Giant Eagle s.v.p. of information services Bob Garrity is a busy man. With more than 50 active projects in the hopper, he is selective about the technology he brings into the company. "The way we operate is to align ourselves with what the overall business strategy is," he says. "We identify the priorities and start working down to how an individual application may be funded."

The top priority at Giant Eagle is taking care of customers, to "provide service and products that meet or exceed our customers' requirements at all times," according to the company's mission statement. It's no surprise, then, that Garrity keeps the customer in mind when determining what technology is right for the company. From the checkout lanes to the distribution centers, every aspect of Giant Eagle's technology infrastructure touches the customer in some way.

The most direct example of customer-facing technology at Giant Eagle is its self-checkout system. Manufactured by Jacksonville, Fla.-based Productivity Solutions, Inc., these machines have been implemented in 60 stores to date, at four lanes per store, and utilization reaches up to 30 percent of all transactions in some stores. "Self-checkout is not necessarily for everybody," says Garrity. "It is another option for our customers. We are seeing a fair amount of uptake in its use, though."

Another program that directly touches the Giant Eagle customers is the Advantage loyalty card program, which collects shopper data that is used to market to customers on a one-to-one basis. Using data mining solutions from Cary, N.C.-based SAS, and VRMS Market Expert, Giant Eagle's business analysis group sifts through the customer data to develop targeted marketing programs. SAS provides sophisticated techniques for companies to segment customer data—beyond simple demographic groupings—into small groups with similar behavior patterns, characteristics, and desires. Take, for instance, "Taste of Values," a mailing that targets product offers to customer purchase profiles. Customers also have the option to sign up to receive weekly e-mails. "Those letters are highly personalized," says Garrity. "My letter would be different than one sent to another customer who fit a different profile."

While not as evident as self-checkout machines, production-planning technology has been a significant contributor to customer satisfaction, according to Garrity. "It is not something the customers are going to use, but they should get the benefits of having our production planned better. Our bakery, meat, and prepared foods departments do a fair amount of work within the store to prepare the product for customer consumption," he says. "It is crucial for each of these departments to understand what they need to have in front of the customer and when, but that clearly varies throughout the day."

It's not an easy task. Planning efforts attempt to consider past data as well as trends and external influences to generate forecasts before action is taken. Timing is critical. "You can imagine the waste that comes into play if we make the wrong thing," says Garrity. "If no one is buying, it doesn't go back on the shelf or into the refrigerator for the next day."

Giant Eagle uses two applications in this arena. For meat production planning, Garrity uses the PeriScope decision support system from Invatron, Mississauga, Ontario, and for the bakery and prepared food departments he uses production-planning solutions from Eatec, Emeryville, Calif. He credits both systems for delivering benefits in increased efficiencies and a reduction of shrink, and—most importantly—getting the right product in front of the customer during the small window of time that freshness allows.

Talk to the hand

Hand-helds and wireless technology are instrumental in helping Giant Eagle maintain a perpetual inventory. "Especially with our fresh foods, we need to make sure we have what we need from a forecasting perspective, so we need to understand where we are at any one point with regard to inventory," he says. "Checking that inventory is a pretty important thing to be doing throughout the day; using the wireless hand-helds makes it much more efficient."

Orders captured via the hand-held devices are transmitted through the central office and to the warehouses, where orders are taken for next day delivery via computerized, voice-activated systems from fellow Pittsburgh company Vocollect, which has improved accuracy in all of Giant Eagle's picking processes. "The stores are expecting to get what they ordered, and if there is a mis-pick, a store may end up with a hole in the shelves, and obviously, that is not what we want our customers to see," says Garrity.

Having moved from a proprietary network to the 802.11b protocol, Garrity expects new future wireless applications should be easier to integrate.

While employing all this technology is helpful on its own, Garrity has implemented a knowledge management system that allows Giant Eagle employees to benefit from sharing innovations made within the company itself. New techniques that have improved processes at one store are entered into the system for all employees to review and emulate. This has created a culture of sharing, where employees become engaged in the organization and proactive in working together to improve processes company-wide.

To facilitate this culture of sharing, Giant Eagle enlisted the help of Root Learning, Inc., a Maumee, Ohio company that specializes in designing learning solutions to accelerate alignment, understanding, and launch of strategic concepts within a company. In the case of Giant Eagle, Root Learning developed a solution to engage all front-line employees in the company, helping them to understand the financial realities of the organization, the importance of their individual roles within the company, and how to bring the Giant Eagle brand to life.

Looking ahead, Garrity plans to keep Giant Eagle at the forefront of grocery technology innovation, and has created a team exclusively for that purpose. The team's goal is twofold: to maintain existing platforms and the reliability of the company's systems, and to seek out new technologies that can be implemented as soon as they become viable from the business perspective.

"We don't want to be bleeding edge," says Garrity. "But we do want to be early adopters where technologies can be useful in giving us a competitive advantage."
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds