During the recent recession, with revenue gains hard to come by, retailers have increasingly turned to cost-cutting maneuvers, and few areas offer more such opportunities than information technology.
A good example can be found in the Technology section feature on cloud computing here. By leveraging the “cloud” — also known as the Internet — for software, platform and infrastructure needs, retailers stand to slash their IT expenditures.
Some forward-thinking food distributors have begun testing cloud computing and other new cost-saving technologies in a serious way. But one underutilized opportunity is participation in organizations that create standards for retail IT, notably the Association for Retail Technology Standards (ARTS), a division of the National Retail Federation, Washington.
Other trade associations also encourage retailer participation in technology discussions, including the Food Marketing Institute (through its IT committee and e-share groups), the National Grocers Association (in its Center for Applied Technology). GS1 US, the overseer of bar codes and other commercial standards, is also a retailer-driven institution. But for the moment I will discuss ARTS.
Founded in 1993, ARTS is focused on reducing the cost of retail technology through the creation of standards that allow retailers to choose freely among IT systems without being locked into any one provider. The organization also offers a data model and request-for-proposal guidelines that can help retailers with IT development and technology selection, respectively.
ARTS' membership consists of an international group of retailers from all segments as well as application developers and hardware providers. Yet, according to a list on its website (www.nrf-arts.org), the only conventional U.S. food retailers belonging to ARTS are Kroger, Ahold, Publix, Raley's and A&P.
Of course, one reason for the low participation rate is that ARTS membership is not free, though it's not prohibitive. Costs and benefits of membership are outlined on the ARTS website.
But the real benefit to retailers in joining a group like ARTS is having access to the inner sanctum of the retail IT world, where they can learn from the masters and voice their concerns and needs. Retail members can play an important role on the ARTS committees — such as the cloud computing committee, which is co-chaired by Kroger — that set the agenda for retail IT development.
“We hope that retailers participate in ARTS and get into the discussion,” said Johanna Koester, retail standards lead, IBM Software Group, Raleigh, N.C., and a member of the cloud computing committee. “It's helpful to get input from retailers. It gives them access to vendors, but not in a sales environment. It's an open standards environment where they can ask questions and learn.”
It behooves food retailers to join the conversation about retail technology, for the benefit of their own companies and the industry at large.
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