ONE OF THE PERENNIAL CHALLENGES that catalog order management systems must face is how best to accommodate the dozens of parameters that each company requires to optimize its operations. These can range from the types of discounts offered to the interfaces required to manage transaction processing.
Some of these requirements are easily met. Types of discounts, for instance, might be identified by user-definable labels. But defining and managing how these discounts interact with each other is another story. If a customer qualifies for multiple discounts, which ones take priority?
Some software vendors customize an application for each user to meet such requirements. Not only is this expensive, but it is risky, and it is often counterproductive as well. It saddles the user with code unique to this implementation that may preclude the benefit of future upgrades, is probably buggy, and is difficult to support.
Another approach is to rely on system “switches” that predefine many of the fundamental operations of a system as part of its initial set-up. While this tends to eliminate the need for custom code, and will not preclude upgrades, it can still cause bugs if combinations of switches chosen by the user have never been tested before.
The third alternative is to allow the user to define how the system should perform in as many places as possible. The system should include business rules for how the parameters function, which yields a rules-based solution. If the system is object-oriented, these rules can be “inherited” by related objects, enhancing their utility.
RULES OF THE GAME
Natural Order by Natural Solutions is a good example of the latter strategy. Written in PowerBuilder, Natural Order has been around for about four years now, and it keeps getting better and better. In its latest version, 6.03, Natural Order, which runs on Microsoft’s SQL/Server database, gives the user even more control over its object-oriented, rules-based structure. Using templates that it calls “schemes,” you can define methods for how the system functions according to your particular needs. Schemes can be implemented internally within the system logic, or can be assigned to work orders to be executed manually.
For example, in the replenishment scheme you define pull-forward work orders from bulk to picking locations based on replenishment triggers and maximum bin capacity, with the ability to define quantities by demand velocity. Assembly of kits can also be automated (with work orders) based on demand and component availability. Natural Order now supports inventory lot tracking, with automatic updates and adjustments for purchase orders, receiving, and picking functions.
Pricing of merchandise in Natural Order has been given the same schematic treatment. You can choose to set prices for a single product (for price breaks, for example) or across a product line (“family pricing”). Prices can also be applied at several nested levels: catalog, product line in catalog, and product in product line in catalog.
Discounts can be set up with incentive schemes, based on name class or promotion discount schemes on either a dollar or quantity basis. For instance: An order total less than a specific amount means “no incentive”; in excess of the threshold, “add a specified free premium to the order.” (Note that the incentive can have a price, if necessary.) The system also displays the promotional and discount pricing rules at order entry.
Natural Order now distinguishes between two different types of backorder suppression. An item can be flagged not to allow backorders without being discontinued, or you can specify “sell until gone,” which will mark the SKU as inactive when the last item is sold.
WAIT, THERE’S MORE
Shipping date and ship-to location are now managed at the line-item level. The scheme for this feature can also be used to manage continuity shipments, with shipment intervals set in number of days or months.
A new order copy function lets you clone an order with a mouse-click (this feature is mostly for B2B customers who place the same order multiple times). And in the area of B2B, Natural Order now tracks order history at both the company level and the contact level.
A parameterized approach doesn’t preclude new components. To satisfy the special requirements of one of its users, Natural Solutions has programmed a royalties management module called “Natural Royalties” that allows you to specify who should receive royalty payments on sales of which products, how much they should be paid, and under what circumstances. Natural Royalties defines which product or services to assign a royalty payment, effective dates of coverage, and method of calculating the royalty.
DATA WAREHOUSE MODULE
Another Natural Order module, Natural DataWarehouse, serves as a repository of business information for analysis separate from the active business system files. It automatically extracts and consolidates data from existing files to support a wide range of reporting options, including Natural Analysis.
Which is an appropriate note to end on. You should evaluate the strength of an order management system on its ability to support and streamline operations as well as on its ability to manage, manipulate, and extract useful data. To its credit, Natural Order scores high on both counts.
ERNIE SCHELL is president of Marketing Systems Analysis Inc. He can be reached at (215) 396-0660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.