NEW YORK -- Communications initiatives are a top priority for technology executives in the second half of the year.
Many executives noted they are in the process of major upgrades to store communications systems, including store-to-store and store-and-headquarter systems.
Such systems can improve e-mail capability within the company, and can also boost security. As one executive said, a store can alert the rest of the chain if someone is passing bad checks using a store card.
Retailers continue to struggle with the volume of data already being generated by in-store systems, particularly frequent-shopper programs, and some executives noted this year's projects include ways to improve target marketing.
Upgrades of existing in-store technology, including front-end systems, are also being planned.
Hanging over the entire industry is the need to review and address problems that might come up when the systems have to deal with the year-2000 computer code snafu.
Here's what some supermarket information systems executives described as their top in-store technology projects this year:
web production manager
Randalls Food Markets
We are linking our stores with an intranet. The stores will be able to receive administrative messages, including graphics and ads. We're doing the research and development now.
In the past, our stores have been linked to the main office via a local-area network system, but that just had text capability, no graphics, and the stores could only communicate with the corporate office, not with the other stores. We want to open up communications with this new system. Stores will not be able to surf the Internet with this system, since it's just an internal system.
We now have one test store. The whole system won't be complete for another 12 months.
East Bridgewater, Mass.
The rollout of our automated bakery program will be our main project this year at the store level.
We developed the software jointly with Sapient Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., and now have the program in about 47 stores. By September, all 120 stores should be using it.
The program has a touch-operated video screen in the bakery department. The department uses it to access a data bank to project bakery sales for a given day. The program tells the department what to bake for that day based on the [current] day, the season, holidays, etc.
The department knows what and how much to bake, when to start and the ingredients needed. The end result is a fresh product in a timely fashion for our customers, and it also greatly reduces shrink.
We've been working on the program for about a year and a half and began installing it in earnest in early fall [of 1996].
We also see applications elsewhere in the store in other perishable products, including meat and ready-to-eat meals.
Stew Leonard's Norwalk, Conn.
The biggest thing we'll be doing is a complete front-end update.
We switched to a new system in our Norwalk, Conn., store and will convert the Danbury, Conn., store this year. We're looking for greater flexibility and speed, and we want to get the customer through the front end as quickly as possible. For that, we need newer technology.
We're also looking for better accessibility to sales data. We had been waiting until the week's end to get data. We want the store managers to be able to look at daily sales reports each day.
retail electronics manager
Kirby Foods Champaign, Ill.
We are enhancing the effect of our target-marketing program. Currently, we have a frequent-shopper card program and are gathering information in our database. We've had the card program since July 1995, and about 75% of our sales are on the card.
We do monthly mailings now, but of a fairly generic nature -- additional values for our best customers plus some cash-back certificates. We'd like to get a little more specific with the particular offers our customers get, for example, the cat food offers only to cat owners.
To do that, we're working on a more effective implementation of our target marketing, trying to make the distinction between data and information.
VP, information services
Associated Grocers Seattle
We will be working with our retailers on a lot of infrastructure things -- the front end, direct-store-delivery systems, scales, etc.
All of these systems need to be reviewed for year-2000 issues, and we're also looking at upgrades for potential Internet use down the road.
We want to give our retailers access to the technology and services that will give them the ability to compete with the chains.
director, store systems
Nob Hill Foods Gilroy, Calif.
We are looking at frame relay, laying the "pipes" to get data to the stores and connect them all together.
We want to connect all the electronic devices to one line within the stores and to allow the stores to communicate on a store-to-store basis, as well as with headquarters.
Larry's Markets Seattle
We have decentralized our support offices, moving them into our five stores. So communication is a big challenge for us now -- internally to the stores, to buyers, to all the departments. We are also looking at better ways to be able to access reports and documents.
We have our own intranet system and also use it to communicate with our wholesaler.
We deal with a lot of smaller vendors, however, and are trying to invest in platforms that work for all of them. But even here in Microsoft-land, you'll get a vendor, especially a small one, who doesn't use Excel or even have a computer.
Jeff Dinneen director, retail
information systems Roche Bros.
Supermarkets Wellesley Hills, Mass.
We're upgrading all stores from telephone connections to a 56Kps line tying all stores together. We've had host-to-store communications with modems, but we're eliminating the modems now.
This system will let stores communicate directly with other stores. For example, our Advantage Club card can be used to cash checks at any of our stores, and sometimes someone will bounce checks at several stores. With this system, one store can notify the whole chain to be on the lookout. The system will also keep track of bonus-award points regardless of how many stores the customer shops in.
Goff Food Stores
We're implementing a business software package and frame-relay system from our wholesaler, Spartan Stores, [Grand Rapids, Mich.] We already have e-mail and can download files. We can get sales information to the stores and to headquarters and distribute the information within the office.
This system cuts a whole day out of store communications; in the past, we've used a courier service going from store to store. Now I can download price changes, etc., and don't need to send a disk or fax them.
We do some downlining to ACNielsen and to our insurance company. We're also downlining layouts for ads to our production company in Washington state.