertisement that promised free shipping, that promise needed to follow through to the product pages.

Stages West was also looking for robust search capabilities and the ability to control advertising banners, as well as an easy-to-use mobile site.

Celerant’s system is providing that. Total online traffic, including mobile, jumped 60 percent between 2012 and 2013; online sales skyrocketed by 255 percent. The growth in mobile transactions — which Stages West began offering in late 2012 — has been equally dramatic: Mobile traffic rose 50 percent — and sales jumped 69 percent — in the second half of 2013.