Saks' E-Billing Gets A Boost

Anthrax scare may have caused online payments at the department-store operator to grow 150% from August to October.



While consumer E-billing hasn't exactly exploded out of the starting gate at most companies, recent concerns about postal-mail safety prompted an unexpected surge in Saks Inc.'s online billing. From August to October, the department store's online payments increased 150%, from about $200,000 to nearly $500,000, says Saks' senior VP of credit Mike Rodgers. He believes the anthrax scare prompted a usage spike: "Something was driving that change, other than just the fact we had E-billing available."

The $6.6 billion department-store operator launched its E-billing system in April, but won't have a full-scale marketing campaign for it until early next year. While reactions to anthrax threats have abated somewhat in November, says Rodgers, activity on Saks' E-billing site still outpaces August's numbers. He isn't worried about user overload, though. "The system has plenty of bandwidth, so that would be the least of my problems."

What would be a problem, Rodgers says, is not having enough customers on E-billing. By the end of next year, Saks wants a 5% penetration. That may not sound like much, he says, until one considers that Saks Inc. has about 10 million customers; the company owns more than a half-dozen chains including Saks Fifth Avenue, Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner's, and Boston Store. By 2003, Saks is aiming for 20% penetration or better.

Instead of relying on an E-billing consolidator, Saks had Edocs Inc. build the application. "We wanted to control our own destiny," says Rodgers. One example of the application's flexibility is its use of targeted marketing. Saks' E-billing system analyzes purchase transaction data, so customers' online bills can include links to specific Web-site deals or tout in-store promotions. To make the system more inviting, Rodgers insisted that all Saks customers be automatically enrolled in the E-billing program; when a consumer registers, six months of bills are already available online.

One lesson learned from Saks' E-billing project: Allow plenty of time, because there will be plenty of unexpected details. "I was under the delusion I could get it up in about three months," says Rodgers. "It took nine months." And don't even think about cutting corners on interfacing systems, he says. "Make sure it's all automated. You don't want a lot of manual intervention."

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