Natural Selection

Apr 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

There are very few SQL Server/Windows applications in the catalog management software field. Natural Order from Indianapolis-based Natural Solutions is one of them, and one of the best. Written in Powerbuilder, this two-tier client/server solution offers a clean, professional interface that is thoughtfully laid out and easy to navigate.

Currently in use in over 15 direct commerce sites (including a large call center and fulfillment service bureau), the system is capable of handling up to 10,000 orders per day. Starting at $35,000 for a ten-user license, Natural Order is also reasonably priced.

A companion application, Natural Web, is a fully integrated e-commerce solution with Web pages assembled using user-configurable templates. Natural Web shares Natural Order’s customer, order, and inventory databases in real time, with full support for product sizes and colors (up to four size dimensions), quantity price breaks, personalization, check payments, and open account payments. Web customers can also maintain their own profile information, and the system can be used to create completely personalized catalogs for each customer.

Multi-function

Natural Order supports multiple companies, multiple business units, and multiple catalogs. Much of the system is table-driven or parameterized, with user-defined fields available for adding information to an already full roster of fields for defining and tracking customers, vendors, orders, SKUs, promotions, and catalogs.

You can have an unlimited number of ship-tos per order, and you can specify the ship-to by line item. However, you cannot apply source codes at the line-item level: There is only one source code for the order.

Natural Order handles business and consumer sales, with business titles, hierarchical company relationships, multiple contacts, multiple (unlimited) phone numbers, bid/proposal processing, open account billing, tax exemption numbers, and sales commissions.

For companies selling intellectual property or licensed products, there is a separate Royalty Management module.

Order management

Natural Order allows you to enter comprehensive notes for customers, line items, and orders, while providing customer communications tools for faxing or e-mailing, but there are no spell-checking functions, no search capabilities in the notes, and no “ticker/reminder” options.

Prompting is straight-line, not branched. Cross-sells and upsells are triggered only by the SKU number, not by customer information, date, source code, or other possible triggers. However, catalog code, customer type, customer purchase history, and product type do trigger product discounts. While you cannot set up multiple discounts in a hierarchy, you can let the system choose the largest discount among those that qualify.

The number of substitute items for a SKU that is out of stock is unlimited, and it is possible to suppress substitute recommendations if the substitute itself is backordered or out of stock — a very customer-friendly function. Natural Order handles kits quite well, including kits assembled to order.

Show me the money

If you have sales tax nexus in multiple states, there is unfortunately no default interface in Natural Order to third-party sales tax management systems such as Vertex or Taxware. These could be customized, however. The software supports Canadian sales taxes and non-U.S. addresses, but country code is not an intelligent field and there is no support for currencies other than U.S. dollars.

Natural Order breaks out shipping and handling as separate charges to permit taxation of shipping charges in those states that require it. Default credit card processing interfaces are available for Paymentech and First Data.

Fulfillment options

Future shipments can be specified as “must ship by” or “must arrive by.” Natural Order has flexible batching options for fulfillment, with support for consolidated cart picking, wave picking, zone picking, and pick-to-light flow racks. For manifesting there are standard interfaces for the Neopost, Kewill, UPS, Pitney Bowes, FedEx, and Airborne systems.

There is support for basic continuity shipments (both open-ended and closed-ended), but with limited sophistication for managing multiple-cycle shipments, suspensions, or billing options (slated for improvement in the next release in July 2002).

You can “force” a backorder for a large quantity on a single order, but you cannot globally cancel a backordered item if it turns out to be non-replenishable.

Inventory management

The system supports an unlimited number of warehouses. You can maintain an item in more than one bulk location and more than one primary location. Transfers within or among warehouses can be annotated with reason codes and logged in an audit trail. You can have an unlimited number of suppliers for each SKU, and the system will calculate economical reorder quantities.

For inventory receiving, Natural Order displays expected quantities for “exception” receiving, but does not allow you to suppress quantities for “blind” receiving. You can produce inventory report cards for each supplier based on delivery performance and merchandise quality.

Although you can track the serial numbers and lot numbers of items, there is no support for unit-of-measure conversions or for item number aliases (to accommodate misprints, for instance).

Cycle counts can be assigned by SKU and vendor on a scheduled or ad hoc basis. You can limit scheduled counts to a specified number of SKUs, and can decide whether to include items with a zero count. Expected quantities can be displayed or suppressed, and the system can print shelf tags along with count sheets. Counts that are voided will automatically be reassigned to the next cycle count session.

Natural Order does not capture lost demand on canceled line items, and there are no merchandise forecasting capabilities (these functions are also slated for July 2002).

There is an optional Return Material Authorization module for managing returns, and the returns process automatically updates all appropriate files. You have the option to refund all, part, or none of the original S/H fee.

Customer management

The customer database in Natural Order supports a multitude of demographic and purchase history fields, functions, and analyses, but you cannot use the system to extract names for mailings or promotions on an nth selection basis, nor is there any reporting on list rental activity.

While there is support for duplicate identification based on a match code constructed from customer last name and zip code, it is not as powerful as it should be. This seems to be the one system glitch that otherwise satisfied users of Natural Order complain about. Natural Solutions has placed this at the top of its priority list for enhancements to future versions of the system.

There is every indication that the company will rise to this challenge, for the same users give Natural Solutions extremely high marks for support and responsiveness to requests for changes and modifications. “It’s like having their team as our own IS department,” says one.

State-of-the-art reporting

Users are full of praise for the CyberQuery tool (from Cyber Science) that is available with Natural Order to handle SQL queries covering virtually all fields within Natural Order. Reports can also be extracted and sent as e-mail attachments. One user who has worked at some of the largest and/or best-known catalog companies in the industry says, “We would have killed to have this kind of user-friendly analytical power.”

Natural Solutions offers a reasonable amount of training on the system, and virtually every feature and function is well covered in over 2,000 pages of documentation.

All in all, this is a very impressive enterprise-level solution that should continue to grow, evolve, and compete aggressively for clients in the direct commerce field.

Ernie Schell is president of Marketing Applications Analysis, Inc. He can be reached by phone at (215) 396-0660, by fax at (215) 396-0696, and by e-mail at ernie@schell.com.

Natural Solutions

8003 Castleway Drive, Suite 200
Indianapolis, IN 46250
(317) 596-1215
Tyce McIntosh, President
www.naturalsol.com