Pier 1 Weds VSAM with the World Wide Web to Launch Bridal Registry Site

Specialty retailer Pier 1 Imports’ Bridal Registry finds marital bliss as its host-based VSAM database is joined with the World Wide Web to produce a very attractive offspring: increased revenues.

The marriage of a host-based VSAM database to the World Wide Web translates into steeply increased wedding gift revenues for Pier 1 Imports, one of the country’s leading specialty retailers. By implementing a Bridal Registry system on the World Wide Web that seamlessly accesses a legacy VSAM database, the Fort Worth-based retailer makes it easy for the gift preferences of couples to be viewed from any PC in the world. The system increases Pier 1 store traffic by allowing their well-wishers across the country to browse those gift preferences.

Pier 1 Imports is a chain of specialty retail stores that directly imports home furnishings, decorative accessories and gifts from over 44 countries. Pier 1 Imports operates over 725 stores in 47 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Puerto Rico, with international operations in the United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan. Warehouse distribution centers are located in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Texas, Savannah, Ga., and Columbus, Ohio.

The interactive Pier 1 Bridal Registry Web page (www.pier1.com) enables the retailer’s customers to determine gift choices quickly and conveniently from their homes, accelerating gift selection and purchases. Web-based registry has led to an increase in Pier 1’s wedding-related sales volume. Bridal registry sales now account for 1.5 percent of incremental revenues and that figure is expected to increase to 8 percent, according to Joy Rich, a spokeswoman for Pier 1 Imports.

"The bridal customer and her guests will continue to be important to Pier 1 in the future, so anything we can do provide extra service and convenience will be a strategic advantage over other retailers," Rich said. "Providing online access to the bridal registry allows the bride and groom to monitor their registry from home so they can determine when they need to make additions or other changes (see Figure 1). It also allows those who will shop for the couple to get a print out of their registry before they go to the store."

In its Fort Worth data center, Pier 1 Imports operates an ES/9000 host under MVS/ESA. In the last few years, the company has been migrating from an all-mainframe environment to an increasingly distributed architecture featuring Local Area Networks connected to the World Wide Web. The company’s primary host database is VSAM, but also uses several LAN databases, including Computer Associates, Sybase, Oracle, and Microsoft.

The online Bridal Registry system is based on the OpenIngres relational database management system (RDBMS) software. OpenIngress is developed by Computer Associates (Islandia, N.Y.). Utilizing OpenIngres’ VSAM gateway feature, which provides seamless integration with existing mainframe applications, Pier 1 has leveraged its legacy database system to feed product information and pricing to its Web-based wedding gift registry.

"CA’s OpenIngres was instrumental in enabling us to get this site up and running as quickly as possible and with the least total development investment-two crucial factors in making it a profitable venture," said [Pier 1 spokesperson]. "The ability of its VSAM gateway to seamlessly integrate VSAM data with our Visual Basic, Powerbuilder and Microsoft Visual C++ applications-combined with its extreme efficiency and CA’s outstanding support organization-made this project very easy to implement," said Patrick Anderson, Data Architect.

The Web application that Pier 1 developed taps the company’s existing product database, which is stored in VSAM files on an IBM ES/9000 mainframe, as well as information from a number of distributed network servers. OpenIngres provides transparent access to the VSAM data in a combined client/server and Internet environment, even permitting concurrent updates to the VSAM files by existing CICS applications (see Figure 2). Pier 1 wanted to evaluate a number of database systems that offered a dynamic link to VSAM. The CA OpenIngres solution was the only one it could identify, according to Anderson.

The biggest technical challenge was to streamline the connect time between the browser and the host-based VSAM database. Integrating legacy mainframe applications in a real-time browser environment often presents difficulties. The Bridal Registry System was no exception. With its first prototype, network connection times averaged between eight and 11 seconds. The delay was due to connection times, not to the database access, Anderson said. "In today’s world, connect times are crucial. Very few customers would find a delay of even eight seconds acceptable," he added. "There is a finite amount of time people will wait for a page to load."

The company found a solution by using Microsoft Active Server Page (ASP). ASP is analogous to Sun’s Java programming language. In the Sun standard, Java runs on the server, while Java Script runs on the browser. In the Microsoft standard, ASP runs on the server side, while VB Script runs on the browser.

With ASP on the browser, Pier 1 implemented connection pooling. By pooling the connection to the Internet, the gateway between the Pier 1 Imports legacy mainframe data and the Web remains initialized for a specific amount of time, allowing subsequent users to realize instant access. Of course, the first visitor to the Web site takes the hit of waiting for the gateway to initialize, but saves subsequent visitors the delay by keeping the database connection open. The system maintains the open data base connection for two minutes without activity. As long as the gateway is active, it remains open; otherwise after two minutes it times out. The effect is transparent to the vast majority of Web visitors who have no idea they are logged onto an active database using someone else’s connection.

Having a real-time gateway between live VSAM data and the Web is a powerful tool for Pier 1 Imports, but there is one tradeoff: When the host is down for maintenance or servicing the batch systems, the Bridal Registry system is unavailable. Pier 1 has determined that this is an acceptable tradeoff. If a visitor attempts to log in during Pier 1’s batch window (generally midnight to 6 a.m.), they get an announcement that that system is unavailable and to check back in the morning.

Transparent access to VSAM data, provided by OpenIngres, gives Pier 1 the ability to leverage and extend its existing investment in legacy systems, data and applications. This ability allows the company to respond very quickly to the market opportunities that the Web presents, without having to redevelop or move key business data. OpenIngres is CA’s multi-platform relational database management system for mission-critical business processing. Offering the leading capabilities of distributed database technologies, OpenIngres is ideally suited for advanced data warehousing and Internet commerce applications.

Pier 1 Imports’ Bridal Registry system is a clear example of how companies can use the World Wide Web to leverage their investments in mainframe technology. In only two years — the time since the Web began its stratospheric growth curve thanks to graphical browser interfaces — five distinct revenue models have emerged for doing business in the still-nascent Web marketplace (see sidebar entitled, "Five Modes of Making Money on the Web"). The business model for the Bridal Registry System is to bring customers into Pier 1 stores where the "look and feel" of products is still more compelling than anything the Web can offer. However, by accessing a couple’s registry online at home, guests can review the registry list and prices before shopping so they have a clearer idea of what they want to purchase.

"The Web clearly presents Pier 1 with significant opportunities to bond more closely with our customers and capture additional market share," said Anderson.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:John Kador is a freelance writer in Geneva, Ill. He can be reached at jkador@compuserve.com.

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