The supermarket industry is rallying around SIL as a standard for computer communication between individual stores and the corporate distribution centers and outside wholesalers that supply them.
A special task force set up by the Joint Industry Efficient Consumer Response Committee gave SIL, which stands for Standard Interface Language, a ringing endorsement in November. The Uniform Code Council will hold a special meeting on Sunday to discuss how to best support it, and SIL is expected to be a hot topic at the Food Marketing Institute's MarkeTechnics Conference in Tampa, Fla., next month.
SIL's proponents, who include FMI, the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, UCC, the National Grocers Association and a litany of wholesalers and retailers, say the standard is badly needed. The proliferation of proprietary languages, according to many, has seen communications to individual stores deteriorate into a sort of computerese Tower of Babel.
"It has taken us years to get ourselves into the bind we're in now," said Thom Shortt, director of retail services for Edison, N.J.-based wholesaler Twin County Grocers. "We are supporting so many different formats -- IBM, NCR, Sweda, SASI. You name it."
Besides decreasing the need for wholesalers to interface with multiple proprietary languages, SIL would allow them to selectively download and retrieve data from stores. Uniform Communications Standard, the standard manufacturers use to communicate with wholesalers and directly to some chains, doesn't allow that. Consequently, UCS is too cumbersome to be a viable alternative to the proprietary languages wholesalers and retailers' distribution centers use to communicate with store systems.
"Using proprietary languages is very costly and time consuming," Shortt said, "but UCS uses a very rigid method of transmitting transaction sets. What SIL gives us is a flexible, interactive language that isn't in a standard send-and-receive mode."
Shortt said the interactive capability of SIL allows users to query data bases -- letting them access only the information they need.
"If a wholesaler wanted to send a price change to a target device at a retail store with SIL, all I'd have to send down would be the price," Shortt explained. "With UCS, I'd have to send down a complete transaction set -- all the information related to that SKU. If I was sending down 1,000 price changes, I'd have to send down 1,000 transaction sets that include field sets carrying irrelevant information. It's a waste of time."
SIL is based on a subset of Structural Query Language (SQL). Wholesaler and retailer personnel began working on adapting the interactive language to their specific needs in the late 1980s.
It is recognition from the systems and software vendors, however, that is accelerating acceptance of the language, according to Jim Holderidge, manager of in-store systems at the P&C/ Quality Markets division of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic Co.
"I've been hearing about SIL for five years, but the reason it's getting so much more attention now is that companies like IBM and NCR are making systems that utilize and support it," Holderidge said.
P&C/Quality Markets began using the language to communicate with three of its 109 company-owned stores in September.
Hal Juckett, president of Dayton, Ohio-based UCC, said that body's board declined to support SIL when the ECR committee first approached it. Now, the UCC is ready to administer the language.
"We felt it wasn't tested and proved a couple of years ago when the ECR committee first came to us to discuss our administering the language," Juckett said. "But since then it has been further developed, and big companies like IBM and NCR support it. Now, we are looking at the possibility of SIL being a best practice in the grocery industry."
Shortt welcomes the UCC support.
"We've been after the UCC for years," he said. "We need them to issue a broad statement of support for SIL."
The UCC's change of position came in November after the council received a positive report on the language, which it and the ECR committee commissioned from Cambridge, Mass.-based Arthur D. Little Consulting.
"The presentation was a validation of everything we thought SIL could do," Shortt said. "A lot of wholesalers already have the language installed, but having the study done under the umbrella of ECR adds a lot of credibility to what we've been saying for years."
Shortt said wholesalers, who have to interface with many different computer systems at independent grocers, see SIL as a competitive necessity.
"We brought SIL to the attention of the ECR committee because we feared wholesalers and independents would have a hard time surviving in the age of ECR without a standard way of communicating," he said. "We let them know that without SIL it would be tough for us to play in this game."