Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    It's about time: Microsoft turns its attention to the technological needs of mid-sized retailers

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #319  December 5, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    If you believe the number crunchers, small businesses provide much of the growth and new jobs in Canada. Still, if you're connected to a small to mid-sized business, you may justifiably wonder if the high tech industries have tended to overlook your existence. Big corporate accounts get lots of attention, from both hardware and software providers. In the past few years, there's also been some attention to home-based businesses and telecommuters, with the introduction of new product categories such as multifunction printer/copier/scanner/fax machines.

    There are some indications, however, that things may be changing for those small to mid-sized companies that make up 75 per cent of all businesses in Canada. Take software giant Microsoft Canada, for example. After initially aiming products such as Back Office and Windows NT Server at the big business user, it has turned its attention to the thousands of businesses in between, particularly those involved in retail operations. The first focus for this attention is here in B.C. Together with the Retail Merchants' Association of B.C., Microsoft has recently completed an 11-city tour, trying to show retailers how improvements in computer hardware and software can benefit them. Areas the company touched on included point-of-sale technology, inventory control, database marketing, customer service, accounting, and staff management. Speaking in the tour, which involved more than 600 retailers province-wide, was Graham Clark, Microsoft's worldwide retail manager. Clark's largest audience was in Vancouver, where 120 retailers attended a seminar.

    Microsoft is using B.C. as its test bed, and is experimenting with working with trade organizations here before taking the approach Canada-wide, and eventually into the U.S. Microsoft didn't make any earth-shaking product announcements, preferring instead to focus on how the company's existing NT Server and BackOffice products, together with third-party products, can benefit small to medium-sized retailers. Microsoft hopes to convince merchants that using its products will help them achieve better inventory control and lead to automated product ordering, which means less unsold stock on hand tying up space and capital.

    Electronic Data Exchange will speed orders while reducing paper forms. Using relational database technology will allow merchants to compile more information on customers, allowing retailers to, for example, target customers who should be made aware of new product lines.

    With better support and service from technology providers such as Microsoft, the hope is that smaller retailers can put themselves in a stronger position than their larger competitors because they're better able to respond to changing customer demand.

    For example, Clark points out that creating a 'virtual store' on the Internet can put small retailers on an even footing with the big guys: on the 'Net, all addresses start off equal. However, Clark cautions that setting up that virtual store is, in many ways, similar to starting up a physical shop: retailers need to consider demographics ('Net users are predominantly male and, in many areas, retail customers are predominantly female, for example), as well as location. There also needs to be a strong merchandising concept to bring customers to the site, keep their attention, and get them to return.

    Among the success stories of retailing on the Internet are a husband-and-wife partnership which markets chili sauces, and a company selling--of all things--concrete ducks. Both use the 'Net to secure wide distribution for niche products (with perhaps a limited customer base) for operations from a physical location. Selling on the 'Net also permitted each to build a customer base not hindered by geographical location.

    A local example of a retailer trying to use new technology is Vancouver's Please Mum. This children's clothing store, which has 46 locations, is in the process of implementing a new point-of-sale system, which is made by Montreal's STS.Neil Muir, the company is looking forward to improving its executive information systems and being able to monitor sales of individual product lines in each store. It will also use the system to receive instant inventories, and to obtain instant reports on staffing costs or business efficiency for individual stores, departments, or for the entire enterprise. They're just beginning to put this system in place. (We'll check in on them again in a few months time, to see if the promises made by technology are paying off--at least for Please Mum.) Over the next few months, the chain is going to be installing this system, one department at a time. According to Please Mum's.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan