(FNS) -- Retail executives in charge of fresh-food departments are beginning to wrap their arms around a variety of new technologies that's giving them a real grip on the most elusive of tasks: category management of random-weight perishables.
To be sure, the embrace is tentative, retailers told SN. Costs associated with implementation can be a deterrent, even for larger chains. But as retailers seek the efficiencies promised -- or mandated -- by consolidation, they are increasingly open to examining technology's potential.
Wireless systems in particular have caught the eye of fresh-food management. The technology is more easily incorporated into existing footprints, and reduces the opportunity for cables to corrode or short due to spills, cleaning agents and other liquids that are omnipresent in perishables. And, retailers say they like the portability of wireless devices like scales, which can be moved as displays are reworked or changed.
"Wireless technology is changing the way we do business," said Aaron Prevo, vice president of strategic development and chief financial officer, Prevo's Markets, Traverse City, Mich. The 10-unit operator is currently testing a wireless system in the meat department. "We saw the strategic direction and we now have a perpetual inventory system and an efficient means of doing markdowns."
The retailer is hoping the system will improve meat cutting strategies, as well as create efficiencies across the board. Prevo is also aiming to use technology to free up employees to interact more with customers.
In general, these systems are simply added to the wireless backbone already in place in most stores, enabling retailers to better track movement and sales volume through the front end. At its simplest, the wireless equipment can be added as a node to the network, bringing with it the ability to be managed and tapped into remotely, according to systems providers.
"As supermarket perishable departments compete with restaurants more and more, operators have to hone their information to impact sales," said Frank Riso, director of business development, food and drug, Symbol Technologies, a Holtsville, N.Y.-based wireless systems manufacturer. "Accurate, real-time information can allow retailers to react to real sales."
At his chain, Prevo recognizes that while each perishable department has its own issues, functionality is the same. "You have to synchronize production or ordering with demand," he said.
Portable, gun-shaped computers, with an attached label printer, give department associates the ability to perform markdowns and capture shrink numbers within the self-serve case. Data is stored at a central location, yet the information can be pulled from any remote terminal. Similarly, communicating commands like price changes to scale and labeling equipment can be accomplished centrally within a unit, or across an entire chain. Either way, a well-managed system promotes chain-wide data integrity.
"Imagine a meat associate with a printer strapped to the waist, hand-held computer in hand, taking inventory, making markdowns and reducing out of stocks -- all at the case," said Prevo. "With these systems there is a commitment and costs, but you have to keep moving forward. Having information outstrips the cost."
The biggest benefit Prevo's has been able to glean from their wireless system in the meat department is synchronizing demand with production, reducing shrink and out of stocks, he added.
Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio, is another operator putting wireless technology to work in the meat department. But here, the initial interest was in aesthetics, as the operator was looking for flexibility in scale positioning after a reset or seasonal shift in merchandising. The operator liked the idea that the scales could be moved without losing information.
"In perishable departments things move around all the time," said Jack Gridley, Dorothy Lane's meat and seafood director. The operator customarily conducts one-day "Lobster Mania" sales, a "Salmon Barbecue" featuring ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook product and a fall "Apple Fest" where product is bountiful and priced to move.
Large displays and long lines prompted the retailer to go wireless with mobile POS equipment that could move as needed to accommodate increases in display space. This flexibility has given the operator an all-the-time, on-line position, despite the location of the scale, he said.
Since installing its first system, the retailer has adopted a more wide-ranging view of wireless technology's potential, according to Gridley. It's testing targeted messages through the labeling application of the system. Downloading from a graphics file, a "Try Our Bagels" moniker may be included on labels in the morning, while "Don't Forget Our Rotisserie Chicken" could be applied to evening packages. And there's more.
"We've only just begun with wireless," he said. "We are using it to enhance our production, record price overrides and we are using scan data comparing our scale information to that of the front end."
Retailers point out that perishables departments generally have a good deal of hazards lurking for hardwired systems. Water, cleaning solvents and solutions, product juices and the general continual movement of associates each contributes to scale system failures.
"The wireless system is more reliable that hardwired," Gridley said. "With wireless there are less points of failure."
Should there be a failure with a wireless scale another one can simply replace the downed equipment. In most cases, a code is punched in, the scale is reloaded and it is up and running within minutes. Changes can also be made instantly via the chain's intranet, noted one manufacturer.
"Forty percent of the phone calls for scale management are referred to the help desk," said Rob Weisz, sales development manager, Hobart Corporation, Troy, Ohio. "Most of these calls ultimately fall to wiring issues and failure points."
Safeway Stores and Kroger were able to significantly reduce scale management calls to their help desk by using wireless equipment in stores, according to an industry insider. Indeed, as these retailers open new stores, wireless scale systems are part of the technological infrastructure, they said.
"The biggest point of failure at scales are rooted in exposed cables," said Axel Doerwald, president, Invatron, a Mississauga, Ontario-based software company. "You can't get new prices to downed scales."
Retailers are finding that back-end precision translates into accuracy at the front end. In produce -- considered by many to be ground zero of the random-weight world -- wireless scales, modified for consumers, are streamlining the increasingly complex produce department. Here, shoppers punch in the four-digit universal price code and weigh their own item, and remove a sticky label that has recorded the weight and price. Chains including Marsh, Wegmans and Stop & Shop are installing self-service scales/labelers on the produce sales floor.
H-E-B, San Antonio, has installed wireless self-service scales and printers in its produce department. According to industry insiders, accuracy levels have enjoyed a boost.
Another contributor to front-end accuracy will be the Uniform Code Council's RSS Symbologies project involving UPCs for variable-weight packages. The new system is expected to extend the present 12-character code's simple capabilities to include weight and brand or vendor. The additional information will provide retailers with more accurate data, which in turn can be layered onto other, real-time information, for a valuable snapshot of sales activity and volume.
Deli departments are also beginning to explore applications long used in the food-service industry, noted observers.
"Prepared-food portion controls, ingredient requirements for particular dishes and continuous replenishment can be enhanced with wireless systems," said Symbol's Riso. "As items sell, a signal can be sent back to the central commissary, central kitchen or in-store kitchen to regenerate and reorder."
Some operators are taking wireless systems even further, applying production and replenishment activities to the system's toolbox. With information available in real time, inventory and front-end sales can be mixed with price and promotion history to forecast case inventory. The result is improved product mix that can boost gross profit, say retailers.
"When retailers get a broad-scale roll out they will get quality information," said Prevo. "With that they will be able to go beyond what is done now with perishable departments. Category management will evolve within a real-time environment."