Beef Up the Back End

Despite having a sophisticated Internet-based storefront presence, one food company's back-end operations weren't integrated and they had to endure a weakened supply chain saddled with a labor-intensive inventory, warehousing and distribution processes.

[From iSource Business, March 2001] What happens when you are a state-of the-art food company and marketer with a presence on the Internet that dates back to 1990 but your back-end operations are in the technological stone age? The answer is to take the marketing ability and critical analysis for which you're noted and find the business solution that's leading edge. That's what Omaha Steaks in Omaha, Neb. did when they paired with the eOneGroup, a provider of Internet e-commerce software and integration services which was, serendipitously and likewise, located in Omaha.

Omaha Steaks, founded in 1917, is a family-run business that employs about 1,800 people. The company manufactures, markets and distributes a variety of premium red meats and gourmet foods which are custom cut and packaged. The business facilities include two manufacturing plants, a distribution center and a freezer warehouse. Together, the plants service national and international markets that encompass food service, mail order, incentive, telesales, retail stores, and licensed restaurants sales to specialty and food stores. Active mail order customers number about 1.5 million. Annual sales are in excess of several millions of dollars.

In 1990 Omaha Steaks was on the forefront of e-commerce because of their ability to offer customers the chance to connect to CompuServe and order via computer. Two years ago, with a Web site that began in 1995 and a dedicated site on America Online (key word: "steaks") to show, Omaha Steaks became part of the Microsoft Network. In 1999 a Japanese Web site was added, which compounded the company's high profile on the Web.

Internet Cookies and 100 Percent Java Served Here

Even with an early and successful presence on the Internet, Omaha Steaks' back-end operations weren't integrated, which made for a less than seamless supply chain. Specifically, orders were being taken off the Web site and then faxed to customer fulfillment for shipping. The result was a labor-intensive effort that slowed the effectiveness of inventory, warehousing and distribution. Jeff Carter, IT manager of Omaha Steaks, says management quickly realized the company needed a new and more efficient e-commerce system for the site. "We wanted to better service our customers using new Internet-based services with our existing order entry system," Carter says

The solution was provided by eOneGroup which, in close partnership with Omaha Steaks' IT staff, developed and deployed a fully integrated e-commerce Web site with eOne's jCommerce. jCommerce is a 100 percent database-driven engine that uses a 100 percent Java application that can be combined with the power of XML and XHTML technology. "We wanted 100 percent Java," says Carter adding, "This would allow us to stay with the same hardware platform, protect our investment and tie us to the back-end. We also wanted an application that could be implemented quickly and easily to work now."

Steve Romweber, vice president of channel development at eOneGroup, characterizes his company as one that specializes in real-time Internet access to many back-end processes and data structures. The jCommerce engine and associated modules are built on the open architecture of the Java platform in a three-tiered application framework, which separates the Web interface, business logic applications and back-end data structures. This modular arrangement permits an interface with raw data configurations and almost any existing application process such as IBM, SUN, LINUX and NT. Carter points out that many of the companies Omaha Steaks investigated were either not all Java or they were proprietary. "By far, jCommerce was the best business solution for us," he says and adds that when the companies entered their partnership they became "quickly joined at the hip."

A Quick Landing on the Perfect Platform

The first step in the process, finding a platform, was accomplished in one morning. "We had a kind of 'bake-off' and chose an AS-400 platform," Romweber says. "For eOne it showed us just how flexible we are." Omaha Steaks' Carter adds that the partnership developed an adaptable solution that proved to them jCommerce was indeed the best answer to real-time access to back-end systems. Order status and inventory can be controlled on the site "on a dime," and procurement benefits from the ability to track buying patterns as they exist in the moment. "Omaha Steaks has one of the best marketing operations I've ever seen," says Romweber." The best thing they do is to provide a real-time promotional vehicle. They can identify 10 emerging markets like nobody's business." Carter also points out that with jCommerce the company can now allocate inventory accurately and accordingly.

Another benefit for Omaha Steaks is that jCommerce provides real-time browser access to pricing, taxing, shipping and product information. Carter says jCommerce can be customized easily and "gives us the scalability to expand. No other application comes close to offering its functionality and flexibility."

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then Omaha Steaks' enablement by eOneGroups's jCommerce solution is a savory confirmation of success. Omaha Steaks has already increased sales to the extent that the system paid for itself within two months. The jCommerce solution has also provided cost savings by enabling a more seamless supply chain with a better integrated back-end process from sales to shipping, inventory and warehousing. "This success," concludes Romweber, "results from trust in the partnership, and developing a relationship with a very intelligent IT staff in which that mutual trust was almost pure." Clearly, the proof of the steak is also in the eating.

Marilyn Lester is a freelance writer based in New York.
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