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COMPUTING

Headed for a holiday shopping spree? Online?

November 27, 1998
Web posted at: 4:28 p.m. EST (2128 GMT)

by Loretta W. Prencipe

From...

(IDG) -- As millions of shoppers work off their Thanksgiving excesses at malls across the country this Friday, Bill Ayers and Ellis Admire will be hard at work in their offices preparing for an onslaught of phone calls on Monday.

Known in the retail industry as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season, when merchants' profits move out of the red and into the black. But the big day for direct merchants comes Monday, Nov. 30, when people swear off jammed parking lots and endless lines and shop from the comfort of their homes.

A technical specialist for Lands' End in Dodgeville, Wis., Ayers is gearing up for the catalog retailer's busiest day of the year. He expects a mind-numbing 100,000 calls to flood the company's phone lines, a huge jump from the average call volume of 40,000 per day. During November and December 1997 alone, Lands' End service representatives answered four million calls. "We do 40% of our entire business during the fourth quarter," Ayers says.

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Packing the bulk of your bottom line into three short months means one thing - no upgrades or new installations come October. "We must minimize risk and downtime during the holiday season," says Admire, director of MIS operations at Lillian Vernon's national distribution center in Virginia Beach, Va.

The catalog retailer sends out 50,000 packages per day during peak shopping season. A system outage could cause a monumental loss of revenue.

Ayers and Admire rely on mainframes for customer service, order entry and shipping applications. "Mainframes are pretty bulletproof and are easier to support than a lot of PCs," Ayers says. In fact, systems problems haven't brought down preholiday catalog operations in Ayers' 14 years with the company.

Reliability isn't the only thing mainframes have going for them. Lands' End's order-entry system is blazingly fast, consistently providing subsecond response time. Customer representatives use dumb terminals connected to the mainframe via a token ring network.

"We try to keep the orders flowing," Ayers says. "If service representatives are sitting and waiting for the screens to refresh, conversations drag and that drives up costs."

At Lillian Vernon, service representatives enter nearly six million orders per year into an AS/400 midrange system. After the system authorizes credit card transactions and corrects errors, it passes the order along to a mainframe that handles customer service, shipping and billing.

Mainframe applications process the order and determine box sizes and shipping methods. The applications also assign tracking numbers to each package - a must when 290,000 orders are processed during the peak holiday week, Admire says.

Arriving at Thanksgiving with the network ready to go doesn't happen overnight - it's a year-long process. Ayers spends the first half of the year reviewing the previous holiday season's call and sales figures and planning for the next one. Order volumes are low during the second quarter, so that's when the five-person IS group performs the bulk of upgrades and rollouts.

As the summer comes around, Lands' End kicks off its annual training program for 2,600 employees hired for the holidays. All training is completed by October. Come Labor Day, Ayers' technical services group begins to connect extra dumb terminals to accommodate the temporary help.

During the high season, Lillian Vernon is home to 4,700 employees. The influx of seasonal hires means Admire spends a typical day answering production-related questions from system users who are new to their jobs.

"On a bad day, we'll have several production problems," Admire says. The usual culprits are user error: jobs run out of sequence, hardware failures and software problems. "MIS will work long hours to resolve these problems because our users and customers expect the system to be up as close to 24 hours a day as possible," he says.

Ayers adds another problem to Admire's list - the failure of an IBM 3174 control unit that connects dumb terminals to the mainframe. "If we lose one unit, it takes 32 to 63 people off the phones." Someone on his team is always on call and reacts immediately.

Santa wouldn't have it any other way.

Prencipe is a freelance writer and attorney in Springfield, Va. She can be reached at LWPrencipe@mailexcite.com .

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