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A Vision For The Enterprise
Specsavers Opticians, a small
set-up till a few years ago, is today the market leader in optics in the UK.
When a business grows as quickly as the
UK-based Specsavers Optical Group, it can be difficult for its information technology (IT)
department to keep up. In order to respond to information and processing needs in a timely
fashion, fast-growing businesses can slip into a ‘needs must,’ short-term approach to
systems development. That’s what had happened at Specsavers when Michel Khan joined the
company as IT director in the beginning of 1996. Khan walked into an IT department that
had point-of-sale systems from three different eras; a plethora of home-grown PC-based
systems that had been put together to work around different problems, and accounting,
merchandise and distribution systems in dire need of revamping. Today, all that has
changed. A new IT infrastructure, initiated in January 1997, features a transparent,
wide-area enterprise solution with new systems at the company’s headquarters in Guernsey
and at more than 330 remote stores. By standardizing core business applications-both
packaged and custom-on database technology and software development tools from Progress
Software, the IT department was able to transform the company’s systems in near record
Creating business practices
At first glance, Guernsey seems an unlikely home for a group of opticians
credited with introducing the concept of value-for-money eyewear allied with complete
professional eye care services. Located off the coast of Normandy, France, Guernsey is the
second largest Channel Island, with a population of 60000. Specsavers is the island’s
largest private sector employer, with 300 employees working at the company’s central
Founded in 1984 by the husband and wife
team of Doug and Mary Perkins, Specsavers Opticians opened its first two practices in St
Peter Port (Guernsey’s capital) and Bristol. It has grown to become the market leader in
UK optics. The number of stores has almost doubled in the last five years, and the company
recently opened its first two stores in the Netherlands, under the name of Optiprima
When Specsavers Opticians began, the
marketplace was dominated by independents. Unlike others in the field, Specsavers
flourished by creating new practices, rather than buying out existing businesses.
Opticians who wanted to set up their own practices were drawn to the company because of
its business model. Specsavers Opticians operates a joint-venture partnership, or hybrid
franchise, which enables opticians to become joint owners of their stores, while being
supported by strong branding, centralized marketing, accounting, purchasing and IT
In recent years, the value for money, complete price platform has been imitated,
and today the market is fiercely competitive. Specsavers Opticians now focus not only on
providing the right product at the right price, but also on providing the highest level of
The Guernsey office is home to the
company’s in-house creative department, where marketing materials, print advertising,
videos and TV commercials are produced. The IT team, which manages the central
infrastructure and telecom network of the stores, is also based in Guernsey. Another IT
team in Eastleigh, near Southampton, focuses on systems strategy and development.
The formation of a new IT strategy to
create an effective technical and applications infrastructure and strengthen the focus on
quality customer service in stores began in January 1996. Khan recalls, “When I
arrived, there were a number of on-going projects to be completed that would deliver
short-term benefits. At the same time, I also had to establish the underlying long-term
strategy. We have done that and are now delivering that strategy to the rest of the
Khan’s first order of business when he
joined Specsavers was to determine the priorities for in-store systems-should they have
better sales data capture and performance information, or establish a local customer
database? “Quite clearly you can not do everything at once,” Khan notes, I took
the decision that we should go for customer records, and installed PCs in each of the
stores to collect customer information. The application was written in ‘C’ as a stop gap
measure. That gave us a powerful direct marketing capability and the beginnings of a
datawarehouse. While that was being implemented, we set about looking at the business
requirements and the IT infrastructure.
“Our strategy is to buy or build a
comprehensive set of applications on which we can take the business forward as it changes
and grows,” he continues, “and to enable Specsavers to maintain and improve its
competitive advantage. This was one reason why we chose Progress. It provides us with
scalable and portable applications, a robust, resilient database and a highly productive
application development environment.”
Tight integration between the stores and group headquarters is a key objective.
It has been achieved by standardizing on a Unix operating system and TCP/IP-compliant
networks for the central office, the link to over 330 stores, and within the stores
themselves. Specsavers also selected the Sun Solaris implementation of Unix for maximum
cost-effectiveness. According to Khan, “We chose Solaris because it’s the only Unix
operating system that has consistency across large-scale and Intel-based servers. The
servers in the stores are Intel. At the central office, we have large multi-processor Sun
servers, so we have achieved consistency of operating system regardless of the platform.
Progress fits well because it provides complete flexibility across the application
The optical business is highly specialized,
and Specsavers’ experience is that standard application packages are not available to fit
all of the operational needs of the business. “From the outset we knew we would need
to develop our own software, and we evaluated a number of tool vendors before deciding to
standardize on Progress last year,” Khan says.
In addition to close integration between
the tools and the database and Progress’ ‘develop once, deploy many times capability,’
Specsavers was also attracted to some other Progress features. For example, Smart Objects,
reusable business components that developers can quickly and easily fabricate and assemble
into fully-functional applications, have helped speed up in-house application development.
"We identified early on during the evaluation process that Smart Objects would reduce
development time, and they have. We have used the technology on a large scale here,"
says Khan, "Progress’ Roundtable software configuration tool has also proved useful
for managing team development and version control, which is especially important with such
a highly distributed network."
A team of eight developers was trained in
Progress. In a nine-month period, they rewrote the in-store customer records system in
Progress and delivered the pilot system. The stores feed the central database at
headquarters, which at the last count contained some 8.1 million customers. New sales
reporting and replenishment systems have also been written, so item-level transaction data
can be collected from the stores and added to the datawarehouse. The mix of three
different electronic point of sale systems has also been achieved. These systems are
linked to the in-store Unix server, which acts as a gateway for managing the two-way
traffic over the TCP/IP connection to the central office.
"In the last six months our direct
mailing capability has improved dramatically," says Khan, adding that pieces are now
more targeted and relevant. "One of our primary functions is to remind customers that
their next eye examination is due. We have moved up from sending out a fairly general
letter to one that is very specific to the individual’s age profile and specific product
usage, such as contact lenses and/or glasses. The new systems tell us precisely what each
individual has purchased, which in turn enables us to target future promotions to the
customers who are most likely to be interested."
The datawarehouse, which is based on the
Progress RDBMS is expected to grow to about 20GB, not including sales histories. The
central datawarehouse will be used as the source of management reporting. There will only
be one version of the information accessible to all, says Khan, who is using replication
techniques across the network to keep all the databases concurrent.
Gaining competitive edge
Since installing Progress, Specsavers has written several core business
applications that can deliver competitive advantage. At the central office, packaged
applications supplied by Progress Software application partners have replaced the myriad
PC applications for accounting, helpdesk, payroll and personnel systems. For example, the
company selected OpenAccounts, from Open Accounts Ltd, to handle its complex accounting
requirements. More by accident than design, the helpdesk system that best matched
Specsavers WAN requirement, Psylvestris from Glasgow-based Walker Martyn Software, is
written in Progress. And KCS, another Progress partner, was selected for the
payroll/personnel management system. Specsavers has also decided to standardize on
Actuate, the enterprise reporting system that is bundled with the latest version of
The goals that drive specsavers
enterprise-wide computing strategy are customer service, and better and more accessible
management information everywhere-absolute essentials for gaining competitive advantage.
Khan says his next major project is to replace the distribution system for eyeglass frames
with a more sophisticated merchandising environment that can adjust individual store
profiles in response to sales patterns.
"Progress has played a significant
role in what we have achieved and will continue to do so," says Khan. We can press
ahead with new developments knowing that whatever technological changes cause computing
models to shift-such as the impending impact of intranets and the internet-our Progress
applications and developments will not become outdated.