NEW YORK -- Supermarket retailers unsure whether to take advantage of electronic-commerce channels to sell their products, or to safeguard themselves against competitors who are doing so, may find solutions at one of the industry's key retail technology summits this fall, the National Retail Federation's Retail Information Systems Conference.
In addition, retailers will be seeking data-warehousing expertise to help make the mountains of information gathered at the supermarket point-of-sale more useful.
Lingering year-2000 issues, however, just may dominate at Riscon, to be held Oct. 18 to 21 in Denver.
"Year 2000 is still on everyone's mind," said Pat McIntyre, senior vice president and chief information officer of the 64-unit Bon Ton Stores, based in York, Pa. "This is the one time of year we get to rub elbows with our peers and learn from other people's experiences. We will try to take advantage of any new ideas or new approaches we uncover at Riscon."
A year-2000 "cram session" will address the rapidly shrinking supply of information technology professionals available to handle the technical aspects of the problem, which involves massive rewriting of computer codes or replacing software and hardware.
The session will also explore legal, financial and logistical implications that threaten companies whose systems will fail if not modified to correctly process dates in the new millennium.
"From our perspective, this show is the last great chance to handle all the year-2000 issues and their attendant problems," said Don Gilbert, senior vice president of information technology at the NRF, based in Washington.
He underscored the severity of the problem, especially for companies that have not progressed far enough in bringing their systems into year-2000 compliance. For those companies, solving the problem completely may not be an option; it may be more a matter of damage control and choosing which systems can be allowed to fail.
"This will be our last chance to teach major triage and help companies determine which limbs they are willing to hack off in order to survive," said Gilbert.
The focus of this year's event will be "teaching, training, educating and, to some degree, scaring" retailers who have not yet tackled many of the issues surrounding the year-2000 computer bug and all of its ramifications, he added, noting that he believes there are more companies out there that fall into this category than one might expect.
The Year 2000 Track Cram Course will cover subjects including the testing of systems, budgeting and allocating resources to key elements of survival plans, assessing the supply-chain's readiness to deal with the challenges, and fixing problems right down to an individual's desktop computer.
The course is expected to help retailers prioritize their year 2000 agenda, create a checklist, and determine the best practices for resolving their problems. They will also discover the latest tools for dealing with the problem, and analyze year-2000 legal implications, such as product liability.
Another NRF technology track, focused on the human-resources issues surrounding information technology, will complement the year-2000 track. Designed by the NRF's Information Technology Council, these sessions will target the chronic technology staffing problems that are plaguing the industry.
The sessions will examine compensation trends for technology professionals, employee retention issues, outsourcing and the "doomsday environment."
The NRF said the doomsday session will focus on helping chief information officers manage in a labor market where there is high turnover and low unemployment.
The session is intended to help CIOs develop contingency plans to deal with the problem.
Preparations for the technological terror that year 2000 and employee shortages could bring retailers will by no means be the sole focus of Riscon, however. Indeed, at least two other key technology areas -- data warehousing and electronic commerce -- are generating significant interest on their own.
Dave Evans, senior vice president at JCPenney Co., Plano, Texas, also serves as the NRF's Electronic Commerce Track leader. He said JCPenney will be presenting a session on its own experiences with electronic commerce.
The session will cover three areas of electronic commerce that are being used at the retail chain and should be considered by all retailers, he said. They involve using Internet technology to communicate with suppliers, customers and associates.
According to Evans, JCPenney's executives will discuss its use of an extranet to "grease the supply chain." By allowing its suppliers access to an extranet where they can check invoice status and sales reports, the company has created greater efficiencies in its relationships with suppliers.
An intranet helps JCPenney communicate internally with its employees. Using the public Internet, JCPenney also completes the electronic-commerce cycle with on-line sales of its complete inventory to consumers.
"We are talking about using electronic commerce for all transactions that occur between the buyer and the seller, not just the sale itself," said Evans.
JCPenney will also discuss the technology necessary to connect electronic-commerce initiatives to the back office, an issue of particular importance to Mike Bohan, management information systems manager at the 53-unit chocolate retailer Lindt & Sprungli, based in Stratham, N.H.
"We are hoping to be able to see how other companies have implemented on-line selling and tied it into their back offices," he said. Lindt & Sprungli, whose Swiss parent company already sells products on-line to a primarily European customer base, is interested in doing the same in the United States.
Riscon's Electronic Commerce Track will focus on several areas of electronic commerce of interest to retailers. The track will feature a series of educational sessions covering Internet commerce, Web-site development, payment technology, security practices as well as intranets and extranets.
"We're looking forward to learning how to implement newer technologies and take advantage of technologies that were only available to larger retailers before," said Bohan. "Riscon offers independent retailers a broad overview of these."