Aggressive international expansion was causing headaches for Comptoir des Cotonniers IT director Marc Bernhard. The solution? An EPoS system that could integrate easily and be delivered and managed remotely. Joanna Perry reports

French style has always had international appeal. And this has certainly proved true for Toulouse-based fashion brand Comptoir des Cotonniers.

The retailer has 13 outlets in the UK, but has more than 330 stores in 12 countries across Europe and Asia. And it is on the verge of entering a 13th with the opening of a store in the US.

The brand was created in France in 1995 and, after reaching a level of maturity in its domestic market, began to open stores internationally in 2001, starting with Spain. In 2005, the retailer became a subsidiary of Japan’s Fast Retailing and, the following year, it opened its first store in Japan. Other countries Comptoir des Cotonniers has entered include South Korea, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland.

The expansion won’t be stopping there, though. In its latest half-year results, Fast Retailing vowed to keep up the store-opening trend. The benefit of a diverse store portfolio was particularly felt during the financial period in question, given that rail strikes had caused a fall in customer traffic in the retailer’s Paris stores.

Such quick expansion has proved a very successful strategy for the retailer. But, back in Toulouse, Comptoir des Cotonniers IT director Marc Bernhard was expected to support these diverse stores with an IT platform that would also accommodate further expansion.

Bernhard says that the retailer needed homogenous systems for all of its different operations, because there are only six staff in its IT department to run everything it rolls out. So the decision was taken to replace systems at both its head office and in stores.

Common platform

To begin its technology refresh in 2006, Comptoir chose to standardise on the Microsoft computing platform. It selected the Microsoft Server 2003 operating system and is running Microsoft Dynamics AX enterprise resource planning (ERP) financial system on this to support 331 stores in Europe and Asia. In addition, it has chosen a Microsoft database and .NET web services.

Last year, the retailer turned its attention to its store systems. The EPoS system it was running suffered whenever the internet connection to head office was lost. Bernhard explains: “The existing systems didn’t have any capacity for storing data at store level. Whenever there was a problem with the internet link with our central server in Toulouse, our stores lost all the IT tools necessary for running an efficient retail business, so they had to do all the essential tasks manually.”

To help put an end to these problems, Comptoir des Cotonniers chose an EPoS system from VCSTimeless called BeStore. Because it is based on Microsoft’s .NET development framework, it could be integrated with the ERP system the company had implemented the previous year with ease.

Bernhard says that having complementary systems has meant that little time has been wasted on making them work together. BeStore deals with the transaction aspects, such as managing payment, price changes and stock, while the store back office functions are handled by Microsoft Dynamics AX.

The retailer has also deployed .NET web services so that BeStore can manage the client database, returns, gift vouchers and credit notes. Bernhard says that the service-oriented architecture of BeStore was central to Comptoir’s decision to adopt it, because it will make it easier to integrate new tools as the retailer’s needs grow and change.

However, committing to the software meant that Comptoir had to chose the system before it was tried and tested by its peers. Referring to BeStore, he says proudly: “We were the first in France to use a Microsoft add-on fashion solution.”

In fact, the EPoS system was only in development stage when Comptoir des Cotonniers decided to deploy it. It was at “version 0.0” jokes Bernhard.

He explains that the benefit of this is that the retailer has been able to have input into what the system can do. Some of the functionality it wanted has been adopted as part of the main product and some is bespoke to Comptoir des Cotonniers.

The retailer had to go through regular releases and did agile development, checking that the software was right at the end of each short development cycle. There were between five and 10 people in the development team at any one time.

Once the development of the system had progressed, 20 different configurations of the system had to be created to fit different store profiles. For example, there were six languages to accommodate, as well as currency and fiscal requirements. Comptoir des Cotonniers defined groups of stores by these parameters so that, once it has created the configuration, it can replicate it across other stores in the same profile group.

The stores were using IT hardware from Dell to run their previous EPoS system, but different stores had different hardware and some was quite old. In six weeks, the retailer changed 300 PCs in its stores, so that each branch had the same equipment. The new hardware had the existing EPoS system installed, but partitioned on the hard drive, so that it would be able to deploy the BeStore software to the same computers without any disruption to services.

Remote control

Another benefit of the system was proven when the time came to roll it out. The PCs in each store were able to have the new software sent to them and installed remotely, without a single support engineer having to be sent on-site.

Bernhard admits: “In the beginning, there were some mistakes, but we fixed them.” He adds that, 10 minutes after a patch for the software is complete, it is possible to update all stores suffering the same problem.

During the six-week software roll-out, about 10 stores had new code sent to their PC each night. There were some issues with stores not updating overnight but, where this happened, Comptoir was able to try again without having to send technical staff to the store.

Finally, on November 22 last year, the EPoS system went live. Bernhard says: “I am still bearing the signs of this terrible summer, but now we have a reliable system that is working very well.”

Store staff are using the system, which has Comptoir des Cotonniers’ own user interface, with easily identifiable buttons for transactions and other customer services, such as its loyalty scheme and alterations. It also gives staff instant access to information on stock, such as when articles will be delivered to stores.

Before the system was installed, replenishment took two days and up to 10 per cent of stores had replenishment problems every day because of communications failures. All that changed in January, when the retailer launched next-day replenishment: now, what is sold on a Wednesday, for example, is replenished on a Thursday. Bernhard says that less than 1 per cent of stores a day now have replenishment problems. Markdowns can also be completed in hours, instead of days.

The system also has cash-management functionality, so there is much less of a delay between each store’s theoretical cash position and their actual cash at the bank.

Comptoir des Cotonniers will be opening stores in the US at the end of July and the system will be implemented to support these. Bernhard says that the new version of BeStore will allow it to cope with the tax-management issues that retailers have when trading in the US. Each store has to be set up for tax purposes – not only for national, but also local sales taxes. And, because taxes change often, the system has to be easy to update to reflect rate changes.

Bernhard adds that communications made through the system can be monitored. While this does not make the flow of information quicker, it does mean that Comptoir knows straight away when there are communication problems.

In total, it took 12 months from inception to the EPoS system going live – no small feat given that the software was only at an embryonic stage when it began. Because Comptoir took an innovative approach to the software roll-out, it was able to get a completely new EPoS system up and running in multiple countries quickly – and without the massive cost and logistical complexity that would normally accompany such a project.

Bernhard may still bear some scars from the difficult few months last summer when the project was in full swing, but he can now be confident he has systems in place that will allow him to enjoy Comptoir des Cotonniers’ continuing growth.

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