Web Services Yields Fresh Approach on Perishable Product

By Larry Dignan Print this article Print

CEO Bill Strauss pushed online retailer Provide Commerce to install a cost-effective Web services system. The goal: Get perishable products like flowers, meat and fruit to customers faster and more efficiently.

Bill Strauss, chief executive of e-commerce

Company Provide Commerce, the parent of online florist ProFlowers, has come to rely on Web services—even though he can barely define what they are.

"I'm not even sure I can explain Web services," he says, "but I've made it a point to have the right people in technology who start out asking what problem we're trying to solve." QUESTION: What is the biggest challenge involved with getting technology workers to deploy Web services? Learning the technology? Or learning how the business operates? Tell us at baseline@ziffdavis.com.

A couple of years ago, the company, which sells perishable goods such as flowers, meat and fresh fruit through its ProFlowers, Uptown Prime and Cherry Moon Farms Web sites, was facing a few challenges.

Provide Commerce operates an electronic marketplace that links a consumer directly with suppliers, eliminating intermediaries such as wholesalers and importers. The theory: Goods that make fewer stops on the way to consumers are fresher. It's a business that depends on choreography between the merchant and a global network of suppliers to ensure that goods stay as fresh as possible and hit target delivery dates such as, in ProFlowers' case, a birthday or Valentine's Day.

Back in 2003, Provide Commerce was growing at 20% to 30% a year and its systems, a mix of manual and automated processes, couldn't keep up with spikes in demand, says Kevin Hall, Provide Commerce's chief information officer.

Today, however, the company has deployed Web services—software that enables two computers to automatically speak to each other and carry out functions such as credit card processing over the Internet—to improve customer service and keep information-technology costs under control.

The system it uses can handle almost a half million orders a day, some 50 times more than the 8,500 orders projected daily, and stores the records of 4.3 million registered customers.

Provide Commerce has come a long way since its 1998 launch. Back then, it built proprietary systems using Microsoft .NET and Java technology to tie together its network of suppliers via the Web. Its systems were broken into six primary areas—commerce, supply chain, customer relationship, transaction processing, data warehouse/reporting and user interface.

These systems were loosely coupled through eXtensible Markup Language—a standard that allows data to be shared over the Internet—and communicated through a messaging infrastructure that shuttled instructions built by Sonic Software.

Check out eWEEK.com's for the latest news, reviews and analysis in Web services.

Before the Web services-based system, ProFlowers scanned its Microsoft SQL database daily in batches to find orders that might be waiting to be processed. That technique worked during slow periods, but Strauss says ProFlowers missed some orders when the company scanned for periods with spikes in order volume, say, the day before Valentine's Day.

If a husband misses his wife's birthday because of a processing error, it's unlikely he'll be a repeat customer. Strauss couldn't quantify how many orders were missed, but anecdotal stories from customer service representatives tipped him off to the problem.

Hall calls his former system "monolithic" and attributed the problem to a series of unconnected manual and automated processes employed for things like picking suppliers and shipping goods. The automated processes were bogged down by balky components such as new orders that could only be scanned at certain times, information embedded in databases, and applications that were hard to revamp without an overhaul.

In other words, the company had a mishmash of systems and lacked a trigger to automatically set off a chain of events such as finding a supplier, processing a payment and finding the most appropriate shipper.

This was a problem that Strauss had to solve—quickly.

Provide Commerce needed a system that could automate orders placed well in advance, say, a request for a dozen roses on Valentine's Day made the previous September. The company also didn't want to spend more than 3% of sales on information technology.

"We are a retail company that deals with time-sensitive material, produce that can't last when it's cut," says Bharat Gogia, vice president of information systems at ProFlowers, reporting to Hall. "So, we have to keep products in our supply chain for the most minimal time possible."

When Hall and Gogia pitched Strauss on the idea of using Web services, the team focused on two points: Customer service and Strauss' goal of keeping technology spending to 3% of revenue. Gogia proposed a Web services-based system that could expand easily, automate orders and break down the business into manageable components that would make ProFlowers respond better to orders that were in the queue more than a week ahead of delivery date. Today, when the order is ready, the Web services system sends a message to begin processing, instead of database queries trying to find the order.

This article was originally published on 2006-02-07
Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.