Information age brainpower Poor IT can put the skids under your company. That's why Waitrose has installed its own advanced system, as Gillian Law discovers In a competitive industry such as food retailing, IT systems are "competitive edge stuff", says Waitrose systems director Peter Cox. Outsourcing is a major trend in the IT world and there has been a move back to old-fashioned central server farms. "But when it's a key part of your business you don't put it in the hands of someone else," says Cox. "If you want a sophisticated system to beat the competition, you usually have to write and support it yourself." If everyone used the same off-the-shelf system, Cox argues, there would be no advantage. "For non-competitive stuff we'll buy packages and adapt them," he says. "But for things like merchandise planning we have to write our own." Nor does he use contractors except for small, one-off projects. Cox prefers to hire and train his own staff, taking on graduates from a broad range of disciplines and teaching them the skills he needs them to have. Computer science graduates aren't rejected out of hand, he says, but the skills they have aren't all that he is looking for. The result of this policy is one of the lowest staff turnover rates in the IT industry ­ once people come to Waitrose they tend not to leave. An IBM OS390 mainframe sits in the basement of John Lewis's Clipstone Street offices in London, running systems for both Waitrose and the department store division. It will be moved to Bracknell in 2002, says Cox, as part of a reorganisation that will involve closing Clipstone Street. Waitrose did not always have competitive-edge IT systems. In the early 1990s, it was well behind the competition. "We started off well," Cox recalls. "We had computerised ordering systems in 1977 that used stock counting information. And John Lewis was the first non-food retailer to use POS information ­ even before barcodes, it was using magnetic strips on tags. But by 1993 we were lagging behind." Whereas other supermarket chains had brought in EPoS, the John Lewis system was not extended to Waitrose. "We had fewer, smaller shops and it was difficult to be sure we could make it pay," Cox says. "The costs were certain, the benefits less so. We also had different management there who were reluctant to change, so we left it too late." There was a positive side to the delay, however. When new management arrived in the shape of Waitrose md David Felwick and Partnership chairman Sir Stuart Hampson, they "embraced the future more readily", Cox says, and put up-to-date EPoS systems in place. As a result of the delay, the systems were more advanced than those of Waitrose's competition and have stood the company in good stead. "It was ICL's latest and we're still using it," Cox says. "It's standing the pace." The system also needed fewer Y2K changes than the older products, he says. The company is also pressing ahead on other fronts. It has had an intranet based on Lotus Notes in place for some time. And e-mail is proving to be a great asset by allowing information to be distributed better. Details of product recalls, for example, can be circulated instantly instead of involving huge faxing operations. A new system called Product Control Workbench, or PCW, has also been developed to improve the way the company works. Written inhouse but based on Notes because staff are familiar with the product, PCW allows tracking of new products. Getting a product on the shelves is a complex operation. Once it is chosen, prices have to be set, information and photos collected from the supplier, a launch date set, shelf tickets printed and warehouses warned. "It's a sophisticated business," says Cox. "Before we had the Notes system it was a bit hit and miss. Now we can look at the status of any new product in the pipeline and send triggers to people who need to move it along." Waitrose IT has to innovate constantly with systems like this, according to Cox, if the company is to continue competing effectively in today's cut-throat food retail business. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}