STRUCTURING THE FUTURE

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Tackling the challenge of how best to harness the power of data to drive sales and slash costs is nothing new for management information systems executives.What is new is the speed at which information-driven systems are propelling change and the formidable stakes involved.Developing the right systems solutions to tap into the huge data bases now being generated at all levels of

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Tackling the challenge of how best to harness the power of data to drive sales and slash costs is nothing new for management information systems executives.

What is new is the speed at which information-driven systems are propelling change and the formidable stakes involved.

Developing the right systems solutions to tap into the huge data bases now being generated at all levels of the industry could spell the difference between survival and failure for many companies over the next several years.

It is against this background that MIS executives are gathering here this week for the Food Marketing Institute's 22nd-annual Information Systems Conference. The conference is titled "Business Success and Technology: What Are the Real Solutions?"

The changing industry landscape and the sense of urgency surrounding MIS also serve as the starting-off points for a comprehensive discussion SN had with five leading retailer and wholesaler information systems executives shortly before the conference.

The highlights of these in-depth interviews, which covered a broad range of critical topics, are presented in this special supplement.

The five executives SN spoke with are: Patrick Steele, senior vice president of information systems and technology at Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, and chairman of this year's FMI Advanced Management Information Systems Committee; David Hayes, director of information services at Associated Grocers of New England, Manchester, N.H.; Peter Rolandelli, corporate vice president of management information systems at A&P, Montvale, N.J.; William May, senior vice president of procurement, distribution and management information systems at Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Ray Hamilton, vice president of information systems and technology at Sutton Place Gourmet, Rockville, Md.

According to these five executives, retailers and wholesalers are facing a host of serious MIS challenges, as well as major growth opportunities, to lead the industry into a new age characterized by the widespread use of highly advanced information-driven solutions.

To thrive in tomorrow's marketplace, distributors must now begin to put into place the right computer platforms and architectures to enable all levels of an organization to access appropriate programs for making quicker and more informed decisions.

They must also make greater strides in the complex areas of using data warehousing tools and rolling out more effective data-base marketing programs. Areas such as enhanced scan data quality, boosting processing speed, and ensuring data and systems security also need to be addressed.

At the same time, MIS executives have to keep a close eye on innovative technology developments that could soon transform the fundamental nature of food retailing. A key wild card in this regard will be the use of the Internet and the ability of computerized home shopping services to capture significant food shopping market share.

In the long run, the ultimate success of all supermarket operators will depend on how well they use information, often in the form of new computerized tools, to enhance merchandising programs and do a better job in understanding, targeting and winning increased customer loyalty and sales.

What follows are the candid views of five leading executives on the role of MIS in today's rapidly changing supermarket environment.