OUT AND ABOUT

The days of seemingly imprisoned store managers chained to their desks and squirreled away in some back office remotely located from the rest of the supermarket are over.Among the many things technology has done, freeing up the store manager is one of them.Nowadays, store managers like those at Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., and Super Foodtown, Middletown, N.J., are free to roam the store thanks

The days of seemingly imprisoned store managers chained to their desks and squirreled away in some back office remotely located from the rest of the supermarket are over.

Among the many things technology has done, freeing up the store manager is one of them.

Nowadays, store managers like those at Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., and Super Foodtown, Middletown, N.J., are free to roam the store thanks to wireless phones and pagers that can put them in touch with other key store personnel in an instant.

Bill Bruderer, manager of continuous improvement at the 98-store Giant chain, said his company recently purchased a NetLink wireless telephone system from SpectraLink, Boulder, Colo.

The new system provides not only cell phone and two-way pager capabilities but text messaging as well. Each of Giant's stores will have 10 phones.

"The bottom line is to just improve our overall store communication," Bruderer said. "And one of the other most important things is that we wanted to get our store managers on the sales floor more and with the wireless phone system it gives them the ability to multitask without interruptions.

"They [store managers] can spend a lot more time walking around," he added.

Giant's system is a bit more high tech than the average cell and pager setup. It also includes a text messaging system from Indyme Electronics.

At Giant, the Indyme system is built into the front end. Checkers in need of a price check just push a button and a text message is sent out for help.

The Indyme system is also used if the checker needs change, wants to call security or needs to alert store management that a VIP is in the store.

"It's made the stores a lot quieter," Bruderer said.

But Giant isn't alone.

Food Circus Super Markets, Middletown, N.J., operators of 11 Super Foodtowns in that state, made a similar move, only with a Nextel wireless system.

"The idea was to be able to get in touch with the associates much faster," said Joe Azzolina Sr., president of Food Circus.

Azzolina said his stores piloted the wireless system with key front-office personnel initially.

Now, he said, they are ready to roll it out to include all store managers and assistants.

"All the key guys in management at headquarters have one. It makes it a lot easier to communicate back and forth and its easier to get in touch with someone," Azzolina said.

"It also helps when you need supplies and you need to know if another store has something in stock you don't," he added.

Azzolina said that eventually his whole operation will be equipped with a wireless communications systems end-to-end, including warehouse and logistics personnel.

But, wireless technology isn't only used to improve accessibility between store personnel.

In energy-starved California, Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, is going to install a Web-based remote control system from Invensys Energy to control the lighting systems at 250 stores in California.

Albertson's officials hope to have these new wireless systems for controlling the lights fully operational by the end of this month.

This real-time communications system will enable Albertson's to turn the lights on or off at any or all locations instantly.

"This initiative is another example of Albertson's innovative leadership in the supermarket industry," said Glenn Barrett, senior energy manager, Albertson's.

"This technology provides us with one more proactive step towards reducing our energy demand during this critical time in California."

By using this new wireless equipment control system, Albertson's will be eligible to receive a grant from the California Public Utility Commission.

The wireless system gives Albertson's the ability to control equipment from a Web site, a wireless phone or a Palm pilot.

Meanwhile, Albertson's isn't the only California supermarket that is using wireless devices to help in its in-store operations.

The upscale Draeger's Supermarkets, with stores in San Mateo, Menlo Park and Los Altos, uses a wireless food simulator made by FreshLoc to monitor the temperature of its refrigerated perishables.

The simulator transmits, via radio waves, the internal temperature of all the monitored products to a Web-enabled reader.

Owner Richard Draeger then has his managers check the temperatures via the store's PC network.

Draeger claims it's a great time-saver and money-saver that provides documented electronic verification as well.

Greg Buzek, president of the IHL Consulting Group, Boynton Beach, Fla., said devices like wireless phones, equipment operators and Palm Pilot-type devices all add up to more freedom for the store manager.

"Wireless is definitely freeing up the store manager from being chained to their desk in the back room," Buzek said.

Buzek, a technology consultant, predicts that the next step in the process is the development of some type of mobile manager's workstation.

From the mobile workstation, store managers will be able pull up files from their PC desktop and check on any data or information located at their stationary desk.

Buzek said Japanese electronics maker Fujitsu has a small 6-inch-by-9-inch wireless electronic tablet that can be used as a mobile workstation.

He added that Microsoft also makes a tablet PC that can be used in the same regard.

"Untethering the manager, that's the whole idea," Buzek said. "There will still be some functions where the manager will need to be sitting in the back office, but not as much."

Several retailers and consultants said that by having a more visible and mobile store manager, the store will be able to boost worker production and cut down on employee theft as well.