Retailers and wholesalers sold on the benefits of e-mail are now exploring more advanced business applications using the Internet.
Document transfer, electronic data interchange and video conferencing are among the Internet-driven applications that could prove widely popular in the future, executives told SN.
The speed with which information can be transmitted from one point to another, and the low cost of communications over the Internet, are convincing enough to warrant further study of how companies can benefit from business-to-business use of the global network.
It's e-mail, however, that's delivered the most tangible benefits so far.
"I can communicate with colleagues in different time zones when it is convenient for me," said Bill Borer, director of information systems for Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio. "They pick up my message and respond while I complete other tasks. It keeps communication quick and effective."
By using e-mail, a faster and cheaper medium than telephone or fax, retailers are benefiting from communication exchanged in real time.
"Communicating through faxes is primitive and expensive," said Sam Stites, executive vice president of Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, Ohio. "We are using e-mail on a store level through our own computer network to exchange information in a timely way."
According to Stites, Albrecht will be considering Internet e-mail in the near future.
The Independent Grocers Alliance, Chicago, currently uses e-mail to communicate systemwide, both to its stores in the United States, as well as to those widely dispersed across the globe.
"Electronic mail is huge for us; we depend on it to exchange current information quickly," commented Jim Anderson, vice president of management information systems for IGA. "Communication is always a challenge, but for us, e-mail is a simplified process, especially when communicating abroad."
The supermarket industry is beginning to recognize the value of another dynamic method to exchange information in a timely manner -- document transfer via the Internet.
Similar to e-mail, document transfer allows large amounts of text to be shared immediately among a group, without the need of waiting and sifting through hard copies of reports.
"It is particularly effective when sharing specific sections of documents with a group," said Borer. "The electronic transfer of files immediately lets you receive and scan documents without the delay of mail, or sifting through hard copy pages."
According to Kenneth Horner, director of electronic commerce services for Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group, New York, many companies are realizing the convenience of manipulating electronic documents to meet the needs of a particular recipient.
For example, if only a specific section of document needs to be viewed by a particular group of employees, that information can be isolated from the full body of the document and transmitted.
"When documents are character-ready, you can amend and modify them for peers," said Joseph Oliveria, director of management information systems for Select Foods, Hayward, Calif. "Document transfer is also effective when sharing documents with a group, because you can communicate instantly without the delay of mail."
It is also evident that even more advanced business applications are yet to come in the areas of exchanging information in real time.
EDI conducted over the Internet, rather than via conventional networks, is gaining interest among some retailers and wholesalers. Not all agree the Internet will replace the infrastructure for EDI, but many see great potential for exchanging product shipping information between retailers and vendors.
By exchanging information on-line, Albrecht's Stites believes the EDI process can be quickened, because waiting on confirmation of hard copies is eliminated.
"Now we send an EDI message via fax or a value-added network service, then wait for the confirmation of the order the same way," he said. "If the process was done on-line, an order would be sent and confirmed immediately on-line -- the time element stays in real time."
The majority of retailers SN spoke with agree that using the Internet for EDI will make the process more affordable.
One West Coast retailer, who wished to remain anonymous, maintains that sending EDI messages directly over the Internet could eliminate the extra cost of using a value-added network to process the messages.
Bob Drury, vice president of management information systems for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, agrees. "This will be a valuable tool in the future because it can reduce costs dramatically through more affordable applications," he told SN. "Through this vehicle, retailers have access to more information with their manufacturers."
Some retailers still question the efficiency of EDI transactions on-line.
"This is still in its early stages and has no relevance for us at the present time," said IGA's Anderson. "There is still some question that if these [EDI] messages are sent via the Internet, that they will be delivered in a timely fashion, or that they even arrive at the right place and at the right time on the other end."
Based on the potential of using the Internet as a tool for exchanging information in real time, Schnuck Markets; Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; and Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., have joined a group that is establishing a process, similar to a conference call, to allow manufacturers and retailers to exchange information for promotion planning and replenishment of products in a real-time environment.
The group hopes to propose an industry standard later this year.
Real-time communication between two or more parties also holds potential for spontaneous electronic business dialogue. Some retailers are using interactive live chat sessions in which members of a group view live dialogue on a computer screen and add their own responses via a keyboard.
However, some believe conducting communications via scrolling text on a screen is still too static.
"A standard chat session is an intense process to carry on dialogue back and forth, and you cannot focus on anything except what is on your computer screen," said Bernie Rogan, spokesman for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. "It is very cumbersome."
Instead, video conferencing could prove more dynamic, but the needed bandwidth capability is not yet available.
According to Drury, expanded bandwidth will give rise to more advanced applications and perhaps could drive video conferencing. "The World Wide Web is becoming the World Wide Wait," Drury said. "Things will be quicker once more bandwidth is available," including the exchange of information by a group, in a more timely manner.
The components that will drive the advent of video conferences include the opportunity to accommodate a high number of chat group members, and less tedious communication by eliminating the need to type responses via a keyboard.
"We are starting to see this now, and with having more bandwidth, the process holds more benefits than the standard chat session because of visual and audio components," Drury told SN.
According to Deloitte & Touche's Horner, chat sessions are useful if they are conducted among a group of people in disparate and distant locations. Another benefit is these interactive sessions allow an opportunity for visual translations that a telephone cannot give.
According to Horner, retailers are obliged to stay on top of developing Internet technologies.
"The Internet is growing in applications and usage," he said. "And if you take the wait-and-see approach, you could end up very far behind very quickly."