Bookseller Expands its Reach With Integrated Internet Platform

Since it first opened its doors in 1920, Oxford Bookstore, a small bookshop in the heart of Calcutta's business district, has been a favorite destination for book lovers. And while the store had always done a brisk business, for 80 years patrons were able to find their literary treasures only at its sole location in India.

In 2000, management at Apeejay Surrendra Group -- an industrial conglomerate that now owns Oxford Bookstore -- decided to expand the business to reach customers in other major Indian cities. The challenges were huge, says Chief Operating Officer Sanjeev Mehra.

For starters, the idea of a chain store for book retailing was somewhat alien in a country where national consumer chains are still a rarity. The communications and logistics infrastructure was poor, and there was no information available on the book-purchasing habits of consumers in the metropolitan areas of India.

"Chain-store retailing had just about started in India [in 2000]," Mehra says. As a result, much of the infrastructure and information required to deliver the economies of scale that retail chains need was missing, he says. "At that time, the Internet seemed to be the best bet" to address some of these issues, Mehra says.

As it began its expansion into other cities, the company decided to launch an integrated Internet platform that would tie new brick-and-mortar shops back to the mother ship in Calcutta. It would also open up an online presence for the bookseller, says Niloy Mukherjee, the project's technical architect.

In that sense, Oxford's initiative was different from those of companies such as Inc., which started as an online store, or Barnes & Noble Inc., which already had an established retail presence when it launched its online store, Mehra says.

Three years into the effort, the project has begun to pay off. Oxford opened new retail stores in three Indian cities and recently launched a fourth in the southern city of Bangalore. Its retail Web site was one of the first in the country to accept credit card payments.

The underlying Internet system that has driven much of the expansion was built by Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., a Teaneck, N.J.-based provider of outsourced services. The three-tier architecture features Microsoft Corp. servers running Active Server Pages at the front end, application servers running Internet Information Server software in the middle tier and Oracle Corp. database server software at the back end, says Mukherjee, who works at Cognizant.

The system gives Oxford a single, consolidated view of its online and retail store operations around the country. For example, the company can use it to centrally track sales, consolidate orders, replenish inventories, study purchase trends and forecast sales across both physical and online stores. New stores immediately become part of the network when they plug in.

The integration of its online and physical store operations has yielded other benefits as well. For instance, Oxford is able to serve up personalized service at its retail stores for customers who have purchased from its Web site.

"If we didn't have the system, it would have been chaotic to set up stores," Mehra says, adding that this approach "has allowed us to achieve better costs, control, security and audit."

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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