By Tony Kontzer
Long before the concept of big data took hold at iconic clothing retailer Guess?, the company considered itself a sort of business intelligence innovator.
Armed with MicroStrategy’s business intelligence (BI) application backed by an Oracle database, the Los Angeles-based company was collecting an abundance of sales and inventory data, and was using it to generate informative reports. But only a handful of power users were taking advantage of the tool and driving most of the reporting.
The company needed to figure out a way to get the increasingly valuable data into the BI environment and then into the hands of the merchants who were deciding which products went to which stores and in what quantities.
“They’re touchy-feely people who like products and visuals, and getting them to drill down into business intelligence is always a challenge,” Michael Relich, executive vice president and CIO at Guess?, says of the company’s merchants. “We’d have analysts dump things into spreadsheets and then cut and paste pictures. It was crazy.”
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the database couldn’t process the mushrooming data volume fast enough to keep up with merchants’ growing taste for answers. For instance, if merchants wanted to figure out what sizes had been selling at the company’s 1,500-plus retail locations over the previous six months, the related queries of the BI system would run for hours before timing out.
The path to an answer started four years ago, when Relich and his team decided to look for a solution better suited to processing big data, eventually choosing HP’s Vertica analytics platform. Relich was attracted by Vertica’s use of massive parallel processing to split queries into multiple boxes, and its ability to scale inexpensively with commodity hardware. Even so, he wasn’t prepared for performance that was as much as 100 times better than the database provided.
“When we did the first queries, they were done so fast, we thought they were broken,” Relich recalls. “Queries that would run in minutes in Oracle run in seconds in Vertica.”
The experience at Guess? taught it what many companies are learning today, namely that big data and business intelligence and business analytics (BA) don’t merely feed each other. When used in tandem, they take data analysis to a whole new level. Having a good BI/BA application in place makes it easier for users to tap big data, and having big data technologies in place can fuel the value of a BI/BA system.
“Augmenting your business intelligence practice with big data is a very intelligent thing to do,” says Mike Matchett, senior analyst with the Taneja Group. “The two go together very strongly.”
It’s a practice that should become much more commonplace now that more affordable analytics services and appliances are joining open-source big data tools in the market, says Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
The one-two punch of big data and business intelligence enabled Guess? to develop an iPad application that won an innovation award from The Data Warehousing Institute. By combining images from its e-commerce system with the flow of information coming from the data warehouse, Guess? is now able to deliver sales and inventory data to merchants fast and with a visual element to boot.
“It’s the equivalent of about 18 different dashboards combined into one app,” says Relich.
Now, instead of arriving at stores armed with binders filled with dated information, merchants have real-time insight into sales trends, store data and product availability at their fingertips. Although the app was designed specifically for merchants, its 150 regular users include district managers attracted by its ability to help them with store planning.
The impact of the app has been huge: Product markdowns have been reduced, allocations have improved, and merchants and district managers have a better idea of what, how much and when product is needed.
“Retail is all about having the right quantity of the right product in the right locations,” says Relich. “We’re able to identify store issues much quicker and respond to them.”
That, according to Interarbor’s Gardner, is the kind of result companies aspire to achieve with big data initiatives. “They want to get all the data possible in order to make a decision with the highest order of likelihood of being correct,” he says.