As a longtime follower of professional sports, I have always been fascinated by players who are not only talented, but also different. They bring a certain quality or quirk to their game that is unprecedented. It gives them a competitive advantage -- and leaves an indelible mark on their sport, sometimes changing it forever.
One example is Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, a guard for the NBA's Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) and New York Knicks who played in the 1960s and '70s. Monroe's spinning, whirling-dervish moves were unique. He invented a basketball style later adopted, in part, by Michael Jordan and others.
I think pursuing a special vision that owes nothing to the established norm is a quality that translates to any field. It's something that struck me as being common to all of the five winners of this year's SN Technology Excellence Awards, which were presented last night at a dinner and ceremony coinciding with Food Marketing Institute's Marketechnics show in Washington. Coverage of the awards and the winning companies begins on Page 39.
The companies that received this year's awards recognize how technology can be used to gain important process improvements, as well as a competitive edge in a tough business environment. In each case, they did something completely unexpected and did it so well that the benefits were undeniable.
Hannaford Bros., winner in the chain category, is a good case in point. Since joining the New England-based chain as chief information officer in 1996, Bill Homa has adopted a number of systems that were not necessarily common fare in retailing. Most recently, he decided, totally against the grain, to deploy a POS system based on the "freeware" Linux operating system, rather than the predictable Windows or proprietary systems.
Marv Imus, president of one-store Paw Paw Shopping Center in Southwest Michigan, who received the independent award, also falls into the "different drummer" category for his remarkable pursuit of any technology that would give him a better understanding of his shoppers. His long hours staring at PC screens have resulted in some memorable loyalty card programs that keep him viable in a fiercely competitive market.
Associated Food Stores, the wholesale winner, drew considerable attention in technology circles well beyond food retailing for adopting an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag system for tracking the trailers in its yard. It's breaking the mold again with the development of store-specific planograms for its independents in eight Western states.
FreshDirect, the upstart online grocer whose ubiquitous delivery trucks are now a fixture on the streets of New York, took on the daunting task of selling fresh food online in a completely novel way, developing a state-of-the-art warehouse and cutting out the middle man. And Marks & Spencer, the venerable U.K. retailer of food and clothing, has developed the most advanced RFID-based supply chain tracking system in the world without waiting for Wal-Mart Stores or the EPC (electronic product code).
Of course, many retailers will be quick to say that they are merchants, not technologists, and can't take risks like these companies. Yet the truth is that these companies are in it for the business benefits, not the technology. They just saw, more creatively than most, how technology could get those results.