Server giant Sun Microsystems (recently acquired by Oracle) was long known for its slogan, “The network is the computer.” That slogan might also apply to the technology approach being taken by Market of Choice, a seven-store independent food retailer based in Eugene, Ore.
Over the past few years, Market of Choice has developed a robust corporate network that, among other things, links all of the POS terminals in its stores via a wide-area network (WAN) to its new corporate office in Eugene. Two stores were put on the network in the past year, and the last store is in the process of being added. All but the final store, which continues to use a legacy Fujitsu ISS45 POS system, employ PC-based POS terminals running software from IT Retail, Riverside, Calif.
“We're trying to figure out how to run a supermarket in the 21st century using the latest networking tools and techniques,” said Jeff Bennett, information technology director for Market of Choice. “So we're using the latest in Windows networking to bring it all together.” In particular, the retailer is employing Microsoft's Active Directory network management system to manage security and maintenance through a single interface.
All of the retailer's 200 computers, including 60 POS systems, can be monitored from headquarters. “We're able to troubleshoot and do upgrades remotely, as if we were standing right next to the computers,” said Bennett. “With stores spread over 400 miles, it's nice not to have to drive to each one.”
The retailer's network allows its human resource department, buyers and central staff to access information from mobile and remote locations. The network also supports desktop video conferencing.
Market of Choice expects to derive cost savings from its move from a proprietary POS system to a PC-based POS platform made up of interchangeable components, Bennett said. “So if a screen breaks, you just replace it. If a computer breaks, you back up the data to a new computer.”
Market of Choice has taken the network concept a step further by revamping its website (www.marketofchoice.com) to create a social networking experience for consumers that includes interactive blogs and forums while allowing consumers to customize the information they receive from the retailer.
For its use of networking technology and an open, PC-based POS platform, and for developing a highly interactive and personalized website, Market of Choice has received SN's 2009 Technology Excellence Award in the independent category.
SAFEGUARDING THE NETWORK
Given the mission-critical nature of the network, Market of Choice has invested in numerous automatic safeguards to ensure its continuous operation. For example, if a store's connection to the WAN is lost, “our system fails over to an alternative connection and we're able to continue processing credit and debit cards,” Bennett said. Even if that alternative falters or if there is a power outage, the retailer's software lets stores take “contingent credit card authorizations,” which are processed when network connectivity returns.
In the past, Bennett noted, Market of Choice would have no immediate knowledge of technical malfunctions at stores. “Now, the systems talk to me and report when they have trouble, and we're able to intervene before there's a major problem.”
Bennett, who has upgraded two stores to the network and PC-based POS system since joining Market of Choice two years ago, said the total cost per store was $90,000. The ROI comes from easier maintenance and lower replacement costs.
The POS system also offers greater customization opportunities. “We customize what the shopper sees on the monitor,” said Bennett. “For example, we're doing a little digital advertising.” He has also altered the cashier interface, adding custom buttons and layouts.
For consumers, Market of Choice last November configured its network to support electronic, rechargeable gift cards. Many customers are using the gift cards as “lunch money” for children who attend schools near the stores.
But the biggest change for consumers took place last December, when Market of Choice upgraded its website, spending about $100,000. The site now allows shoppers to create a My Market page, where they can indicate food, blog and interactive forum preferences. When the retailer's weekly and biweekly ads come out, their page receives only ads for the foods they selected; shoppers are also sent emails alerting them to new ads, as well as blog and forum updates. Almost 2,000 shoppers have signed up for a My Market page, said Lyn Ryse, the retailer's marketing director.
The website's employee-written blogs cover a host of food topics, including bakery, beer, wine and cheese. Shoppers are invited to start a discussion or join one on the site's Interactive forum, which includes such topics as recipes, vegetarian foods and nutrition.
Market of Choice has just started communicating with shoppers via Twitter, and plans to send cell phone text alerts and promotions to shoppers who accept them.
“More and more people are using the web and the more we connect to them via social networking the more we will increase our sales and grow our brand,” said Ryse. In particular, she added, social networking “is a great way to get the younger generation loyal to us. We're talking to them the way they want to be talked to.”