Unifying Data Systems Gives Retailers an Edge

ATLANTA Implementing a unified corporate data system is helping both Canadian retail giant Sobeys and regional food retailer Brookshire Grocery react faster and better to consumer needs, executives from those companies said last week. We had complex systems that didn't talk to each other, said Clinton Keay, senior vice president and chief information officer of Sobeys, Stellarton, Nova Scotia. We'd

ATLANTA — Implementing a unified corporate data system is helping both Canadian retail giant Sobeys and regional food retailer Brookshire Grocery react faster and better to consumer needs, executives from those companies said last week.

“We had complex systems that didn't talk to each other,” said Clinton Keay, senior vice president and chief information officer of Sobeys, Stellarton, Nova Scotia. “We'd all be in a meeting and everyone would have different numbers. We needed a simplified, single source of the truth.”

Keay made these comments at SAP's Sapphire '07 user conference held here at the Georgia World Congress Center April 22-25. He took part in a panel discussion on directions and challenges for food retailers.

Sobeys, which operates 1,300 stores in all 10 provinces of Canada, originally chose SAP products in 1996 to help the company avert any Y2K problems, as well as to help unify the many disparate systems that were in use. Sobeys' acquisition of the Oshawa Group in 1998 meant that the company inherited even more legacy systems.

Sobeys has used SAP for financials, payroll, human resources and retail management. The company's original implementation of the retail management application ran into difficulties, but it has successfully implemented it since 2004, according to published reports.

Similarly, executives and managers at Brookshire Grocery, Tyler, Texas, were using out-of-date software that was not integrated and often required multiple entries of the same data into different systems.

“We had lots of data in our systems, but we couldn't get it out; we couldn't do reporting,” said Gary Butler, senior vice president and CIO at Brookshire Grocery, another participant in the Sapphire '07 panel discussion. “We were being held back by our systems.”

Privately held Brookshire Grocery has 122 Brookshire supermarkets, as well as 30 Super 1 food stores, two Ole Foods stores catering to the Hispanic market and one experimental store, ALPS (Always Low Price Store), in Arkansas. Brookshire also uses SAP for financials, payroll and HR. It also started using SAP for POS data management this month, and will be using another SAP retail application for category management beginning next April.

To ease the rollout of the SAP systems, Butler said the company chose a team of employees who were dedicated to the implementation project, going so far as to build them a special project room.

Butler admitted that in the early phase of the rollout, the information technology team didn't take into account the importance of change management. “Now we have a change management team,” he said. “We recognize the impact on the business, and the importance of how you get the workforce ready for the change.”

SHARING INFORMATION

Today, both retailers say their companies are stronger and more efficient with the new software systems in place.

“What we've seen is the ability to share information with retail leaders,” said Butler. “Before, we had the data, but couldn't share it. This allows us to budget, forecast and pay attention to areas we're weak in. We can watch what's going on daily to determine how well we're doing.”

Butler also said his company has a better competitive edge now. “We can do management at the item and the category level, where the profits are,” he said. “We have better control over purchasing, and we can also do a better job of managing capital expenditures.”

The boon to Sobeys, said Keay, was the opportunity to switch from reporting information in batch mode to being able to access data in real time.

In addition, he said, “All of our different operators can look at data with the confidence that we're looking at the same number.”

Keay stressed the importance of maintaining operating systems so they remain up to date.

“As we consolidate, how do we ensure that we don't go back to a legacy world again, with all different platforms?” he said. “We want to do upgrades efficiently and stay current with the [latest] versions, while ensuring as an organization that we don't start diverging.”