The era of communicating via Standard Interchange Language protocol may finally be dawning.
With the Uniform Code Council, Dayton, Ohio, recently bestowing its official approval, and with growing usage among wholesalers and retailers such as Supervalu, Minneapolis, and Fiesta Mart, Houston, SIL may finally get the exposure and credibility it has long needed to take root in the industry.
SIL adherents say the decline of proprietary store systems, coupled with the heightened need to access store-level data at the corporate level, makes a strong case for a standard computer language that enables information to be transmitted and retrieved across a variety of platforms and databases.
"We deal with a lot of disparate systems, with many different types and vendors," said Ken Pink, manager of PC software and applications for Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City. "SIL offers me the opportunity to create common datastream field names and field lengths, so I can work across more systems without writing quite as many [programs] to interpret them."
Currently, "once it gets to the retail level, everyone's got to have something special written to get their information from point A to point B," he said. "SIL lets me take some of the variables out of that equation."
SIL has been a hard sell in the past, however, observers said. Many distributors don't want the expense of retrofitting adequate systems just to be SIL-compatible, while wholesalers in particular have to struggle to demonstrate SIL's benefits to their retailer customers.
Due in part to such concerns, SIL has been on the periphery of the industry since the first retail-based application was written in 1990. SIL usage began in a few chains, including Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, but to many distributors, SIL remained just another acronym in the alphabet soup of efficiency theories.
"I haven't seen any kind of demonstrated growth [in SIL usage] in the last few years," said John Keeley, manager of MIS for Bozzuto's, Cheshire, Conn. "SIL can be a potential thread to better communicate with retail customers throughout the entire supply chain, but I'm not sure if it has been positioned to be managed properly."
"SIL seems to be out on its own," he said. "It might grow better and have more impact if it was involved" more extensively with a larger number of distributors.
Such changes are now happening, retailers said. Perhaps the most crucial factor spurring SIL's growth is the UCC's decision this year to endorse SIL officially and create a set of industrywide standards for the protocol.
Having an independent body like the UCC support and set standards for SIL removes doubts from some retailers who were wary of committing to a language that remained without strict guidelines.
"There seems to be a lot of interpretation of what 'SIL-compliant' is," Fleming's Pink said. "One of the reasons UCS [another communications protocol] caught on was that there isn't a lot of room for individual company interpretation. It's pretty much like, 'It's got to look like this.' "
By contrast, "you could pick up three different SIL interpreters and I guarantee you there'd be differences between them," he said. "You can't be 100% sure that SIL there means the same thing as SIL here."
Pay Less Super Markets, Anderson, Ind., said it plans to begin using SIL, possibly in the next year, in part because the UCC has begun standardizing the protocol.
"We see SIL helping us once it's at the corporate level," said Cindy Cooper, manager of large systems. "We can distribute information to our [retail] scales and POS systems with SIL very easily."
Cooper said she views SIL as a way to extend to its individual retail stores the benefits it currently gains from sending and receiving electronic data interchange with its wholesaler, Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis.
"SIL can pick up where EDI stops," she said. "A lot of our [store-level] equipment is not EDI-ready, but SIL will allow us to be able to distribute that information without rekeying it, thus eliminating redundant data," she said. "The leap [in efficiency] will be unbelievable."
Jim Muenz, EDI technical director for the UCC, said SIL could make greater inroads if its proponents would define it as a complementary language to EDI. Retailers who are now starting to gain improved communication time and reduced paperwork through EDI would thus be encouraged to make the investment in SIL to complete the circle at the store level.
"EDI is for highly structured transactions -- like purchase orders -- where SIL is best for unstructured data to support ad hoc queries, things that have to be updated dynamically," he said.
"SIL is attractive to wholesalers because they are able to communicate in a common way with all of their systems," Muenz added. "They may have different kinds of software and hardware platforms, but [SIL] is sort of a common denominator for them."
Wholesalers may have the most at stake in pushing for a wider usage of SIL, observers said. Distributors like Twin County Grocers, Edison, N.J., have long backed SIL as a cost-effective way to communicate with the wide range of systems in their various retail stores.
To selectively download and retrieve data from stores becomes a major cost when the wholesaler must conduct individual communications with each store's point-of-sale system, direct-store-delivery system and in-store processor.
For example, Supervalu, which has been called the industry's leading user of SIL by observers, said its decision to use SIL widely came in part because its retail systems group had to contend with 10 point-of-sale systems, three direct-store-delivery systems, two time-and-attendance systems and two retail-chain corporate systems.
Some industry observers suggested that distributors with activity-based costing programs should unbundle the cost of data retrievals from their stores as a way to convince retailers to make the investment in being SIL-compliant.
"ABC really could be of great help," said one major retailer who wished to remain anonymous. "If you were to shine a spotlight on how much it cost to find out how many potato chips were sold in each store, I think we'd make some converts to SIL pretty quick."
However, even SIL backers admit that for a retailer with only a limited technology budget, spending money on new programs and SIL interpreters for store systems which otherwise perform adequately remains a hard pill to swallow.
Fleming Cos., which currently has about 5% of its retail stores equipped with SIL interpreters, said it has encountered apathy to SIL from its retail stores in part because the benefits have yet to be broken down for them.
"I haven't seen an overwhelming wide-spread acceptance of SIL," Pink said. "Nobody asks us, 'Where's your SIL?' I haven't had one customer ask where my SIL datastream was."
"All they want to know is that the price changed on this UPC from this price to this," he said. "The impact on the retailer at store level is minimal. He doesn't care if it's SIL or not. To him, it's just, 'I got whatever Fleming sends and my in-store system converted it.'
The wholesaler is writing all of its next-generation programs for its retail stores in SIL, however, because it hopes the tide will start turning toward SIL in the next few years.
"We are trying to make sure we include the same information fields that SIL has defined in terms of length and name, so that if SIL does explode, we can be prepared for it," Pink said.
"It will become more important for our retailers over time to be able to provide information in a common format that can span multiple programs," he added.