Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sigma Micro 4.1 Includes eCommerce Module, SaaS Option

Sigma Micro announced today the availability of SigmaCommerce 4.1, which includes a tool for building and managing dynamic Web stores coupling full eCommerce integration and back-office functionality.

Effective with this release, Sigma Micro also adds on-demand availability plus Website hosting services to its SigmaCommerce solutions platform for multi-channel direct retailers.

The architecture of SigmaCommerce 4.1 reinforces Sigma Micro's strategic commitment to mid-market direct retailers. The 26-year-old company launched SigmaCommerce in 2007 as the flagship product to deliver a comprehensive solution that centrally manages the complexities of the direct-to-consumer business.

"Direct retailers have to balance channel growth with profitability, and eCommerce represents a real business opportunity for multi-channel merchants who have yet to integrate this disparate channel into their core business." said Matt Konkle, President of Sigma Micro. "SigmaCommerce 4.1 brings an unprecedented solution that unites full back-office functionality with advanced eCommerce, call center and marketing capabilities."

The eStore Manager module enables users to build and manage dynamic Web stores within the SigmaCommerce application. The new release provides a set of site authoring tools for eCommerce management while keeping product and content management simple.

Features of the eStore Manager include:

• Real-time integration with product information and customer data in a single database
• Drag-and-drop capabilities for building, maintaining and optimizing Websites
• Dynamic control over Website content and offerings
• Ease-of-use with over 70 ecommerce controls and a preeminent CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) Editor
• 50 built-in page templates or user-created templates
• Search Engine Optimization and advanced analytics

SigmaCommerce is built entirely on the Microsoft® .Net Framework 3.0 and is available as a Web-based application. Along with its Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery model, Sigma Micro provides full hosting for Web stores built within the application.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Microsoft to Test New Web Ad Measure

Microsoft said Monday it would test a new way to measure the effectiveness of Internet advertising in a beta program that is due to begin on March 1.

Microsoft's "Engagement Mapping" departs from an industry standard that ties sales, leads and traffic to the last ad that a user clicked on online. Instead, it attempts to take into account all the Internet interactions that lead a consumer to buy a product. This is presumably based at least in part on Microsoft's purchase last year of aQuantive.

Microsoft advertising clients and partner agencies such as Citi Cards and Initiative Media have signed on for the program.

In related news, fresh numbers from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is holding its annual meeting this week: The U.S. online ad market hit a record $21.1 billion last year, a 25% increase over 2006.

But that year-on-year growth is a decline from 2005-2006, when Internet ads jumped 35%. 2007 Q4 results show a similar pattern: They're up 24% y/y from 2006, to $5.9 billion. But that's a slower increase than the previous year, when they grew 33% y/y.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sigma Micro, Stark Bros. Offer Complete Business Solution for Direct Retailers

Sigma Micro and Stark Bro's Fulfillment Services® have announced an expanded relationship under the ownership of Sigma Holdings, Inc.

Al Langsenkamp, CEO of Sigma Holdings, Inc. added Stark Bro's to the Sigma Holdings group of companies for its strategic focus on the direct retail segment. Langsenkamp previously held a limited financial interest in the business.

"For over 16 years, we've relied on Sigma Micro's order management solution to run our business, and it has enabled us to provide completely outsourced fulfillment and call center services to our customers," remarked Jack Alexander, President of Stark Bro's. "Under this business arrangement, we will continue to make significant investments in our facilities, processes and people."

Stark Bro's customers will benefit from the investments that Sigma Micro has made in the last few years in SigmaCommerce, its next-generation software, noted Alexander. "Their order management solution means we can deliver even better service, enhanced web marketing, and improved access to management information. Ultimately, our customers will be equipped to make fast decisions based on timely information."

Under Sigma Holdings, Stark Bro's has already begun significant enhancements to several areas of the business which will enable the company to continue its double-digit growth. This includes the purchase of a second distribution facility of 315,000 sq ft to its capacity. The new facility is located adjacent to its headquarters in Louisiana, Mo. Stark Bro's has also implemented enhancements to business processes, services offerings, and growth in personnel.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Sessions at NCOF

I will be doing three sessions at the 2008 National Conference on Operations & Fulfillment (NCOF) in Orlando, April 7 - 10, at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center.

The first is a Preconference session on Strategic Systems Management and Selection, on Monday, April 7, from 9:00 AM to 12:15 PM.

On Tuesday afternoon, April 8, 1:45 - 3:00 PM, I will be speaking on Multichannel Systems Integration Strategies.

And on Wed., April 9, I host an open Roundtable on Systems Selection and Implementation from 7;30 to 8:30 AM.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and Penton Media’s Multichannel Merchant® magazine are the co-sponsors of the event. Click here for further information.

Sharper Image, Lillian Vernon File for Bankruptcy

As noted, we don't normally cover the status of merchant companies, but since we did a piece on Lillian Vernon the other day, this follow-up is in order.

Sharper Image Corp. and Lillian Vernon Corp. both filed for bankruptcy protection as they struggled with declining sales.

Sharper Image will shed 90 of its 184 stores as it deals with a "severe liquidity crisis," Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Roedell said in bankruptcy papers filed yesterday. Closely held Lillian Vernon said it plans to sell assets after revenue trailed its forecasts and costs rose.

Sharper Image blamed its plummeting stock price on a judge's rejection of a $22 million settlement over its Ionic purifiers last year. As analysts began to speculate how much the company might owe plaintiffs, its support from trade vendors and suppliers weakened.

Lillian Vernon, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said it hired Gruppo Levey to look into a sale. The company is seeking bankruptcy protection because of lower-than-expected revenue, increased costs and a lack of funding.

The catalog retailer listed assets and debt of $1 million to $100 million in documents filed today in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington. The company said it has 5,001 to 10,000 creditors.

Lillian Vernon's parent, Sun Capital Partners, is a private investment firm that specializes in leveraged buyouts. It didn't file for bankruptcy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

David Shepard Assocs. To Rep Alterian

Database firm Alterian has inked a deal with David Shepard Associates (DSA), a direct marketing and database consulting firm for DSA to offer Alterian's analysis, campaign planning, multi-channel execution, reporting and marketing operations capabilities for on-premises installation into marketers' offices.

DSA consultants will assist in the construction of the database at the end-user's site, and will provide on-going technical support, as well providing marketing program and marketing analytics support, as needed.

This platform gives the marketer an integrated set of applications built on top of a single data architecture and accessed through a single user interface or marketing portal. (Every application of the Alterian Marketing Services Platform shares data, business rules and assets across applications.)

The Alterian Marketing Services Platform consists of the following applications:

* Marketing Data Infrastructure & Management
* Data Mining: Visualization, Analysis & Modeling
* Campaign Planning and Design
* Campaign Optimization
* Multi Channel Execution
* Reporting and Accountability
* Marketing Operations

Monday, February 18, 2008

Amazon Web Services Outage Causes Concern

As reported in the New York Times:

A few days after the BlackBerry e-mail system’s latest downtime, Amazon is giving companies another reason to worry about outsourcing company-critical functions.

Amazon’s S3 service, which offers cheap, accessible Web storage for hundreds of thousands of companies, went down this morning at around 7:30 a.m. Eastern time and is only now slowly creeping back up, delivering high error rates, according to various bloggers and posters on Web forums.

S3, one of Amazon’s stable of Web services, lets businesses store their data “in the cloud,” avoiding the need to operate their own servers. It is part of the same online infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own business. Over 330,000 developers have registered to use Amazon Web Services, up more than 30,000 from last quarter, according to Amazon’s recent quarterly earnings announcement.

An Amazon spokesman said: “We’ve resolved this issue and performance is returning to normal levels for all Amazon Web Services that were impacted. We understand the critical importance of our services to our customers, which is why operational excellence is our highest priority.”

The technical problems affected a host of startups that use S3, such as the messaging service Twitter. The New York Times also uses S3 to store and deliver articles from its historical archives, parts of which were unavailable this morning.

On Amazon’s Web developer forum, the natives are restless. “My business is effectively closed right now because Amazon did something wrong. I’ll have to reconsider using the service now,” wrote one poster at around 9 a.m. Eastern time this morning.

Will all of this hurt Amazon? This is the first significant problem for S3, so if they fix the problem quickly and communicate clearly to customers, probably not. But if it proves to be a continuing problem — like the now biannual BlackBerry blackouts — expect nervous tech folks to at the very least begin considering backup systems.

UPDATE: Here’s another statement from an Amazon spokeman:

“For one of our services, the Amazon Simple Storage Service, one of our three geographic locations was unreachable for approximately two hours and was back to operating at over 99% of normal performance before 7 a.m. pacific standard time. We’ve been operating this service for two years and we’re proud of our uptime track record. Any amount of downtime is unacceptable and we won’t be satisfied until it’s perfect. We’ve been communicating with our customers all morning via our support forums and will be providing additional information as soon as we have it.”

Lillian Vernon Cuts Staff, Seeks Buyer

We don't normally follow the ups and downs of merchant companies on this blog, but Lillian Vernon is such a classic company in this business (and a class act in general) that this deserves a mention.

According to MultiChannel Merchant magazine:
Feb 15, 2008 3:25 PM , By Jim Tierney

Things have gone from bad to worse for Lillian Vernon. Two months after it cut 25% of its staff, the struggling gifts and housewares cataloger on Feb. 15 laid off about half of its full-time staff, or nearly 200 employees.

The situation is so dire that Lillian Vernon is actively seeking a new owner, says CEO Michael D. Muoio.

The Virginia Beach, VA-based merchant has in fact hired New York-based investment bank Gruppo, Levey & Co. to explore strategic alternatives for Lillian Vernon. "We’re looking at all alternatives in terms of sale of the company," Muoio says.

Citing devastating increases in postal and parcel rates, coupled with a paper price hikes and a decrease in value of the U.S. dollar, Muoio says the company was left with no alternative than to find a new owner.

And finding a new owner is a top priority. "We’re moving as fast as we possibly can," Muoio says. "Eighty people have been contacted as potential buyers."

Lillian Vernon has been privately held since Direct Holdings purchased it in 2003. It was sold again to Sun Capital Partners in 2006 and later that year moved operations from White Plains, NY, to Virginia Beach, VA.

Muoio says there is a possibility the company would move after a new owner is found. "We may stay here or we may relocate," he says. "We can’t handle the infrastructure here. It’s too big." The mailer currently has a one million-sq. ft. facility.

In the past year, Muoio says the company reduced its EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) loss from $22.1 million to $3.9 million, but the cost of rent, utilities, and maintenance accounted for $4.6 million.

"We actually made money on an EBITDA basis," he says, "but we got whacked in the head with the postal, freight, and paper cost increases. And we started to shrink the business."

As of June 30, 2007, the company had 564 employees; 374 employees as of Dec. 31, 2007; and it now has 177 employees. Worse yet, Muoio says that more layoffs are possible. "That’s in the cards because we don’t know the future of the company."

He remains confident about Lillian Vernon’s outlook, however: "It’ll all be Lillian Vernon again." And he’s proud of the fact that "we managed to get this thing to profitability inside of 12 months."

Nonetheless, "It’s a sad day here at Lillian Vernon," Muoio says. "But we’re continuing to operate and are working very hard to find a partner. Something is going to happen. I’m very confident of that. It’s too good of a company to have it stop shipping. We haven’t finished our work here."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Avexxis Announces New Platform

Avexxis Corporation, Avon, CT, has announced a sweeping change to the company’s multi-channel order management and fulfillment software offerings, leveraging its 13 years of experience in the multichannel space, and implementing a variety of new products and services.

The company’s website at www.avexxis.com outlines three specific focus points of the company’s new suite of offerings:

1. Web store – Avexxis continues to interface with existing Web stores, but is now bringing a new eCommerce approach to market with a fully integrated Web solution. An ASP.NET Web store is tightly integrated with the Avexxis Commerce Server, the same server used to operate the company’s order management and retail functions. Extending this environment as the data repository and business rules processor for the web store eliminates the need for multiple databases, multiple points of entry and maintenance of information, as well as the need to reprogram business rules in multiple environments.

Additionally, full DIY customer service functions can be made available to end customers, which substantially eliminates costs in customer service and call center environments.

2. Products – Avexxis has formalized its Avexxis Professional offering, which is an "off the shelf" solution for the standard multi-channel marketer. This fully functional, "aggressively priced" package has a full suite of features, including integrated accounting.

The company’s Avexxis Enterprise package begins with Avexxis Professional as a foundation then extends the environment by deploying Adaptive Object Technology within the Avexxis Commerce Server. This yields a fully upgradable and supportable customized solution, which has been exercised for over 10 years with major companies such as Macy’s and Vermont Teddy Bear. Says Avexxis, "This core strength, coupled with the diverse call center and operations experience of Avexxis principal John Fink, provides the ability to deliver a system that fits a customer’s needs -- supportably, affordably, and fully able to be upgraded."

3. Infrastructure – Avexxis has expanded infrastructure options by not only supporting the traditional offerings of in-house customer servers, or SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), but is also providing the best of both worlds with its Avexxis Managed Server (AMS) offering. While the AMS does reside at the client’s site, the minimal administration required for an Avexxis system is performed remotely by Avexxis. AMS delivers the cost advantage of an in-house licensed solution, and the convenience of SaaS without the overhead of IT staff.

Leigh Kendall, the newest principal of Avexxis, and an experienced .NET developer, says, "The ability to readily extend Avexxis’s established product offerings into these new infrastructure and product directions was a key factor in my decision to join the company. The flexibility, performance, and ease of development that we have been able to achieve is remarkable, and all on a single platform (the Avexxis Commerce Server)."

Addressing Data Security

According to 1to1Media: Gerhard Lindenmayer recently decided that the time had come to completely overhaul his company's data security process.

The growing number of customer data breaches made it clear to Lindenmayer, CIO of telemarketer DialAmerica, that he needed to establish a better method of protecting his clients' data — especially in the case of sharing information with third parties. "Until five years ago we didn't even have any security on the doors," Lindenmayer says. "But we've gone through some awakening years and now we've turned it around completely."

DialAmerica isn't alone in facing this growing threat. More than ever customers' personal and private data is being shared between organizations.... Prat Moghe, chief technology officer and founder of Tizor, a provider of data protection solutions, says one of the biggest challenges for these enterprises is that they have suddenly been forced by law to share customer data with partners and aren't prepared internally. Such circumstances have placed them at risk for breaches. "They don't know how much data they have or where it is," Moghe says. "We have companies that have said, 'We have social security numbers, but we don't know where they are; we don't know where the data is sitting, let alone who is accessing it, or when it's being accessed.'"

For the entire article, see 1to1Media.

In related news, The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has released a fully automated process for members to employ to assess their level of information security against industry self-regulatory guidelines as well as current government regulations. DMA partnered with Solutionary, Inc., a security services organization in Omaha, NE, to customize SecurCompass®, which is Solutionary’s security and compliance assessment tool.

Solutionary has designed DMA SecurCompass specifically to help association members measure their compliance against DMA’s Information Security ethics guidelines. The new DMA members-only assessment tool consists of 42 questions that mirror the checklist of information security procedures that DMA developed in cooperation with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2004.

New SOA Platform and Language from MS

From eWeek: Microsoft, which in October officially announced its intent to support model-driven development in a broad strategy known as "Oslo," is beginning work on a new declarative programming language called "D," a supporting editing tool and other components of the initiative, according to sources close to the company.

Microsoft announced Oslo as part of an amorphous vision for simplifying application development, design, management and deployment. Company officials said Oslo will represent a core set of technology investments that will encompass both a services infrastructure — spanning server, client and the Internet "cloud" — and an executable modeling platform that will include a general-purpose modeling language, tools and repository....

In a talk at the Lang.NET conference on the Microsoft campus on Jan. 30, Don Box, an architect in Microsoft’s Connected Systems Division, said that Microsoft engineers "care deeply about having natural ways to write things down in a text file that are not only natural to write, but more importantly, natural to read."

The Connected Systems Division is working on D and Intellipad, sources said. However, other groups within Microsoft, including the Developer Division, are working on different components of the Oslo strategy.

For more on the new Services-Oriented platform and declarative programming language, see eWeek.

New DMA E-Mail Initiatives

The Email Experience Council (EEC), the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) e-mail marketing arm, has announced it is taking over guardianship of the Email Measurement Accuracy Coalition (EMAC), which has been working to establish e-mail marketing measurement standards. Formed in April 2007 at the behest of concerned industry leaders, the group has been overseen by David Daniels, vice president and research director of JupiterResearch and EMAC executive director.

Said Daniels, "We’ve accomplished our main mission, which was to standardize the definition of e-mail delivery metrics. But there’s plenty of work yet to be done, and it makes the most sense for that work to continue under the EEC umbrella."

The EEC has also announced the launch of a new roundtable called the Digital Lifestyle (DLS) Roundtable. The DLS Roundtable will focus on breaking down channel-specific silos for digital channels such as e-mail, and enabling collaboration in message design that supports a consumer’s digital lifestyle.

Jeanniey Mullen, EEC founder, will lead this initiative. "The DLS is the next step in our efforts to reinvent and demonstrate the impact of e-mail," Mullen commented. "It is a testament to the manner in which e-mail has become ingrained into the consumer’s digital lifestyle. It’s the next stage of e-mail marketing as it integrates with mobile, blogs, social networks, RSS, and digital publishing platforms. It increases the sense of community, connections, and convenience."

Mullen made the announcement today during the EEC’s inaugural Email Evolution Conference, which is being held at the Sheraton Hotel & Marina in San Diego this week.
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