WHAT’S NEW — AND WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON — IN RETAIL COMPUTER SYSTEMS.
Picture it: a beverage alcohol retail store with no one running its check-outs. Customers use the registers themselves, scanning items and following the register’s prompts to pay. The system’s software, which watches for odd transactions, its video camera, trained directly on the customer, and its weight-displacement sensors, which compare how much the shopping bag weighs to what the weight of the items scanned should be, prevent cheating.
How about checking IDs? One possibility: the system reads the magnetic stripes on customers’ drivers’ licenses and then examines their thumbprints or retinas to verify their identities.
Sound like science fiction? It’s closer to reality than you might think. At least two companies, NCR and Symbol Technologies, have self-check-out systems in use, mostly in supermarkets. Bio-technology, the use of thumbprints and retina scans by computerized equipment, is also already being used successfully by security systems and even by time & attendance devices, which verify employees’ identities when they clock in.
Like everything computer-related, systems for beverage alcohol stores continue to develop. Touchscreens at the check-out, wireless devices that can access the store’s data while an employee walks around the store, store websites that are integrated into the store’s system, the ability to access up-to-the-second inventory information at any time from any of the store’s terminals: these capabilities are available today.
Doug Smith, owner of Crown Wine & Liquor in Colorado Springs, CO, has been using a system from Cam Data for the last 10 years. But, boy, has it changed. “We used to have to use about 8 different floppies to back up our data every night,” remembered Smith. “Now, we use CDs and it is so much faster.” Smith recently upgraded his hardware to computers with Pentium processors in order to be Year 2000-compliant.
Consequently, he also upgraded his Cam system. “It’s faster, uses color monitors, provides better reports and holds more information, including a customer database,” he reported.
In his store, Smith has a separate terminal, a self-help kiosk for his customers, from Beverage Marketing Technologies (see Buyers’ Guide). Customers can find answers to all sorts of questions about wine, spirits and beer and receive buying suggestions, all geared to what Crown currently has in stock, complete with the store’s prices. The kiosk uses inventory information which Smith downloads from his Cam system.
Smith and his staff do find their kiosk to be useful. “We use it to help people plan their parties. They can enter the number of hours the event will be, the number of people, what kind of drinkers they are, what foods will be served and the machine will print out a shopping list for them,” Smith explained. “We also lead them over to the kiosk whenever they have a question. It’s like me having a wine steward and a bartender here at all times.”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The backbone of retail computer systems have always been their ability to keep track of inventory. By knowing what’s in stock and how much and how fast it is selling, a computer system allows a retailer to hone the ordering process. The goal is to provide customers with the products they want, without investing any more money than necessary into inventory.
Recently, more sophisticated inventory-management abilities have become increasingly available to smaller operations. A number of computer companies, including NCR, have begun to offer more sophisticated systems to retail operations with as few as 10 stores.
For example, Cromwell Liquors (the parent company of Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City and Home Liquors, a chain of 12 stores in New Jersey and Maryland) is in the process of installing a new system, from Gemmar International (See Buyers’ Guide). It will enable the operation to analyze and manage its inventory on a chainwide basis.
The new system will allow Cromwell Liquors to create a chainwide merchandising strategy and then tailor it for each store. For example, the system will allow the chain’s headquarters to create floor plans for each store, detailing how each location should be merchandising. People working at headquarters can even alter the store’s inventory, sending shipments from wholesalers or transfers from other stores, to ensure there is the necessary inventory to implement the floor plan.
Brown Derby, a 16-store chain headquartered in Springfield, MO, is also adding enhanced inventory-management capabilities. Brown Derby is upgrading its present system, from Atlantic. Tracy Wallin, the chain’s information system (IS) administrator, said that one of the most exciting new features will be its ability to access information on any store’s sales, past or present, at any time right from the computer system. “I will have that information on my hard drive versus having it in 20 boxes in the warehouse,” said Wallin.
Communication technology has improved and, in the process, become cheaper, enabling smaller chains to afford more sophisticated abilities. “It is absolutely revolutionary,” said Bob Brown, president of ProphetLine, a company that recently added the ability to use the internet for communication purposes to its system.
“The drawback in the past has been that you needed a minimum speed in your internet access and that was expensive. But now, access that had cost $2,500 a month is available for $50 a month.”
Brown Derby, for example, will be taking advantage of Atlantic Systems’ new e-mailing abilities. The older version of their system allowed the chain’s headquarters to e-mail notices to each store, but the stores could not e-mail back. The new system allows e-mail to be sent from every terminal in every store.
The newest computer systems also allow retailers to communicate with their customers more efficiently. When a retailer builds a customer database — keeping track of what individual customers have bought — they can use it to hone their marketing campaigns.
Doug Diesing, owner of Seaboard Wine Warehouse, a one-store operation in Raleigh, NC, has built up such a database on his system. “We suggest to regular customers that, if we have their names on file, we can tell them what they bought in the past,” he said, “and most people like that idea.”
“For a retailer selling a lot of wine, the data is invaluable,” said Brent Melbye, national sales manager for Cam Data. “With wines that are in limited supply, such as rare vintages, it is really important to be able to pinpoint which customers the retailer should target.”
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Beverage alcohol retailers and computer experts remain divided on the value of two of the flashier new computer capabilities: touchscreens and wireless terminals. Touchscreens, used at the point-of-sale, are supposed to make ringing up customers faster and easier. “Retail in general is starting to catch on to the ease of use in touchscreens,” said Matt Newcomb, marketing manager of Cap Automation. “All the restaurants are using them. Everything you need to know is on the screen.”
That’s the trouble with them, according to Cam Data’s Melbye. A liquor retailer has far too many items to list them all on a touchscreen the way a fast-food restaurant can list its offerings. “Touchscreens will never replace scanning,” he said.
Wireless technology can be used in two ways. One, when point-of-sale terminals are wireless, they are easier to set up and move around a store. Two, handheld terminals, which cost about $1,500 a piece, can be used to enter data, such as when a delivery of product is entered into the computer system at the loading. Brown Derby already uses wireless devices this way. “And we’re hoping to incorporate more,” reported Wallin, who said the chain is also looking into the use of wireless p-o-s terminals.
OPEN & SHUT: THE WINDOWS DEBATE
For retailers whose computer systems are not now Windows-based, the big question is: should they convert? After all, most computer companies are coming out with Windows-based systems, though some plan to keep offering their non-Windows-based products as well.
“Everyone out there wants Windows,” said Cam Data’s Melbye. “You can’t even get a computer that’s not loaded with Windows anymore. Every application without Windows is going to be dead in two or three years.”
As for small operations, David Thomas, president of Intellilink, said, “Many Mom & Pop operations don’t want to spend money for extra terminals. With a Windows retail system, they can use the same terminal they use as a register for other functions. They can start the order process, then flip back over to register function when they need to wait on a customer.”
Still, some computer companies assert that Windows may not be the best option. “Our package is only as good as its operating system,” said Newcomb, whose company, Cap Automation, offers its SellWise product in both DOS and Windows. While Windows does has some advantages, he explained, it is not as stable as other operating systems, an important consideration for a retail system. After all, the last thing retailers want to see in the middle of a busy day is what Newcomb called “the blue screen of death” at its check-out terminals.
Charles Hayes, president of Cetech, agreed. His system is available on three platforms: Windows, Linux and SCL Unix. “Many people do insist on Windows,” he said, “but Linux is much more stable. It runs better and faster.” And his two Unix systems can import their data to a Windows workstation. The key, Hayes said, is not to get stuck in an operating system.
While computer companies continue to offer new features, it remains for retailers to sort between the merely flashy and the truly revolutionary. And to do that, the savviest retailers know to ask, not what’s new, but what will it do for me.
COMPUTER SYSTEMS BUYERS’ GUIDE
ATLANTIC SYSTEMS, INC.
This company has offered computer systems meant specifically for beverage alcohol stores since 1980, including a Windows-based product called Spirits 2000. The company provides a complete system, including hardware, software, installation, training and support. Spirits 2000 multi-store processing allows a retailer to control all stores in a chain from a central location. Call 732-280-6616, Ext. 127 or visit the company’s website at www.asi-nj.com.
BEVERAGE MARKETING TECHNOLOGIES
This company offers retailers the use of computerized kiosks loaded with information about wine, spirits and beer, including party planning suggestions, wine/food pairings and drink and food recipes. Beverage Marketing, which makes its money displaying supplier advertisements, provides retailers with the kiosks, though it charges a monthly maintenance fee. In many cases, the kiosk can use the store’s own inventory data from its computer system (including those from Cetech, Innovative Computer Solutions, Cam Data and Atlantic) to give the customer buying suggestions based on what the retailer currently has in stock and to display the store’s prices. Call 914-232-1000 or visit the company’s website at www.choicemaster.com.
CAM DATA SYSTEMS, INC.
This 17-year-old company offers a PC-based system meant for small- to medium-sized operations, including chains of up to 40 stores. The company can provide all the hardware and software for a system as well as installation and support services. Prices start at approximately $15,000 for a single-register system with scanning. The company is also offering software for very small retail operations for free, with a $30 shipping and handling charge, through its website. Call 1-800-726-3282 or visit www.camdata.com.
This company, in business since 1978, offers general p-o-s software, called SellWise, currently being used by over 100 beverage alcohol retailers. Its Windows-based version is being launched this summer. Call 800-826-5009 or go to www.capauto.com.
This company’s original system, Spirits, introduced in 1987, was designed specifically for New York State liquor retailers. The company has since introduced an expanded system, Spirits Plus, which can be used in other states. Both products can run on several platforms, including Windows and Linux. Prices for the software start at $1,595 for a single-user operation and at $995 per user for a multi-user system. For more information, call 716-883-7063.
This company offers hardware and software products for small to medium operations, including chains. Its retail systems, which use terminals rather than PCs at the point-of-sale, are currently installed in over 120,000 applications, including almost 200 beverage alcohol stores throughout North America. Prices range from under $1,500 for a single p-o-s terminal to $5,000 for a fully integrated system including back office and inventory software. Call 1-800-265-9930 or go to www.datasym.com.
GEMMAR SYSTEMS INTERNATIONAL (GSI)
This company, founded in 1983, provides computer systems for mid-sized retail chains, from 10 to 180 stores. It provides software, hardware, installation, training as well as support and enhancement services. Call 404-264-9833 or visit its website atwww.gsi.ca.
IBM’s SureOne is a p-o-s terminal/personal computer designed for small-to medium-sized retailers. It can run all existing PC applications, including Windows, OS/2 and DOS. The basic model, which includes a cash drawer, costs approximately $3,000. Call 1-800-871-9240 or visit www.ibm.com.
INNOVATIVE COMPUTER SOLUTIONS
This 19-year-old company sells Control Plus, a computer system designed specifically for beverage alcohol retailers. The system, available in versions that run under Windows or Unix as well as one that runs on Alpha Micros computers, can operate in single-store operations or in chains and can handle up to 14 checkout stations per store. New options include website capabilities and an informational kiosk. Prices for Control Plus, including both hardware and software, start at $9,500 for a set-up including one register and a scanner. Forty hours of on-site training are included. Call 732-223-0909 or go to www.icscontrolplus.com.
INTELLILINK SERVICES, INC.
This company’s software for beverage alcohol stores, called Easy1, runs under Windows NT and offers retailers the option of using touchscreen terminals at the point-of-sale. Its terminals can also be set to play in-store advertisements, which include both visuals and audio. Prices for the point-of-sale system, including both hardware, with a 15-inch touchscreen, and software, start at $3,995. For $500 more, retailers can add a store-management system, including inventory control and ordering functions. A system to link the stores in a chain is also available. The company offers two free guides to help retailers assess their computer needs and can interact with retailers and provide them with a proposal to fit their needs online. Call 256-430-0077 or visit www.ilsa.com.
This company, which introduced the first mechanical cash registers in 1884 and the first bar-code scanners in 1974, is still a leading provider of technology for retail operations of all types. Some of its latest products include a self-checkout system, a wireless shelf-label system, a touchscreen information kiosk and a signature verification terminal. Call 937-445-5000 or visit the company’s website at www.ncr.com.
This company, which produces software for small- to medium-sized specialty retailers, has been named a Retail Application Developer of the Year by Microsoft three times in a row. Its point-of-sale system, the ProphetLine System Manager, is priced starting at $1,995 for a single user with one lane and at $2,495 for a multi-user version. ProphetLine for Windows, Version 6.0 can use touchscreen terminals at the point-of-sale and can allow stores in a chain to e-mail their daily results to headquarters. Access the company’s web site at www.prophetline.com or call 1-800-875-6592.
This company produces systems for larger operations, with at least $15 to $20 million in annual gross revenues. Prices for its systems start at $2,500 to $3,000 per register. Call 770-425-0401 or visit the company’s website at www.rtc-group.com.
SALES MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
QuickSell 2000, a Windows-based system for small to medium-sized retailers, has won awards and recognition from Microsoft, IBM and the National Retail Federation. SMS also offers QuickSell Headquarters, retail management software for multi-store operations, which enables retailers to manage the inventory for the entire chain. Call 1-800-322-3052 or visit the company’s website at www.smspos.com.
This company specializes in wireless and hand-held computer technology for retail operations, including a system in which customers scan their own purchases while they shop, using a handheld device. Call 800-722-6234 or 516-738-5200 or visit the company’s website at www.symbol.com.