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Storage Wars

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Urban Barn had an enviable problem: After enjoying aggressive growth — doubling its locations to some 40 stores in just a few years — its infrastructure was stretched to the limits. When storage issues began to slow IT processes for the Canadian furniture and homegoods retailer — and drag down the performance of its point-of-sale system in the process — it was time to find technology that could move just as quickly.

“Aging equipment didn’t match our growth,” says Rob Larmour, Urban Barn’s director of IT and logistics. “We were running into bottlenecks in performance. That’s when we decided to go to market and look for something that was going to fit our needs.”

With continued emphasis on growth on the horizon, it was imperative that the company find solutions that would grow along with it — and adapt to allow Urban Barn to launch an e-commerce site, enhance its customer relationship management and expand in other ways.

First Urban Barn needed storage, and for that the company turned to Dell. The Dell Compellent Storage Area Network includes tiered storage, meaning data that needs to be readily available is; other data is stored in a more economical way.

“Allowing customers to deploy storage in this tiered way allows you to take data that’s not accessed as often and put it in storage that’s cost effective,” says Mike Adams, Dell retail industry practice lead. “As your needs get more and more time sensitive, like at the point of sale or just-in-time offers, you want that data to be easily accessed. That’s where you can invest in storage that is in memory and solid state where you’ll get the responsiveness you need.”

Storage may not be the flashiest of IT products, but it will allow the retailer to remain competitive, Larmour believes. “It’s especially important for the Canadian retailer who competes against the big American companies that are coming to Canada,” he says. “Everybody is looking for high performance and good value. Technology is evolving very fast: You want to look for a company that is looking to adapt. You don’t want to keep reinvesting in acquisition when something new comes out in 12 months.”

Agility training
Beyond the lack of storage capacity, Urban Barn’s aging infrastructure also meant the IT team spent a lot of time just keeping the system running. With the Dell system in place, Larmour’s team can “focus less on maintenance of the solution and [more] on retail technology solutions on the front end.”

Consequently, the retailer is piloting several new programs, including putting tablets in the hands of sales associates. That’s a crucial tool when customers, armed with smartphones, are engaging sales associates — often with more accurate information.

“In a typical environment, you have a cash desk where your technology sits,” Larmour says. “You may be on the floor working with a customer and speaking to them about a product. You may then have to put a hold on that conversation to go to the desk and find information for the customer. Then you come back to the customer and try to reengage. Being able to put a tablet in the hands of the sales associate will maximize the time with customers.”

The company is also exploring ways to improve customer relationship management and is currently seeking solutions that will enable it to put POS information into the sales associates’ hands. It also is in the early phases of e-commerce.

“The idea of a CRM project and e-commerce is really to understand our customers and communicate precisely with them ... in the way they need to be communicated with,” Larmour says. “Customers are in charge: The demands are higher than ever. You can access the information at home or in stores. ... they demand a high-level experience. We have to be able to understand our customer better to make that happen.”

It’s a pressure that many retailers face these days, Adams says. “Certainly in the last four to five years, we’ve seen retailers need to be much more agile in how they … meet customer expectations. That may mean finding a way to develop unique customer insights — likes or dislikes or deepening that engagement once they’re in — and being able to do that while maintaining efficient operations.

“All of those things played a part in Urban Barn’s solution,” he says. “Being able to give your store personnel quick access to information allows them to deliver a better in-store solution.”

There are many new projects coming to Urban Barn, with the 30TB storage system merely a starting point. Another appeal of the Dell system was the ability to expand the storage as needed. And if Urban Barn’s history is any indication, that’s flexibility that will be tested.

“We’ve seen our storage requirements double every single year for the past five years,” says Jordy Nipius, Urban Barn’s IT manager responsible for infrastructure and support. “With all the new projects we have coming down the pipeline, the 30 terabytes was to facilitate what we need right now. It was an entry point.

“It’s really about having the right storage tiers for our current needs,” he says. “A lot of the storage [is] in a cheaper, slower, third tier of storage, with 7,200 RPM drives. We have a second tier of 15,000 RPM drives, and Tier One, which is solid state. We use that mainly for our databases and things that require fast write access.”

Ready to expand
When a retailer is undergoing rapid growth, “Most of your time is spent on the new stores and new customers,” Larmour says. “We finally feel we’re at a place where the infrastructure is ready to move to the next level: to put solutions to work with the customers.”

Urban Barn plans to open two or three stores in 2013 and about the same number in 2014, Larmour says. While store coverage currently stretches from British Columbia to Ontario, he says the company still sees growth potential in existing markets.

It’s also poised to respond to whatever new technology comes its way. And that, Adams says, is the hallmark of a successful retailer.

“The needs and demands of the marketplace are changing rapidly,” he says. “Being able to respond quickly and economically to those changes continues to reinforce the role of IT as an enabler in the business.”