USPS takes market's pulse

USPS takes market's pulse

Data collection system lets the service keep tabs on customer preferences

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff





Statistics collected through the Postal Service's Point of Service One terminals flow to a data center in Minneapolis, where the information can be quickly analyzed.


Behind its new point-of-service terminals, the Postal Service is building a data repository that will track customer preferences across the nation.

Every night for the past two months, the Retail Data Mart, based in a USPS data center in Minneapolis, has been collecting raw data from thousands of post offices and storing it in a large database for later analysis.

Over the years, the masses of statistics will help postal officials take the pulse of stamp-buying and small-business needs, predicted David Hunter, program manager for the Point of Service One initiative.

Through POS One, USPS is installing 73,000 new retail terminals in post offices [GCN, Aug. 9, Page 12]. The point-of-service hardware from IBM Corp. and NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, will let postal clerks ring up sales through interactive touch monitors.

Statistics started flowing into the data mart on Sept. 11, the first day of USPS' current fiscal year, USPS technical consultant Margery Grennon said.

The night shift

Once post offices close for the day, the POS One terminals upload their raw data on products sold and payment types over the USPS network to the staging area at the Minneapolis data center, Grennon said.

Overnight, the data mart uses PowerMart data-integration software from Informatica Corp. of Palo Alto, Calif., to extract relevant data from the raw files, transform it to a standard format and load it into an Oracle8 Release 8.0.5 database, Grennon said.

As soon as the next morning, postal officials can start analyzing customer preferences with a decision-support software suite from MicroStrategy Inc. of Vienna, Va., Grennon said. End users access the database through MicroStrategy's DSS Web, an online transaction processing browser, or DSS Agent and DSS Server, the equivalent client-server tools.

The data mart's hardware consists of a cluster of Sun Microsystems Enterprise 6500 and Enterprise 4500 servers running Informatica PowerMart under the SunSoft Solaris 2.6 operating system, Grennon said.

The group also has a pair of servers running Microsoft Windows NT: a Compaq Digital Prioris 6200 and a Compaq ProLiant 7000 for the MicroStrategy software.

The data mart's holdings should pass the terabyte mark by April, and by June 2001, the next milestone month, it is expected to house 1.5T to 2T of data, Grennon said. Ultimately, the mart could grow to hold 3T or more.

Although the mart is currently processing only POS One sales data, postal officials plan to incorporate work-hour and demographic data, Hunter said. Then USPS analysts could compare postal sales data against other information such as household census statistics or business characteristics sorted by ZIP code.

'That's the kind of thing the data mart will do for us,'' Hunter said. 'It tells where the business is and what our target markets are.''

The data mart downloads files from 3,200 post offices in 64 of the 85 USPS regional districts, Hunter said. 'Eventually, as this thing builds and we deploy POS One, we'll be polling data from over 20,000 offices every night,'' he said.

Over time, customers might see wider availability of favorite stamps and other products. The Postal Service also will have a better idea of how to target products and services to the needs of small businesses.

'Part of this information is certainly for marketing and serving the customer, and the other part is our underlying effort to manage costs in the Postal Service and keep our rates competitive,'' Hunter said.

For online storage, the data mart uses a shared-disk array. Oracle Parallel Server runs on the Enterprise 6500s for additional redundancy, USPS technical consultant Bob Biely said. The shared-disk array manages the file system for the Sun cluster as well as the Oracle database.

Before POS One, USPS had a computerized revenue and sampling system, but that system could not provide granular sales information, Hunter said. The Postal Service knew how many commemorative stamps it was selling but not where each stamp issue sold best.

The cost of the Retail Data Mart is part of the $480 million overall spending on the POS One program, Hunter said.

Grennon said that USPS has participated on Informatica's customer advisory board and that the company has turned the Postal Service's suggestions around relatively quickly.

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