TECHNOLOGY: Smith & Hawken learns XML

With help from extensible markup language (XML), garden supplies cataloger/retailer Smith & Hawken has shaved up to four days from its drop-ship order turnaround time.

XML, an Internet language that codes information more specifically than its predecessor, hypertext markup language (HTML), enables Smith & Hawken to electronically transmit orders with packing slips from its management software system to its drop-shippers. The cataloger sends each bundle of XML orders to the drop-shippers via file transfer protocol (FTP).

The XML application, Softshare Delta from Santa Barbara, CA-based provider Softshare, costs $3,600-$5,800 to install, depending on the specific features in the package. Smith & Hawken, which translates order files from its AS400 computer platform, chose XML over the more rigid electronic data interchange (EDI) system because of XML’s flexible formatting capabilities.

For instance, XML provides Smith & Hawken with unlimited space in the data field to describe SKUs, allowing the cataloger to provide its drop-shippers with enough information to easily identify the product. HTML and EDI, on the other hand, transmit smaller amounts of data.

“XML tells the drop-shipper every piece of data on a product,” says consultant Ernie Schell, president of Southampton, PA-based Marketing Systems Analysis. “It’s a great way to manage data, such as purchase and order histories.” But because XML has just picked up steam within the past year, most catalogers are still unfamiliar with the language.

In the past, Mill Valley, CA-based Smith & Hawken printed a corresponding packing slip for each incoming catalog order. Each day’s orders would then have to be overnighted to the drop-shipper. Now, because of XML’s efficiency, “we were able to take orders longer during the Christmas season,” says Michael Wonderly, Smith & Hawken’s vice president of information systems.

In fact, since installing XML last November, Smith & Hawken was able to accept holiday orders until Dec. 22 – about four days later than the year before – and still make delivery in time for Christmas, Wonderly says. And because it no longer has to send the drop-shippers their packing slips by overnight couriers, the cataloger saves on delivery charges.

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