SPARTAN TEST IS SET FOR NEW SOFTWARE

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Spartan Stores here will begin testing this week a new software package designed to streamline retail operations by dramatically reducing data entry and paper flow.A new system integrating the point-of-sale with receiving and ordering activities will be launched first at Forest Hill Foods here. The program, which can give retailers "real-time" access to the wholesaler's data

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Spartan Stores here will begin testing this week a new software package designed to streamline retail operations by dramatically reducing data entry and paper flow.

A new system integrating the point-of-sale with receiving and ordering activities will be launched first at Forest Hill Foods here. The program, which can give retailers "real-time" access to the wholesaler's data base via a wide-area network, will expand to four additional retail locations over the next two months.

"This is the biggest thing we've ever done," said James Rau, director of management information systems at Prevos Family Markets, Traverse City, Mich. "The potential for the way it will change our company is probably bigger than scanning was when we installed that."

The seven-store Prevos is one of the selected retail test sites and is scheduled to go on-line with the new software next month. Other retailers to be brought into the beta test program range from single-store Paw Paw Shopping Center, Paw Paw, Mich., to 10-store VG Food Centers, Fenton, Mich., and 22-store Felpausch Food Centers, Hastings, Mich.

Following testing, Spartan intends to offer the package early next year to the 475 independent retailers it services, according to Jann McKellar, spokeswoman.

Electronic access to new product data, item movement, order status and promotional information is cited as the most valuable benefit retailers anticipate. Automatic downloading of data from Spartan to in-store processors linked to the POS would unburden retailers from the time-consuming, error-prone task of manual

data entry.

"We'll be 'real time' on-line with the mainframe at Spartan. Everything Spartan knows, we'll know -- at the point we need it," said Marv Imus, president of Paw Paw. "We're putting more power, the necessary tools and information where it's best put to use."

Imus, like Prevos' Rau and other independents, has been working with Spartan to develop the program for three years. The software package is called FS Pro MarketPlace and was developed by Info Systems of N.C., Charlotte, N.C.

The first stage of the test will involve integration of POS systems with financial operations and back-door receiving. Retailers transmitting scan data daily to Spartan will be able to retrieve their stores' movement information as needed, Imus said.

"Right now, our order book shows warehouse withdrawal [data] on movement of products. Near term, the system will reflect actual scan data of those stores that send data to Spartan," he said. "So I'll have current information on my business -- not an aggregate" of data collected from all Spartan stores.

Prevos' Rau agreed that integration and ready access to timely data will prove indispensible to independent retailers competing with the big guns.

"Right now all our stores, headquarters and Spartan are their own islands of information. It's frustrating to try and blend the information or pass it from point to point," he said.

Transfer of data via electronic links, rather than through the 1,000-plus page product catalogs distributed to retailers weekly, will represent a large step in the move to a paperless environment.

"But the bigger issue is being able to get at the information in a way that is useful," said Rau.

"We spend a lot of time running down pieces of paper. And if we can eliminate the paper, then all the time we spent doing that can be turned into better auditing, better reporting and more attention to detail, which is what makes the better retailers succeed," he added.

Imus agreed and said independents will need to become more efficient and can take their cues from business strategies implemented by chains. He said the Spartan program is one way smaller operators can achieve that goal without surrendering their autonomy.