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Electronic cash registers are now fitted with much of the guts of a computer, but a few enterprising supermarkets are equipping checkstands with actual personal computers.
Although it's not a major trend in the supermarket industry yet, specially configured personal computers are already a common sight in convenience stores, gas stations and some chain drug stores.
Bigg's Hyper Shoppes, Milford, Ohio, is among the handful of food retailers checking out the technology. Dave Ashby, director of management information systems, is a convert.
"The throughput at the front end is excellent on PC-based systems," Ashby said. "Customers say they never have to wait in line with this system, and that's what it's all about. There's nothing like being in the store on a Saturday and seeing lanes only two or three people deep."
Bigg's has installed PCs at checkouts in four of its seven hypermarkets. With 50 lanes in each store, the move was a major commitment.
But Bigg's isn't the only one equipping checkstands with
PCs. H-E-B Grocery Co., San Antonio, will complete installation of PCs in 30 of its stores this month. Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., has installed PCs at registers in 15 stores and plans to move ahead with additional installations, and Nob Hill General Store, Gilroy, Calif., has placed PCs at checkouts in all 26 of its stores.
Shoppers appreciate the extra information the point-of-sale computers give them -- be it on a standard screen or a miniature screen mounted on a pole.
"The screen gives a running list of the last five items rung up and a running total so shoppers don't have to stop the cashier to ask for a subtotal," said John Lasater, manager of retail systems at Save Mart.
"It even lists all the coupon discounts and their total so shoppers don't have to recheck their receipt to make sure the discounts were subtracted."
Robert Killough, manager of store systems at H-E-B, agreed. "Shoppers are drawn into the checkout process," he said.
Bigg's Ashby said customers and cashiers were especially pleased with the PCs in stores that converted from electronic cash registers.
"In the new stores they don't notice the difference, but in the two stores we converted, customers and cashiers are very happy with the speed and ease of use," he said.
But customer appeal was only part of the reason these chains opted to install PCs at the point of sale. The major reasons were ease of maintenance and functionality.
The units are connected to standard flat-bed scanners, and chains using the systems said scan rates are equivalent to or better than those of traditional systems.
Bigg's Ashby said retrieving data from the systems is quicker than on electronic cash registers. He said the chain still runs reports at night so as not to affect the front end, but added that the system is quick enough that the chain could run reports during peak hours if desired.
For Nob Hill, the deciding factor in switching from electronic cash registers was the lower cost of not keeping a mainframe computer to support the individual stations.
"There's a big difference in maintenance costs," said Tom Howell, director of POS at Nob Hill. "You don't need the large, backroom computers. We have 286s at the checkouts, and all we need to run them is a 386 in the back room."
Nob Hill has had a PC-based system installed longer than any chain contacted by SN. Howell said the chain installed the system in 1988 and has since upgraded it twice.
Save Mart's Lasater said keeping checkouts running in the event of a system failure was a major reason that chain opted for PC-based POS systems.
"We can continue to operate the 386s we have in each lane independently if communications with the host system at headquarters go down," Lasater said. "That's a concern for us because of the extreme weather conditions at some of our more remote stores in Sierras. They get an awful lot of snow."
Nob Hill's Howell agreed. "These systems just run," he said. "They aren't real sensitive to power surges, and if the back room goes out you can still run the registers."
Lasater added that the systems give Save Mart an unprecedented level of flexibility when it comes to configuring the front end.
"You can actually bring in a lane or two for a peak season and take it out when you don't need it and use that space for merchandising," he said.
"You can literally plug and play. It plugs in as easy as a telephone."
Lasater said the systems, from Bristol, Pa.-based Store Automated Systems, are as easy to service as they are to install. Replacing malfunctioning keyboards is one example.
"If it's a Saturday morning and you blow a keyboard, I can just send another one out to that store," he explained. "These are the quick fixes you take for granted."
But even when problems are not so quickly solved, Lasater said the systems are sufficiently straightforward to troubleshoot that the chain handles maintenance itself, with only occasional support from the equipment and software vendor.
"These systems offer retailers a lot of independence," Lasater said. "You're not locked into a fixed maintenance contract. Our own staff people handle all the wiring, hookup and maintenance."
Nob Hill's Howell said that although the systems can operate independently from a host computer, it is no more difficult to broadcast price changes than on a traditional system. The command travels in a loop from one register to the next, Howell said.
"By the time you do a price change on the store controller and program it out to the first lane, it's already at the last lane," he said. "It flies."
Howell added that ease of compatibility might convince other supermarkets to install PCs at the point of sale in the future. He also expects the hardware and software to become simple to interface in coming years.
"In the next 10 years everything will be interchangeable," Howell said."
"What people are looking for is open systems architecture," said Thom Shortt, director of retail services at Edison, N.J.-based wholesaler Twin County Grocers. "They want to be able to trade out printers and software -- to be able to go down to the nearest computer store and buy whatever they need right off the shelf."
Save Mart's Lasater said that's not the case with his system yet, but said the situation hasn't created any significant problems.
H-E-B designed its PC solution on its own. Compatibility and the freedom to work with multiple hardware and software vendors was the deciding factor.
"Multivendor solutions result in lower costs because of increased competition," Killough of H-E-B said.