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Commissaries Go Electronic With Price Labels

By Bonnie Powell
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., Aug. 14, 1997 – The commissaries at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Hurlburt Field, Fla., are the first in DoD to use electronic labels that assure the price accuracy of groceries.

The introduction of the futuristic labels, which look like little digital clocks, puts the Defense Commissary Agency on the leading edge of grocery technology. For customers, it might be the first time they've ever seen electronic labels -- in any grocery store. The new labels are easier to read than paper ones and promise to keep prices matched on the shelf and at the checkout counter.

The technology is not new, said Rob Berman, a director with NCR's DecisioNet system. About 400 similar systems are installed worldwide in retail stores, he said, but those systems generally use "wired" labels. Berman said the commissary agency test constitutes the largest installation of "radio frequency" price labels in the world.

"But the technology is solid," he said. "The test is more for operational issues." NCR is the contractor for the system.

The electronic labels have clear, easy-to-read digital displays showing product information and price. The product price is on the right, the unit price for comparison shoppers is on the left. A stick-on overlay identifies the product for customers.

The test stores have thousands of labels, all reusable through reprogramming and a simple change of the stick-on product description. And the new labels can be moved just about anywhere in the store. Since they are operated by radio frequency, shelf and product changes can be made without rewiring. That's the benefit of radio frequency labels over wired ones -- "You just pick them up and move them," Berman said.

All system wiring and equipment, including base stations and antennae, are in the commissary ceiling. The central computer sends the pricing to the base stations, which relay to the antennae, which broadcast to the labels. The labels themselves operate independently on seven-year batteries.

During initial programming in the commissary office, the labels are "married" to the products via product codes. That way, the signal can find its "partner" label or labels and change the price, even if a product is in five different locations.

Theoretically, stores can shift resources to customer service from the labor-intensive chore of posting thousands of price changes, usually done by hand at night. Fort Belvoir has 5,000 to 6,000 price changes per month.

"The new system also eliminates the need for scraping off the old paper labels," zone manager Marcia Jimenez said. "And they are pretty secure, too." The electronic labels require keys to pop them off the specially designed shelf tracks.

The electronic label feature is just one of the "bells and whistles" made available through the state-of-the-art checkout systems being installed in all commissaries over the next two years. "The concept of electronic labels is great, but the bottom line is whether it's affordable," said commissary agency contract officer representative Ted Matthews. He said a return of investment study is under way at the test sites to determine if the agency will go forward with more stores.

Fort Belvoir is the commissary agency's largest volume store, said Matthews. Hurlburt Field represents an average store, with 12 checkout lanes. The cost of installing the electronic price label system at the test stores was approximately $500,000, which means electronic labels may not be cost effective for all stores, said commissary management specialist Joe Nikolai. Small stores with only a few checkout lanes shouldn't look for electronic labeling.

Hurlburt Field Commissary Officer Margaret Stanley said the system has been up and running at her store since July 14. The system can bring price changes to the floor much faster -- at the rate of 3,000 per hour. "Think about it," she said. "We did our midmonth price changes in 28 minutes. Normally it would take 40 hours! From an operator's point of view, it's the greatest!"

The digital labels are pretty versatile, too. If an item is temporarily out of stock, the label can be programmed to tell customers just that. The system can even let commissary personnel know when product stock is getting low by counting down sales at the register.

Store employees seem to like the new system. Fort Belvoir Commissary office automation specialist Princess Brent said the labels "are a big change. We used to put in thousands of them every month. Now it's easy."

The first customers to get a look at the technology at Fort Belvoir liked what they saw, too. Active duty spouse Matthew Berntson said, "That's pretty cool. Really high tech!"

Elsie Cheine, a commissary customer for 32 years, was pleased with the easy-to-read labels. "The commissary just keeps improving all the time," she said. "I wouldn't shop anywhere else!"

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