on smart Ed Bedington discovers how Asda shaped its parent Wal-Mart's technology for the benefit of all its UK stores Asda has always claimed to be spiritually in tune with its parent company, but the introduction of new technology means that it is harmonious in body too. "The original idea," says Martin Sayer, Asda's head of retail integration, "was to flip Wal-Mart's systems onto our stores." However, as with all simple ideas, the reality proved another matter. "The trouble was the businesses were different. Asda has a food bias while Wal-Mart is largely non food, which meant the direct transfer of systems was not possible," he says. To start the process, codenamed Breakthrough, the team brought in all the new technology to one store in Grantham. Now, all stores are up and running. So what exactly is the new technology that Sayer and his team introduced? "SMART is the hub," says Sayer of their system, SMART ­ Store Merchandising through Applied Retail Technology ­ which links every IT system in the organisation, allowing different parts of the business to talk fluently together. "Prior to that, systems didn't talk to each other. SMART collates information and passes it onto the relevant parts of the business." More importantly SMART allows the company better access and use of its massive Retail Link datawarehouse. The Retail Link system was one of the first Wal-Mart technologies introduced after the takeover, and although not part of the Breakthrough programme, the programme's technology has allowed Asda to use the Retail Link system to greater benefit for the whole business, maintaining realtime data on sales, costs, margins and stock holdings which can be cut in almost anyway it wants. The use of Retail Link and SMART has also led to improved operations at the back door, using electronic transfers of information between store and warehouse to keep orders up to date. The SMART system also allows Asda to maintain a perpetual inventory so each store knows exactly how much is in stock and how much is on the way in, the forecast sales and what must be ordered. From a customer point of view, one of the most obvious signs of the changes at Asda has been the arrival of the Telxon which Sayer describes as a computer on a stick. The hand-held multi-purpose device is one of the sexier aspects of the Breakthrough programme, and Sayer says it enables a whole range of operations to be carried out on the shop floor, with the hand-held device linking into Retail Link via SMART. "The Telxon can help with stock control. With an empty space you can scan the barcode and see if anything's in stock or if more is on the way. You can even generate an order from the shelf edge, and the Telxon will update the forecasts to try to avoid any gaps in future." As well as stock control, the computer using Retail Link can adjust the shelf space given to a product, depending on sales, and that has led to an increased range because, Sayer says,the technology found space where they didn't think they had space. As well as printing shelf-edge labels on the spot, Telxon can also provide queue busting help. "You can turn it into a checkout scanner. You scan a card, then the product, and the card can be presented at the checkout where a receipt can be produced immediately." Another aspect of Breakthrough has been improved communications through a computer programme called Workbench, which is an intranet-based management information tool. Sayer says: "If we need to get information, statistical data, sales data, anything really, to a store quickly we can use Workbench." The company has also launched Pipeline which works in tandem on the intranet, providing information and resources to every member of staff. But all this new technology requires trained staff and Sayer says as well as training 10 people in each store, it has come up with an equally hi-tech way of ensuring all staff are up to speed on all company training. "We have a range of programs for each job function within the group and each store has three terminals which colleagues can use to work through the list of learning modules. In the past you'd need to get a group together, but now they can work on their own." The Breakthrough project has been such a success that Sayer says a similar overhaul focusing on the distribution side is being made. And one important benefit of the whole exercise has been better relations with Wal-Mart."And some of the changes we've made, have been taken back to Wal-Mart worldwide," Sayer says. n {{FEATURES }}