COMMUNITY CASH UNITS SWITCH TO OPEN SYSTEMS

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Community Cash Stores is the latest chain to make the switch to personal computers and an open-systems environment at the front end.The chain here thus far has converted from traditional electronic cash registers to personal computers at two locations, and it should have half of its 27 stores outfitted with the new systems by the end of the year, said Rick Littlejohn 3rd, president.All

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Community Cash Stores is the latest chain to make the switch to personal computers and an open-systems environment at the front end.

The chain here thus far has converted from traditional electronic cash registers to personal computers at two locations, and it should have half of its 27 stores outfitted with the new systems by the end of the year, said Rick Littlejohn 3rd, president.

All Community Cash checkout lanes will feature personal computers with 15-inch color monitors by September 1995, Littlejohn said.

The new setup will enable the chain to sharpen its competitive edge by opening the door to a wide range of initiatives running the gamut from category management to frequent-shopper programs.

It also could help the chain in more immediate and basic ways, such as by equipping cashiers with a "produce imaging" program to help in identifying exotic fruits and vegetables.

Installing "industry-compatible" personal computers puts Community Cash in the driver's seat in terms of systems management, Littlejohn said.

"The PC platform is very versatile. With a standard language like Unix, we are no longer at the mercy of hardware firms to write our programs. We can put our own specs out to bid. I think that's a major issue in the long run," he said.

The "open systems" alternative is the only way to go, Littlejohn added. "In the long run I have to believe that economics is going to cause these open systems to dominate the business. I don't

see how a proprietary system can continue to hold that market."

The per-store cost to install the PC network system, manufactured by ACR Systems, Jacksonville, Fla., is about $80,000 for a seven-lane location, said Marty Yarborough, Community Cash's director of management information systems. Yarborough stressed systems compatibility, lower maintenance costs and enhanced operational applications as some of the major benefits in switching to the new systems.

In the short run, once the conversion to PCs is complete, maintenance savings should approach 40%, he said. "All the PC equipment is the industry standard, so you get a three-year warranty right out of the box, and 24-hour [technical] service."

Basic troubleshooting, Yarborough added, can be handled by employees with only rudimentary computer skills, minimizing the need for on-site service calls.

Yarborough was also quick to cite the system's ability to maintain perpetual inventory as a key benefit. "That will help us nail down our gross margin figures very closely, which is something we currently don't have."

Longer-term, the PC system will enable Community Cash to explore new areas, such as category management, computer-assisted ordering, development of customer data bases, in-store advertising and improved planogramming, he said.

Category management, in particular, is a top priority right now for the chain, Littlejohn added. "Right now, it's very difficult for us to get data on a store-by-store basis." With the new system, though, "we'll be able to get data straight from the stores so we can analyze and break it out according to demographics to better manage our shelf space."

Eventually, the implementation of a local area network, and later, a wide area network, "will give our buyers and corporate headquarters the ability to track 'real time' movement -- to see how 2-liter Pepsis are moving out the front door," Yarborough said.

The new front-end color monitors will open up marketing and revenue-producing opportunities. Computer monitors that are momentarily idle kick into a screen-saver mode that displays store specials and other promotional messages. "We could look at selling that space to vendors, in the future," Yarborough said.

The list of potential applications, though, extends even further. "With this open system we can hook up any kind of PC," try out new software -- and maximize the utility of existing programs, Yarborough noted.

"Right now we're using Spaceman, a space allocation program. We had been collecting data on a twice-a-year basis. Now, we'll be able to extract the files in 15 minutes," and do so more frequently, he said.

Personal computer installations are under way at Community Cash Stores in Piedmont and Lymon, the first two stores to be outfitted following an eight-week pilot test at the company's Woodruff store in January.