FRED MEYER MAPS 'NETWORK OF FUTURE'

CHICAGO -- Supercenter operator Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., is pursuing new technology initiatives with a firm commitment to high-capacity systems that perform consistently chainwide.The 130-store chain is investing in advanced communications and point-of-sale equipment while trying to envision just what the "network of the future" will look like as it prepares to expand data and voice applications.Frank

CHICAGO -- Supercenter operator Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., is pursuing new technology initiatives with a firm commitment to high-capacity systems that perform consistently chainwide.

The 130-store chain is investing in advanced communications and point-of-sale equipment while trying to envision just what the "network of the future" will look like as it prepares to expand data and voice applications.

Frank Steinkellner, assistant vice president of network services, said the company is developing a network "that would allow increased data capacity and continue to provide us the lowest voice costs and new capabilities such as video teleconferencing."

Although plans to implement video teleconferencing are not yet cemented, the program is among many new technical initiatives the retailer is exploring, Steinkellner said during a presentation here Sept. 18 at the Retail Information Systems conference sponsored by the National Retail Federation, Washington.

He outlined some key technology projects under way at Fred Meyer to boost customer service, drive front-end productivity and improve communications systemwide.

Steinkellner stressed the importance of building a solid, standardized systems infrastructure that can support long- and short-term projects, ensure quality and reliability and streamline technical support.

The company's communications infrastructure, for example, was greatly enhanced with a systemwide rewiring project completed about four years ago, he said. The wiring system, which supports a network in each store, provided the foundation for several new projects, including:

· Silent paging: Using a device installed at the front end and linked with the phone system, cashiers can request assistance via digital and analog pagers. "By doing that, we were able to eliminate virtually all overhead paging in our stores," Steinkellner said, noting the move was prompted by customers who complained that the store noise level was disturbing.

· Customer call buttons: Call boxes installed throughout the store and in apparel fitting rooms enable shoppers to silently page staff for assistance.

The paging systems are currently in half of Fred Meyer stores and a chainwide rollout will be completed next month, Steinkellner told SN following the presentation.

· Electronic mail: All stores and corporate headquarters are on-line with E-mail to ensure consistent communications capability.

· Voice messaging: An automated voice mail system that handles incoming calls 24 hours a day is now being tested in the pharmacy of one store. The system allows physicians and customers to request prescription refills and general information such as store hours.

"We were able to eliminate 300 incoming calls to our pharmacists every day and that translated to about five hours' savings, which can then be turned back into customer service as well as better efficiency," Steinkellner said.

Fred Meyer's commitment to deploy technology in a uniform manner includes point-of-sale systems -- 3,000 of which were upgraded this year to the IBM 4693.

"We provide scanner scales in all areas of our stores, including apparel, where customers might have a bag of apples," Steinkellner said. "In addition, we provide handheld scanners in all the checkstands to ensure customers are not inconvenienced when lumber goes through the front end."