LOS ANGELES -- Supermarket retailers should plan on shutting down their automated ordering systems for the first month of the new millennium and begin weaning employees off some of the applications they've grown to rely upon, but which may not be year-2000 compliant.
"You will have to go back to many of the manual processes you had before," year-2000 expert Peter de Jager told a roomful of information-technology executives here during last month's MarkeTechnics show, sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
De Jager, who has testified before Congress about the pending perils of the year-2000 problem, said he did not envy those in his audience who would be faced with the task of deciding which mission-critical systems would be converted to comply with the year 2000 and which would not. He empathized with IT executives who are now taking on the role of bearers of bad news.
"You don't know office politics until you have to tell a salesperson who relies on an application that it will not be converted" to be year-2000 compliant and that they will have to revert to manual processes, said de Jager, president of de Jager & Co., Brampton, Ontario.
Retailers, and all types of businesses, are being forced to make choices as to where their year-2000 efforts will be concentrated. It's too late and unrealistic, he said, to expect to convert all systems in time.
"Companies that have been into this the longest -- the insurance and banking industries -- have been changing code since 1994, and they know there is no way they are going to get everything done, so they will focus on what's mission-critical" to a company's survival.
"That's called 'triage,' " he said, referring to the term used by medical personnel in battle and disaster situations who must prioritize the injured in efforts to maximize survivors.
Such companies will identify the 20% or 30% of their most critical service areas and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, he said.
"When you do triage it means going to the sales manager and saying, 'You know that sales incentive program you use? It is not year-2000 compliant. Nor will it be. You will have to go back to the manual process you had before,' " he said.
De Jager suggested retailers plan to temporarily dismantle the automated function of ordering and open-to-buy systems in the new millennium.
"For the first month in the year 2000, shut off the automatic ordering and price markdowns, because your inventory trend analysis and your open-to-buy systems are going to be so vulnerable to date miscalculations that nothing should be going on automatically," he said. "It should be verified by someone."
The year-2000 problem is like none other facing IT executives, if only for the fact that the deadline for completion cannot be postponed. And IT, de Jager said, has a "lousy" reputation for delivering projects on time.
De Jager said the response is not atypical, but that companies must realize the deadline is not movable and there are no easy fixes. "Your vendors are going to leave you in a lurch for the same reason you are going to have to perform triage."
One bright light of hope, he noted, is that retailers do have a place to turn to find staff to work on the problem. Despite the massive shortage of programming talent -- an estimated 240,000 IT positions remain open in this country -- he said all companies have "power users" in clerical divisions, for example, who can be recruited to pitch in to fix code.
Those employees who have demonstrated an affinity for computers can be trained quickly and offered opportunities for advancement after the project is completed.