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Music retailer modernizes inventory tracking

When Musician's Friend, a catalog- and Web-based music equipment retailer, wanted to streamline and simplify the flow of items in and out of its 252,000 square foot, 200 employee Kansas City distribution center, development managers thought expensive changes to the host system would be required. But after searching for options, the firm found a better way.

The project began when Musician's Friend engineers sought to create a better way to track and route returned items, which officials described as a daunting task given the volume of equipment sent back under the company's 45-day guarantee. In addition to the sheer volume of returned goods, the process is complicated by the fact that everything needs to be channeled into three separate resale streams based on the condition of the products when they arrive at the distribution facility.

''We needed to consolidate a lot of manual steps,'' said DJ Buell, director of IT at Musician's Friend, explaining that multiple data entry points and systems needed to be consolidated into a single, Web-based interface. He said the firm installed the Verastream host integration toolset from WRQ Inc., Seattle, which can be used to integrate host- and Web-based systems. Thus, he said, the Verastream software could ''actually perform the updates.'' Now distribution center workers could track and route returned items ''with one step, via this Web interface, at the time that they're inspecting the equipment.''

Buell said that even though they initially hadn't planned to use Verastream beyond its initial application, the return process, it quickly became clear that the toolset could be applied elsewhere in the inventory stream.

''We got the thing working and immediately found that those inventory transactions were something we could use in other applications,'' said Buell. ''We could take a wireless device that had a bar code scanner, Wi-Fi network connectivity and a browser, and connect up to a Web-based form, and do inventory moves and adjustments using the same components that we had developed for the first project. We weren't thinking that far out, but we actually got more benefit from the wireless connectivity and integration to our host than we did on the initial returns project.''

This unexpected reusability came about, said representatives at WRQ, because Musician's Friend implemented the toolset the way it was meant to be used: On a small project at first, rather than tackling an entire legacy system head on.

''If you take this service-oriented approach, then you have the ability to do incremental projects, and to build from project to project,'' said Verastream marketing manager Prasantha Jayakody, ''rather than having to lay down a bunch of infrastructure before you can even start your first project.''

Right now, Buell said Musician's Friend uses Verastream to cut down on shipping costs by combining large and small items within individual orders into a single box, as well as for file exchange and the integration of a number of different systems within the company.

''It really is a key component to our architecture strategy. I'm a believer in trying it first on a small pilot project, rather than committing to doing some universal type of project,'' said Buell. ''And that's exactly what we discovered -- that when we do we those small pilots with one specific purpose, it can be used for other things that we hadn't thought of yet.''

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