Retail management tool keeps shelves properly stocked


A chain of drive-through convenience stores across the U.S. counts on a point-of-sale and retail management tool to keep its shelves stocked at all times.

The head office of Swiss Farms, in Broomall, PA., now receives real-time sales data from its 12 stores, and can manage inventory, product rollouts and promotions using Star-Link.

Star-Link is a system that consolidates and communicates inventory information, sales updates, and product promotions – developed by Medicine Hat, Alta.-based Auto-Star Compusystems Inc., a provider of grocery, pharmacy and convenience store-management software.

Prior to implementing the tool last April, inventory management was tackled on a store-by-store basis, says Scott Davi, management information systems director at Swiss Farms. “It was hard to get a grasp of the company as a whole. Many different reports would come from individual stores that had to be consolidated.”

The old system Swiss Farms stores used lacked the real-time reporting element, meaning that sales data would become available through a “batch process” at certain times of the day, says Robert Symmonds, president, Auto-Star Compusystems.

“It wasn’t until the next day past noon when the head office would get reliable sales information on how the stores were doing,” he says.

“The head office now knows exactly what its stores are selling and what their sales margins are. If it needs to get more inventory to stores before [stock] runs out, it can do that on a real-time basis versus having to wait a day and a half for information,” says Symmonds.

Individual store managers can still purchase products on their own, however, for the most part, says Davi, inventory is handled at the head office with Star Link.

Besides deploying the retail management component at the head office, a point-of-sale tool, Star-Plus, was implemented at the store level that’s designed to manage cash, track product quantity and retail costs, and run reports.

Retail stores can use the system to automatically place product orders with vendors or with their head-office, as is the case with Swiss Farms.

While it offers real-time tracking capabilities, Star-Plus is dependable because it makes data redundant, ensuring the tills can operate independently, says Davi. “Before this, if one till had a problem, the whole store would go down.”

According to Davi, besides its ability to consolidate data from multiple stores, maintain inventory from the head office, and keep implementation and upkeep costs low, another value proposition is the development platform on which the Star-Plus system is based.

“It was built on Microsoft SQL server – that is critical to our business and our other applications,” says Davi.

According to Symmonds, All-Star customers in search of cost savings had requested that the applications be Linux-based. “But we found that total cost of ownership of a Windows-based solution is a lot cheaper for everyone.”

Microsoft-trained information technology (IT) professionals are abundant and relatively affordable, says Symmonds. “In addition, retailers would probably have to have more of an IT infrastructure with open source than with Microsoft.”

But besides tackling the issue of manpower, Auto-Star wanted to ensure it would not be hindered in further developing the application. “It was important to know where the technology is going so we can develop, not just for today’s trends, but the trends of tomorrow, and those of five, ten years down the road,” he says.

To that end, All-Star applications are developed in Windows .NET using Visual C# for rapid application development, he adds.

Furthermore, from the clients’ perspective, employees would likely be more familiar with a Microsoft environment, and this would help them adapt to the new system, says Symmonds.

Other than a “few bumps” along the road to ensuring the head-office system communicated seamlessly with stores, the five-month deployment was relatively hiccup-free, according to Davi.

And given that Swiss Farms anticipates adding two more units to its fleet of drive-through stores by the end of this year, the scalability of the All-Star applications was another reason for the choice, he says.

The deployment of such collaborative systems along the retail supply channel is a definite trend, says George Goodall, research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

He says capabilities such systems offer – such as the ability to communicate inventory status and product orders down the chain – benefit both ends of the spectrum, supplier and retailer.

However, cost can often be an issue when the retailer is relatively small, says Goodall. “When you get to the smaller mom and pop’s, or even the small chains of 8 or 10 stores, they are very constrained from a budget perspective.”

So, the typical retailer tends to spend more on IT at an earlier stage – in particular in their point-of-sale infrastructure – than other types of organizations, he adds.


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