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Omaha Steaks is an experienced mail-order firm that sold premium meats for years before the Internet existed. The company wasn't slow in recognizing the new medium's potential, and started advertising on AOL in the early '90s. Its Website went live several years ago. During 2000, about 10 percent of Omaha Steaks's annual revenues came from Internet sales, up from about 3 percent in 1999.
The growth of the company's online business created opportunities, but also problems. Although it cost less to take an order over the Internet than it did through its call center, Omaha Steaks found it couldn't provide the same level of service to its Internet customers.
Take delivery dates, for example. Much of Omaha Steaks's revenue comes from its gift business. Customers purchase meats to give as gifts, especially business gifts. Business peaks around the holidays and delivery times are critical. Customer service representatives at Omaha Steaks's call center could access the company's AS/400 minicomputers and tell a customer when an order would arrive, but there was no way to get a delivery date online. The Website, which was run by an ISP in another city, wasn't integrated into the business information system the way the call center was.
"When I'm ordering, I want delivery before Christmas, say," said Dan Watson, CEO of the eOne Group (the Omaha, Neb., company that provided the middleware). "At the call center, the representative could say, 'Yes, based on the workload, it can be delivered by Dec. 23.' On the Website, they couldn't guarantee anything."
That was particularly important because shifting customers to the Website from the call center would result in significant savings. According to a recent survey, it costs about to handle a customer inquiry through a customer service representative in a call center, but only a little more than to handle the same inquiry through a Website.
The obvious solution was to integrate business information into the Website so customers could get information on delivery dates and track orders, and do other important jobs, online. However, that was easier said than done because the data was in legacy applications on the AS/400. The fashionable, and expensive, solution would have been to move the entire business to a tightly integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) package, such as SAP. But implementing ERP is not only expensive, it can take 2 years or more.
Besides, Omaha Steaks didn't want to recast its entire business in the ERP mold. It simply wanted to give online customers the same information and services that the call center provided. A more cost-effective solution would have been to let the applications on the Web server exchange information with those on the legacy systems.
The ultimate answer was to bring the Website in-house and integrate it with the AS/400 applications. The tools for the job were Linux, XML, and Java. An inexpensive Linux Web server and a suite of XML-based Java applications based on EJBs were created to mediate between the legacy systems and the Web server.