1996 Apr 02

Avexxis CatMan
David M. Raab
DM News
April, 1996

Maybe Darwin had it wrong.

Certainly the fittest technology has not always triumphed in the computer industry. The Pick operating system is a classic example: much loved by users for its powerful built-in database, integrated multi-user capabilities and ease of administration, Pick never gained the wide support needed to compete against Microsoft DOS/Windows, Unix or even IBM’s OS/400 (which it somewhat resembles).

But, before being trampled by the giants, Pick did establish a strong presence in niche markets including distribution systems (that is, order processing and inventory) for firms that were too big for a single-user PC but couldn’t afford an in-house mainframe or large minicomputer. A number of Pick distribution systems were adapted for mail order marketing.

Today the Pick operating system is dead. But in an evolutionary feat that would make Darwin proud, the Pick database has become a separate application that runs on the Unix operating system. Many Pick software packages now survive in this environment.

CatMan (Avexxis, 860-676-9006) is such a system. The packages traces its roots to a Pick-based distribution package developed in 1986 and since ported to uniVerse, a Pick-like database that runs on Unix and Microsoft NT platforms. CatMan grew out of direct marketing customizations that Avexxis developed in 1995 while installing its system at Vermont Teddy Bear. The system has since been installed at a second direct marketer and continues to add direct marketing-oriented features.

Because CatMan is based on an existing distribution system, its features are unusually rich for a newly released product. Order entry screens provide automatic lookup of customers based on phonetic name match and Zip code, can search for inventory items based on descriptive key words, and can show alternatives to backordered items. The system can show on-hand, on-order and committed quanitities for inventory items and is being modified to calculate when a back-ordered item will be available to ship. For in-stock items, it can provide an estimated delivery date taking into account holidays and the selected shipment method.

Warnings, cross sells, upsells, technical information and other messages can display automatically when an item is selected and the messages can vary depending on the skill level of the operator. When an item is selected from an upsell prompt, the system will record it as an upsell and can give the salesperson a special commission. The system supports multi-item kits, either preassembled or built from components. It allows substitutions, exclusions and additions to kits and can check for compatibility among the selected components. Prices can be based on cost, trade or list prices and can vary by promotion or customer.

Inventory and warehouse management are equally sophisticated. The system can produce multiple outputs–such as a picking ticket and gift card–for the same order, can exchange data with manifesting systems, can batch orders by different shipping methods, and allows multiple companies to share the same inventory. Items can be sourced from multiple vendors and can be assigned any number of internal, manufacturer and customer ID codes. The system automatically posts receipts against purchase orders and will indicate how many items in a newly received shipment are required to fill existing backorders.

The new direct marketing features are less mature, though still adequate. Users can define queries against any data element in the system, can name and reuse standard queries, can maintain a list of all promotions received by each customer, and can merge duplicate records without losing any associated purchase histories. Gift recipients are stored as customers, not just shipping addresses, which simplifies recipient mailings and helps to transfer data when a recipient places an order on her own. The system supports Nth and random selections from a list, although it cannot select multiple segments in a single pass. Custom programming is usually required for complex selections such as customers with a certain number of transactions in a defined time period or customers in the top 20% of the file. The system can forecast the flow of promotion responses based on past history, working either product-by-product or for the promotion as a whole.

Reporting includes a variety of standard reports, including catalog-specific reports such as square inch and keycode analysis. Users can create columnar reports with groupings, subtotals and calculations, although more complex reports such as cross tabs are typically done through custom programming by the vendor. The uniVerse database can also be accessed through third-party reporting tools based on Structured Query Language (SQL).

Although the base version of CatMan is impressive, Avexxis actually sees the system’s main strength as its openness to customization. Work is done through Avexxis’ own application generator, which makes it possible to maintain a consistent user interface and to modify small segments of the system without introducing unexpected changes elsewhere. The system also generates its own documentation and makes it easy to compare new releases with customized versions to identify potential conflicts. The uniVerse database itself helps considerably, particularly because of its Pick-inherited ability to store more than one entry (e.g., any number of promotion IDs) in a single field. Standard relational databases would typically require a separate table to store multiple values, which makes the systems considerable more complex to create and maintain.

The system’s Pick heritage also shows in its character-based user interface, which is perfectly functional though not very exciting compared with the latest graphical software. All processing is done on the central server, allowing workstations to be inexpensive “dumb” terminals or any type of Mac or IBM-compatible PC running terminal emulation software. Pricing for the system is competitive with other midrange catalog products, starting at $20,000 for the base software plus about $1,600 per user once the database and terminal emulation software are included. Installation and customization add about $15,000. Support is optional and starts at $320 per month.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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