TECHNICAL STANDARDS FACTIONS ARE UNITING

DENVER -- Retailers and technology vendors are working together to develop standard technical specifications that would enable point-of-sale systems to easily hook up with any peripheral device, such as a printer or scanner. Recently both groups have consolidated their efforts to simplify and speed the process, and plan to have a standard set of specifications released by the end of this year.The

DENVER -- Retailers and technology vendors are working together to develop standard technical specifications that would enable point-of-sale systems to easily hook up with any peripheral device, such as a printer or scanner. Recently both groups have consolidated their efforts to simplify and speed the process, and plan to have a standard set of specifications released by the end of this year.

The current lack of technical specifications forces retailers to modify software applications and develop interfaces so their computer hardware and software will communicate effectively with peripheral devices. In some cases, the incompatibility between various manufacturers' products and POS systems has discouraged some retailers from implementing newer technologies that could benefit store operations.

"Standards are 'in.' Everybody knows that. Technology demands standards to reduce risk, reduce cost and speed delivery" of new technology into stores, said Richard Mader, chief information officer, Boscov's Department Stores, Reading, Pa. Finding consensus on technical standards for POS technology, however, has been difficult.

Mader, who is also chairman of the Association for Retail Technology Standards, disclosed new developments in retail technology standards here late last month during the Retail Information Systems Conference sponsored by the National Retail Federation, Washington.

Although no supermarket industry representatives sit on the ARTS committee, technology executives in the food industry do track the organization's initiatives and their impact on grocery store technology. Mader said A&P, Montvale, N.J., had a role in reviewing the ARTS model and Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, has expressed an interest in the standard. "Food and general merchandise together can produce standards quicker and at less cost," he noted.

Retailers and technology vendors had been collaborating on the development of two separate sets of standards -- one set supported by Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., and the other supported by Sun Microsystems, Palo Alto, Calif. -- as reported in SN earlier this year.

However, the retailers and vendors are instead focusing on a single set of technical standards for POS peripheral devices, Mader said. A draft of the new standard specifications, which will be based on both the Microsoft and Sun models, will be released by the end of the year.

"It's a major step that both sides put aside their differences and came together to make this happen," said Ken Brame, senior vice president and chief information officer, Service Merchandise, Nashville, Tenn.

Jeannine Ralston, vice president of store systems, The Limited, Columbus, Ohio, agreed. "I believe that any effort to reach uniformity across vendors is in the best interest of the retailing industry," she said. "Retailers should be able to select hardware and software with business functionality as the main driver, not interface and connectivity concerns."

Once a standard is approved, technology vendors would design their products in a manner that would be compatible with any programming language and would operate on any computing platform. The result would be that retailers could "mix and match" any device -- regardless of manufacturer -- and be confident it would operate with existing systems.

Dave Evans, chief information officer, J.C. Penney, Plano, Texas, who rallied retailer participation in development of one of the two standards, JavaPOS supported by Sun, has since thrown his support behind the new effort for a single standard, called Unified-POS and based on both the JavaPOS standard and the standard supported by Microsoft, called OPOS.

"We at J.C. Penney continue to believe that universal standards for peripheral interfaces will benefit retailers, our software and hardware suppliers, and our customers by providing improved service at POS at lower costs," Evans said in a statement.

Mader said the ARTS organization, a standards body comprised of 250 retailers and technology vendors, will administer the standards and disseminate information to the industry in cooperation with the NRF.

Noting that there are other standards agencies pursuing similar goals, Mader called for a coordinated effort among the various organizations. A tentative merger of the NRF and ARTS is a first step toward that goal, he said, before urging the industry to come together and form a single standards-setting body.

"Our proposal is simply this: One retail standards federation. It doesn't mean other groups collapse, it says one group should review, identify, educate and document standards," he said.

As a start, Mader suggested the core group should include representatives of the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Standards (VICS) organization, Washington; the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), Alexandria, Va., the Uniform Code Council, Dayton, Ohio; and the NRF/ARTS. Other industry associations are welcome to participate, he added.