A Tailor-Made Technology Environment

In the clothing business, selling a suit that doesn't fit a customer makes little sense, even if it's highly profitable. The same can be said for retail e-commerce strategies: There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all Web site.

Casual Male, with more than 533 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico, dominates the "big and tall men" apparel niche, which it identifies as a $6 billion market.

Casual Male is also trying to dominate the technology efforts of clothing retailers, which is sort of like trying to be the highest-flying ostrich. As a group, clothing retailers tend to use technology sparingly, in keeping with the hand-stitching reputation that tailors have long cultivated.

In the offline/online balance, Casual Male is using the Web to push the deep selection possible in a virtual environment, while using the physical stores to stress customer service and a relaxing environment, but a discretely technologically advanced one.

In the stores, for example, POS (point of sale) software is moving to a Microsoft Corp. .Net architecture and sales reps are being armed with PDAs that will tap into CRM (customer relationship management) data via a wireless LAN.

Reps will casually ask for the customer's name or a card number and will then politely excuse themselves for a moment, while they dash in the backroom to read the PDA's display about that customer's history. Casual Male Chief Operating Officer Dennis Hernreich says his only interest in RFID is using it to plant a chip on a membership card.

The objective? As customers walk into the store, their card's chip is dictated and the reps are silently beamed that customer's sales history. This way, the sales rep can walk up to the customer, greet him by name and already know his preferences and history. No discreet run to the backroom needed.

COO Hernreich, who also serves as the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer, doesn't see the need for a lot of advanced functionality on the company's Web site, beyond being able to redeem coupons.

Asked about virtual fitting rooms and other clothing Web site features that try to replicate the physical world environment, Hernreich said that when men are shopping for clothes, they don't want to feel the fabric or try on countless pants.

"Men don't want to touch jeans," Hernreich said. "Our shopper doesn't really care about touching their clothing. That's not what a male does."

Casual Male CIO Jack McKinney has just completed a $15 million "major systems overhaul," converting from a full legacy environment to a much complicated assortment, including Manhattan Associates' Warehouse Management, several retail-specific modules from JDA Software and CRM support from some NSB Group software. "That's really addressed a lot of our supply chain issues," McKinney said.

One of McKinney's chief goals is to allow customers to move effortlessly through any of the chain's three channels?Web, physical store and catalog. "We see the multichannel shoppers and would like to make everything more seamless," McKinney said. "We want to move to an across-the-board loyalty environment, with customized service for our guests as they come in."

Those wireless LAN-connected PDAs are a crucial part of the puzzle.

Given the tiny amount of time reps will have to review the information the PDAs gather, McKinney wanted to make sure the data was severely triaged.

"Customer service is such a big issue for our particular customer segment," he said. Therefore, once the rep has the customer, "we don't want them to have to scroll through lots of screens. Once they've identified [the customer], they'll have just a few key screens to look at."

The company hasn't settled on a PDA vendor yet, but McKinney said a large part of the audition will be "coming up with the design of the application."

To make it easy, McKinney said Casual Male wants to start the PDA project slowly.

"In the initial implementation, it will not be a transaction terminal," he said, adding that this will temporarily sidestep the security and privacy issues of credit-card data being transmitted through the store and saved onto an easy-to-steal PDA.

The PDAs will also initially be one-way: Data will come into the PDA, but the PDA will not wirelessly update the server with new info. That will be done?at least initially?the old-fashioned way.

Casual Male's customers today are overwhelmingly (95 percent) not buying their products from the Casual Male Web site, and the company doesn't anticipate that to change, Hernreich said. But he does want the 5 percent number to grow substantially, with a target of a tripling to 15 percent.