Systems aside, proponents of Efficient Consumer Response say it's the effective standardization of electronic data interchange languages that will make or break ECR.
Currently, EDI is used to transmit purchase orders and invoices. But as ECR takes hold, retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers will rely on EDI to communicate point-of-sale data, warehouse-withdrawal data and delivery schedules.
"EDI is now mostly used for the basics, like purchase orders and invoices," said Garen Wisner, a partner at Chicago-based Andersen Consulting.
But the nature of the information the supermarket industry would like to move electronically is changing, and that change is engendering support for communications standards that serve specific needs.
The Uniform Communications Standard is the current language for communications in the grocery industry. Like any human language, UCS comes complete with a dictionary -- this one is of data elements, not words -- to make sure transmitters and receivers understand each other.
UCS is the language used between manufacturers and wholesalers and directly between manufacturers and chains in direct-store-delivery scenarios to transmit purchase orders and invoices. But while UCS has performed well in those situations, retailers and wholesalers say the language is too rigid to facilitate the fluid transmission of information between retailers and wholesalers and within supermarket companies.
The alternative is Standard Interface Language. Proponents of SIL, mostly wholesalers and independents, prefer it because it allows them to electronically transmit select bits of information rather than entire files.
"We are looking more toward SIL because you don't have to send whole files down," said Mike Hubert, director of management information systems at Hastings, Mich.-based G&R Felpausch Co.
The main advantage of SIL for supermarkets and wholesalers is its interactive nature. Users can query data bases and retrieve only the information necessary to the task at hand. SIL is based on a subset of Structural Query Language, a sort of de facto standard that retailers and wholesalers began adapting to their needs in the late 1980s.
"UCS uses a very rigid method of transmitting transaction sets," said Thom Shortt, director of retail services at Edison, N.J.-based Twin County Grocers and a stalwart advocate of SIL. "What SIL gives us is a language that isn't in a standard send-and-receive mode."
Shortt explains, "If, as a wholesaler, I 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," he said. "With UCS I'd have to send down a complete transaction set -- all the information related to that SKU. If I were sending down 1,000 price changes, I'd have to send down 1,000 transaction sets that include field sets carrying irrelevant information. You can see how fast that would get out of control."
Though SIL does compare favorably to UCS from wholesalers' and retailers' perspectives, SIL's detail-oriented, interactive nature is not the primary force that will drive its acceptance in the supermarket industry. If SIL takes hold, observers say, it will be because wholesalers and large chains are overwhelmed by the number of proprietary protocols they must support to communicate with point-of-sale systems made by different manufacturers.
For Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, the situation has not come to that yet. "We have proprietary systems, but we already have the packages in place to communicate electronically with them," said Al Van Luvender, vice president of MIS at Riser. "We have so many other priorities on the table now that we are not bothering to try to fix the situation."
Van Luvender said the one-time cost of transferring from proprietary systems to SIL would deter many retailers from making the switch, even though switching to SIL might be better in the long run.
If a retailer brings on more proprietary systems, however, the equation changes.
"The number of systems you're out there supporting will drive the decision to switch to SIL," Van Luvender said. "If it's a burden to support multiple proprietary systems, that would be the catalyst to switch to SIL, but it would have to be a dollars-and-cents decision."
Van Luvender predicted that SIL's greatest appeal to retailers will be among large chains that are supporting many different proprietary point-of-sale systems. "That's where the push would come from for a chain like Kroger with lots of different systems," he added.
Felpausch's Hubert said SIL could actually extend the useful lifetime of older proprietary point-of-sale systems retailers might otherwise consider trashing when they purchase new systems. By using SIL with both the new systems and the older system, the retailer could reduce capital outlay and still standardize data communications within the chain.
"Some of the old proprietary systems can still create a standard output," Hubert said. "You can take a proprietary box and reformat the data as long as it all looks the same when you send it via EDI using SIL."
In addition to operating 45 company-owned stores, Riser is also a wholesaler. It's in the wholesaler's role that Riser is most attracted to SIL.
"SIL is more attractive to us as a wholesaler than as a retailer," Van Luvender said.
For Twin County, the situation has become critical.
"It has taken us years to get ourselves into the bind we're in now," Twin County's Shortt said. "We are supporting so many different formats -- IBM, NCR, Sweda, SASI -- you name it."
Recognition of SIL by hardware and software vendors is expected to speed the acceptance of the language by both wholesalers and retailers.
"I've been hearing about SIL for five years, but the reason it's getting so much more attention now is that companies are making systems that utilize and support it," said Jim Holderidge, manager of in-store systems at the P&C Food Markets division of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic Co.
P&C began using the language to communicate with three of its 109 company-owned stores last September.
The Dayton, Ohio-based Uniform Code Council is expected to give a final thumbs-up to SIL when its board of governors meets on April 29. UCC, however, is being cautious not to be seen as promoting SIL as a replacement for UCS.
UCC's executive committee met to discuss how to best support the language last month.
"There was unanimous agreement that we should move ahead on the SIL programs," UCC President Hal Juckett told SN after that meeting.
As part of its endorsement of SIL, however, UCC is striving to clarify what communications SIL would facilitate and what communications UCS would facilitate.
"People have to know what messages would be sent via SIL and what via UCS," Juckett said. "The one thing we don't want to have is overlap."
Juckett and Twin County's Shortt agreed that SIL would likely be used in the wholesaler-to-retailer leg of the distribution pipeline, while UCS would continue to be used in the manufacturer-to-wholesaler leg and in direct-store-delivery scenarios.
Juckett said many manufacturers are satisfied with the performance of UCS in their dealings with wholesalers and with DSD and would not want to adjust their operations to SIL.