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Catalina Marketing Aims For The Cutting Edge Of 'Big Data'

No. 5 company in our 2011 InformationWeek 500 ranking is fast, too, delivering insights within a second of a transaction.

Going Real Time

As the in-database project proved, Catalina isn't afraid of pioneering, multiyear projects--as long as a big payoff is in sight. In the company's latest project, it tried to find a technological way around two crucial limitations. First, for bandwidth and local compute-capacity reasons, Catalina's promotions tied to specific store loyalty card holders could only be loaded onto a PC-like Catalina server at customers' "home stores," where they shop most frequently. Trouble is, shoppers often frequent multiple locations of the same chain. Second, Catalina has been limited to pulling data on new retail transactions each night, and the turnaround of new promotional offers downloaded to the in-store servers was two days.

Catalina coupons and promotions reach about 90 million households each year, but between the home-store and two-day latency limitations, the "reach" of the system maxed out at delivering new offers to about 75% of those customers within a four-week period. Three years ago, Catalina finally decided the time was right to change those dynamics. "We had been investigating a new approach for at least 10 years, but the cost of putting high-speed lines and high-performance servers into every store was a barrier," says CIO Eric Williams.

With Moore's Law and bandwidth improvements bringing the pieces into place, the company came up with a centralized-server approach dubbed Catalina Real-Time, or CRT. The CRT server incorporates about $100,000 worth of blade servers, an Oracle database, and networking equipment in a standard 19-inch rack. Deployed at the headquarters of top retail chains, this centralized server then links with the Catalina servers at each store location.

Eric Williams, CIO, Catalina Marketing
CIO Williams: "Targets are going to move, so you need to plan for them to move"

CRT captures transactions and delivers coupons in real time no matter which store a customer is shopping in. This makes it possible for Catalina to support multitrip "threshold" promotions that were never before possible. For example, a retail chain or manufacturer might offer $10 off your next shopping trip if you buy 10 products from a specific manufacturer within three months. CRT lets Catalina deliver customer-specific offers and up-to-the minute customer status information to all retail locations. And customers can earn an incentive instantaneously, no matter which store they're in, as soon as they meet a purchase threshold.

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