NEWS & SOLUTIONS SHOW PREVIEW

HOUSTON -- Information systems executives are headed here this week not to merely kick the tires of new applications or to escape bitterly cold climates.Retailers and wholesalers attending the Food Marketing Institute's MarkeTechnics convention here, Feb. 7 to 9, have specific agendas in hand to find solutions to nagging technology problems and to venture into new territory that can improve operations

HOUSTON -- Information systems executives are headed here this week not to merely kick the tires of new applications or to escape bitterly cold climates.

Retailers and wholesalers attending the Food Marketing Institute's MarkeTechnics convention here, Feb. 7 to 9, have specific agendas in hand to find solutions to nagging technology problems and to venture into new territory that can improve operations from the front end to the back room of the store.

Point-of-sale integration solutions, electronic communication options and problem-free frequent-shopper programs are among the top areas of exploration.

One retailer, for example, is bound and determined to iron out the wrinkles plaguing his frequent-shopper program.

Mark Dietel, president of Mr. D's Food Markets, Indianapolis, chose a frequent-shopper application after viewing several at last year's show. His program was launched in October, but both the point-of-sale system and frequent-shopper software have proven to be unstable, he said.

"I have made an investment for over 12 months on this technology, so I need to go to the show to discuss the issues with the 'powers that be' to get the problem resolved," Dietel said. "My first priority at the show is to get our frequent-shopper database functioning properly."

Other retailers are also seeking answers to systems integration challenges. In particular, executives are looking to integrate point-of-sale technology with other store systems.

Bob Bowers, accounting manager for cooperative wholesaler Francis Markets/Norkus Foodtown, Neptune City, N.J., said, "We are trying to prepare for integration of our POS system with our back-office systems."

He said Francis Markets started this project last year, and successful integration could help the wholesaler to communicate live data electronically and eliminate the need for hard copies."

"Currently we have a long paper trail," he said. "By integrating with network POS, we could gain some efficiency in retrieving data by eliminating the paper trail of hard copies along the way."

Another retailer who is focusing on POS integration is Kennedy's Piggly Wiggly Stores, Coeburn, Va.

"We began meeting different vendors to help us make a formal plan to upgrade our POS system and office operations" following last year's show, said Robert Wright, management information systems manager.

With new hardware and software now in place, Kennedy's Piggly Wiggly is ready to move forward with the integration of additional applications companywide by the end of this year.

Wright will seek out software packages to add to Piggly Wiggly's POS that will control all store operations. Areas the retailer is aiming to incorporate include back-door inventory, payroll and accounting functions and POS item filing.

"By implementing this software, we can use it to monitor sales and hopefully implement perpetual-inventory direct-store-delivery," he told SN.

Michael Acker, manager of store systems for Furr's Supermarkets, Albuquerque, N.M., also will be canvassing POS opportunities, specifically in the area of data warehousing.

"Every year I look to see what is out there in areas of POS, but this year I am looking for solutions to collect data in a timely manner," he said.

Acker told SN he is interested in a software application that allows central and local operators to query databases on POS systems to help management in its decision-making purposes, in areas of promotions and item movement.

He also will be taking notes on how to improve the frequent-shopper program that Furr's launched in May.

"I will look at frequent-shopper programs from a technology aspect as it relates to us as a retailer -- how to provide better discounts to card holders," Acker said. "I am looking forward to interacting with different retailers that have programs in place, to see what they are doing to manage, develop and implement different levels of their own programs."

Francis Markets is seeking out frequent-shopper opportunities which could be developed once the new POS infrastructure is in place.

"By enhancing our POS network to communicate live data, a frequent-shopper program would be a possible next step," said Bowers. "I'm interested in seeing what type of applications are available, as well as how they have been improved."

Hopeful that his frequent-shopper program kinks will be worked out successfully, Mr. D's Dietel will look next at kiosk technology.

"This is something that I would eventually like to do," he told SN. "I like the idea of the customers swiping their cards through the kiosk and receiving advantages and rewards specific to them, vs. earning these rewards through direct mailings."

Kiosks are only one innovative opportunity offered to retailers and wholesalers through interactive technology. Another area of interest on some lists is using on-line services for internal communication in real time.

Furr's is in the initial stages of planning a World Wide Web site on the Internet and possibly offering home shopping to customers. The retailer will review options to join the page with its frequent-shopper program, "maybe as an advertising medium telling frequent-shopper members what is available to them in the way of rewards and sales," Acker said.

He told SN the chain will be deciding early this year whether to move ahead with the project.

Francis Markets will also be exploring how to use a system network for internal e-mail and computer-assisted ordering.

"Though this is a process that we have a tentative six- to eight-year time frame for, we are looking to utilize a protocol for internal company mail initially," Bowers said.

Down the road the cooperative hopes to use the system for ordering processes between the stores and warehouse, specifically for the transfer of invoices, according to Bowers.

Another wholesaler interested in connecting on-line technology to the warehouse is Associated Grocers of Alabama, Birmingham, Ala.

Steven Edwards, technical support for the wholesaler, is investigating this area in hopes that stores can order products on-line.

"If users log onto a site to order products, we could set up a service similar to home shopping, except it would be for our stores," he said.