SAQ rolls out Wi-Fi to vanquish old product standard

 The Societe des Alcools du Quebec (SAQ) is the last provincial liquor board in Canada to jettison an outmoded product-tracking scheme in favour of the universal product code (UPC).

To facilitate this move, SAQ has set up Wi-Fi

networks at each of its 402 locations across the province. The networks are being used to transmit product data via Symbol Technologies directly into a J.D. Edwards ERP database. The translation of wireless information to the back office system is being handled by IBM middleware.

SAQ was using the Canadian Standard Product Code (CSPC), which was a retail tracking standard exclusive to the Canadian liquor industry since the 1970s. The initial advantage of the CSPC was that it was adopted nationally, but its main shortcoming was that it could not be scanned. Employees would have to manually enter a six-digit number in order to track product information. Another issue was that it did not discriminate between individual bottles or cans of alcohol and entire cases of product.

By moving to a handheld system that can track UPC numbers, SAQ estimates that it has cut price check and inventory check times by as much as 80 per cent.

“All the inventory lookups are done in real time,” said Philipe Lassier, project manager for the transition. “So if you do an inventory look-up for a unit it (could say) you have 17 bottles on hand. If a customer buys a bottle, no more than two or three minutes later, if you do a price inventory for the same unit, you’ll see you’ve got 16 units on hand.”

Employees can also look up product information for other SAQ locations, so they can direct a customer to another store if they are asking for something that’s not currently in stock.

SAQ is the last provincial liquor body to move away from the CSPC standard, but not the last to finish. In fact, none of the bodies have entirely finished. That honour will probably to go New Brunswick, according to Marty McGinnis of Toronto-based McGinnis & Co. Ltd., a retail consultant who has been involved with CSPC transitions for more than 10 years.

McGinnis was retained in 1993 to help draft a study to examine the issue for the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions. The fact that the Canadian liquor industry was using a standard that couldn’t be effectively scanned prompted the move to UPC, he said. Adoption of UPC became imperative not only for tracking purposes but also because it’s a standard that is used in other countries. Alcohol is an international business, said McGinnis, and Canadian liquor boards do business with dozens of countries.

Also, because the liquor industry got the ball rolling on UPC compliance in the 1990s, it was already prepared for a 13-digit bar code, said McGinnis. The so-called 2005 Sunrise initiative to replace the North American 12-digit code caught other industries off guard.

By moving to a wireless network and handheld devices for UPC scanning, the SAQ will be able to handle future retail technologies. “The infrastructure will support any future needs,” said Lassier. The Wi-Fi networks could be used to connect a laptop to the Internet, he said, but their most effective use may be for wireless point of sale devices.

Philipe Boucher, director of operations and infrastructure for SAQ, said that these have already been deployed at 15 stores across the province. They can be set up quickly to create additional checkout aisles during peak shopping hours.

The infrastructure is in place to allow for a fully-fledged RFID deployment, but the SAQ, like many retail industries, is waiting for a viable business plan before considering the technology seriously, said Boucher.

The move from CSPC to UPC does lay the groundwork for RFID, said McGinnis, but “it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a significant movement to RFID in the liquor industry in Canada for a few years. . . . RFID is still a technology that’s teething.”

One of the main hurdles is that cans tend to suppress RFID signals, he said, which is an obvious shortcoming for any beverage-based industry.

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