Technology provides retail therapy

23 Nov 2006

When a business reaches a certain size and complexity, the case for having an IT system that can automate core business processes becomes overwhelming.

The Londis convenience store chain has already seen the value of putting technology to work, having invested half a million euro in an online resource called L.E.A.D.E.R. which stands for Learning, Expertise And Development for Everyday Retailing.

It provides the company’s 300 stores with information like supplier lists, customer service, marketing support, off-licence guides, health and safety information, important food safety specifications or legal and employment requirements.

Brian O’Hare, who runs the Londis outlet in Ballinakil, Co Waterford is a fan. “It is an extremely beneficial business tool, that can save you time and money and anything that saves me time is worth its weight in gold,” he says. “It is a business tool that will benefit my business in both the short and long term.”

In retail, IT is increasingly seen as an indispensable tool, says Frank Corr, commercial director of IT services firm Datapac Business Solutions, which has lately been seeing this trend reflected in a healthy growth in the retail area of its business.

“We’re seeing the retail sector using technology to drive the business. Retailing is a low-margin business so retailers see IT as a means of differentiating themselves and adding value to their business,” he says.

Although retailers have used ‘EPOS’ (electronic point of sale) for many years now, retail technology is becoming increasingly advanced.

EPOS originally meant scanning systems but there are many POS systems available that include fully integrated accounting, inventory management, customer relationship management (CRM) and payroll modules.

EPOS systems continue to evolve. They include handheld terminals that allow shop workers to check stock at the touch of a button and mobile phone top-up terminals that integrate directly with the EPOS system, systems that run voucher and loyalty programmes and those that monitor inventory levels and number-crunch a store’s turnover product by product and brand by brand.

Retail outlets are awash with the technology that can improve customer service while helping them to run their businesses more efficiently.

The deployment of retail management systems is not limited to retailers themselves: suppliers too see the value of technology that can give them a detailed insight into the in-store performance of their products.

In a recent implementation, Insero, an O2 Ireland IT services partner, rolled out a new stock information system for Nutricia Babyfood, maker of Milupa and other well-known brands, enabling it to capture stock levels electronically and in turn leading to a significant increase in sales.

The application, called Benchmarc, works via O2’s Xda handheld device with information sent wirelessly over the mobile network back to Nutricia’s head office.

In the past, Nutricia staff manually calculated stock levels in each store and this inevitably led to a slow feed of information from store to head office while also creating additional manual administration work.

Now sales orders can be downloaded immediately via the O2 network, using the Benchmarc system and promotional activity can be electronically monitored more accurately and quickly.

John Lee, sales director at Nutricia, comments: “By implementing the Benchmarc solution we can monitor our nationwide sales in real time.

“Having this information has speeded up our sales cycle and gives us greater visibility of in-store issues including information on products out of stock, promotional information, competitor data and pricing.”

It wasn’t long ago that retail technology was limited to large department stores and retail chains but as hardware and software prices have fallen, small to medium-sized retailers can afford to use this technology, notes Corr. This trend has been accompanied by the appearance of Microsoft in the retail technology space.

Whether the software giant is actually responsible for the democratisation of retail technology or whether the trend was happening anyway and Microsoft simply jumped on the bandwagon is unclear.

What is certain is that Microsoft is making its presence felt, especially at the SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) end of the market with its Microsoft Retail Management System (RMS) and EPOS and inventory management system that integrates with Microsoft Office and other business applications.

What has given Microsoft extra punching power in this sector is its acquisition three years ago of Navision, a Danish software firm specialising in financial and business management applications which had built up a strong following in the SME market.

In the wake of that acquisition, Microsoft Navision was launched, which later evolved into the current offering, Microsoft Dynamics Nav, a combined stock and accounts management system.

Newly acquired Microsoft retail customers include fashion brand Guess which recently opened an outlet on South Anne Street in Dublin.

The outlet has three point-of-sale terminals that are networked to radio frequency (RF) handheld scanning terminals and uses Microsoft RMS as its point-of-sale and stock management system.

Total Retail Control (TRC), the Irish technology provider which supplied the system, created special import and export routines within Microsoft RMS for Guess’ sales and stock data.

Case study: Lubricating the wheel of commerce
When Billy Molloy (pictured with Frank Corr, commercial director, Datapac), financial controller at Nicholas Mosse Pottery, was scouting around for a new IT system he had a very clear idea of what he was looking for.

“We wanted an integrated accounts and stock system that would provide fast and efficient information on our business that would be easy to operate for accounts, manufacturing and quality control,” he says.

One of Ireland’s largest and most successful traditional pottery makers, Nicholas Mosse employs 80 people at its pottery and shop in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny and a further 10 in the historic market town of Midhurst, West Sussex, in the UK.

For some time the company had been using three different business systems that were incompatible with each other and not producing the type of information needed. It wanted a single system that would be easy to manage and put key business information at the management’s fingertips and found what it was looking for in Microsoft Dynamics Nav.

The application, which was implemented by Datapac, manages the accounts and stock management functions of the business and makes sales, manufacturing and quality control processes more transparent.

It integrates painlessly with Microsoft RMS, the retail management system the company uses in its retail outlets as well as the desktop office applications used by employees.

“From order taking through manufacturing and quality control to dispatch, the system provides full visibility and recording of all information,” Molloy remarks. “We can now forecast production requirements and monitor real-time quality information. All these processes were previously performed on spreadsheets and it was a terrible waste of time.”

By Brian Skelly