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As the winter winds down and spring approaches, it can mean only one thing: awards season. There are the Grammys, the Golden Globes, and last night's Oscars, among many others.

At SN, the Technology & Logistics section is proud to have started its own annual awards program, The Technology Excellence Awards, now in its second year. This year's five winning companies, who received their awards last night at a special dinner and ceremony in San Francisco coinciding with this week's Marketechnics show, are profiled in this week's section, beginning on Page 55.

The 2004 program features two new categories of awards -- online sales and international -- to go along with the original three categories of chain, wholesaler and independent. Awards in the two new categories are clearly appropriate, given the growing importance of online retailing as well as the extraordinary accomplishments of food retailers outside of the United States.

And the winners are (envelope opens): Shaw's Supermarkets (chain), Unified Western Grocers (wholesaler), Dorothy Lane Markets (independent), Peapod (online sales) and Metro Group (international). Congratulations to all.

SN is also pleased to have a sponsor for the first time for the awards program -- Lawson Software. I would like to thank Lawson for recognizing the value and importance of this program, which spotlights food distribution companies that have demonstrated both innovation and leadership in their use of technology.

There's a lot of fun and excitement associated with awards programs, but it's harder than it looks. Narrowing down a field of many outstanding candidates and ultimately picking five winners is a long and challenging process. While all of the companies selected for this year's awards are, I believe, deserving of recognition, it was necessary to pass over many companies for which a compelling case could be made.

But for me, the awards program is worth all of the labor and struggle because at the end, I am able to bring together in one section -- and in one dinner and ceremony -- five of the most creative and dynamic companies in the industry, companies whose creativity and leadership in the use of technology stand as outstanding examples of what can be accomplished.

For all of the challenges that food retailers face today -- labor strife, competitive pressures from Wal-Mart, product proliferation, an array of new government regulations, and a volatile economic and political climate -- here are five companies that took the initiative by harnessing the power of technology. Technology is never the only answer, but as these companies demonstrate, it can still make a real difference.

As you would expect, each of the winners came to technology excellence in its own way. Shaw's has a history of technology leadership, going back to the early days of scanning and in the 1990s with Efficient Consumer Response (ECR). Unified Western Grocer's commitment to IT was stoked by its growth through merger. Dorothy Lane Markets saw the value of focusing its marketing efforts on its best customers through its loyalty program. Peapod realized the way to success in the heady world of online sales was in mastering delivery. And Metro Group saw the possibilities in creating a real-world test lab in one of its supermarkets.

But they all have one thing in common: an eagerness to make the bits and bytes work for them.