A Step in Time...

Published Date
01 - Apr - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Apr - 2006
A Step in Time...
Munshi Khancha Market in Vadodara (Gujarat), the royal city of the Gaekwads, is far removed from any signs of royalty today. Its bustling alleys are crowded with people and innumerable shops butting out from every wall. From nine in the morning until nine in the evening, the place is a retailer's paradise, at least in terms of the sheer number of customers who pass through. But as crowded is the competition: you cannot sell anything the guy next door doesn't have.

In the midst of such a crowd of opportunities and competition lies the story of a 10-foot-by-6-foot retail outlet, Welcome Store, and its founder Satish Uttamchandani's visionary use of technology. A typical shop that stocks FMCGs, dry fruits and cosmetics, among other items of daily use, this outlet has oodles of technology being used to ease its various operations.

Number Crunching
Back in 1983, Uttamchandani heard about a device called the calculator from friends who had been to Singapore. In the wake of reports that this machine, being startlingly accurate and fast, would reduce the need for mental math-juggling, he purchased a Casio 100. The simple advantage it brought about in speedier customer billing, especially during peak hours, was the fillip for Uttamchandani to explore the role technology could play in his business.

As he studied the brochure that came along with the Casio 100, he saw one with a printer. Three months later, he ordered a piece. This one also gave a printout of the grand total of all the calculations done on it in the course of a day (i.e. daily gross turnover), thus initiating his entry into the world of machine-generated reports.

Coding Products
Early on, Uttamchandani had realised that time saved is money earned. A simple example was the salesman who would have to leave the sales counter at 7:30 pm every day to replenish items on the rack. Were he to remain at the counter it would mean more sales, especially during peak seasons such as Diwali. After the shutters were down, one day he and his team mulled over possible solutions to save time on the rack filling task every day.

They decided to numerically code 150 of the fastest-moving items among the 1,200. Also, alphabetically-coded labelling stickers were affixed on the racks and a similar rack was replicated at their godown (warehouse). The refill list could now be categorised rack-wise. Thus, on a refill trip to the godown, each rack would have to be visited only once. Making a list of out-of-rack and out-of-stock items now took 90 minutes less, which meant more time for the sales counter.

Simple Products, Smart Use
While this was a process upgrade, the next technology upgrade came in the form of a calculator that displayed sub totals. While a customer was purchasing goods, his sub total (amount till the last purchase) would be read out to him if required. He could thus budget his purchase, and this pleased the more budget-conscious shoppers at Welcome.

In 1987, a company called Bradma introduced a programmable printer. This was the next obvious buy for Uttamchandani. Apart from being able to give his customers a printed and itemised  bill (name, price, amount for each item and grand total), there was hot-key access to the 20 hottest-selling items-meaning these could be keyed in with one stroke-thus speeding up customer turnaround time. Daily sales reports could be generated, too. Two of such printers were soon added to the store's "IT resources."

When Uttamchandani first heard of computers, it was the non-volatile nature of the memory that attracted him

It was in 1991 that these gave way to the Bradma Cash Register. Memory increased to 300 items, and purchase price of products could also be stored. Margins increased on account of this simple utility: different wholesalers would quote different prices, or the same wholesaler would quote different prices at different times. Because of the facility to cross-check at the turn of a key, purchases became cost-effective.

The 300-item-memory limitation was bypassed by the purchase of another next-gen cash register with an additional card as expanded memory. But since the memory was volatile, a power failure meant having to reprogram it, which took six to seven days.

Enter The PC
Uttamchandani has a simple philosophy-time wasted is money lost-so when he first heard of computers, it was the non-volatile nature of the memory that attracted him: reprogramming would become a thing of the past! In 1993, the PC arrived at Welcome Store. One comprising a 286 processor, a 40 MB hard disk and a green-tone monochrome monitor replaced the cash register.

Smart Working is the way for Satish Uttamchandani

The first D-Base program for billing and inventory control did not impress Uttamchandani. He had a simple reason: 857 was the code for Lux soap. Two bars were billed by the instruction 2*857 followed by [Enter] in the case of the cash register. In the software, the same process meant the following key sequence:
Two keystrokes of [Enter] for every item meant precious customer turnaround time! Within a week, Uttamchandani decided to change this. He contacted his friend, philisopher and guide - Padmanab Desai, a computer expert who also teaches  MCA students. At eleven in the night, Uttamchandani landed up at his doorstep, and sat through the night till the change in input had been implemented.

But as the business grew there was obvious crowding at the store's single billing terminal, so the next step was to procure another machine and set up a LAN. Novell 2 was the program he used for this. But the cash drawer remained one, and was operated in sequence according to the billing cycle: whoever was processing a bill would operate the cash drawer, while the other person would wait to access it. At the end of the day, the "cash in hand" reading on the system had to tally with the cash in the drawers.

While this took care of billing, certain shortcomings were soon realised. There was the need to consider different sales prices for product sub-categories, generate stock statements and rack filling lists, and re-order reports.
The Need To Upgrade
In1996, a software upgrade using Clipper and C was completed in a 90-day timeframe by Vadodara-based Infosoft company. The salient features of the improvement were Stock Validation Control (a user would not be able to bill a sale without "stock in hand" or placing an order for purchase); cash in hand report; rack filling report; re-order list categorised according to supplier; outstanding receipts and payments report; and purchase order generation -this was updated even for instant purchases (those made even while the customer was waiting for it).

The old hardware could not keep up with this upgrade, and the PCs soon took on 486 processors and 16 MB of RAM. Novell 3.11 ran the LAN.

Soon, the first Pentium came along. The first machine Uttamchandani got had two hard disks -one was a mirror disk for backups. The operating system changed from MS-DOS to Windows NT, but the software remained the same. A Paragon 36 dot matrix filled in for the printing tasks.

The 1996 upgrade had took care of the requirements of multiple-drawer cash transactions and  banking transactions. In 1999, Uttamchandani started off with an Oracle database application. By the middle of the year, he  opted for Microsoft's SQL Server. Delphi was used for the front-end. The entire application development took two years, and was completed in December of 2001.

The State Of The Art
At the current level of evolution, the key benefits of Uttamchandani's system include:

'Multiple cash drawer monitoring: transactions from all three drawers are accounted for in real-time, and cash-in-hand is a password-protected option.

'Rack filling report: location-wise reports generated for each of the 145 racks, which means time savings since the rack refiller has a list of not only items required, but also the exact shelf in the warehouse from which it has to be picked up.

Tech support at the Welcome Store
'Real-time inventory assessment: three boxes at the bottom of the sales screen displays the current stock of the item, and the location of the item in the warehouse and the shop.

'Re-order report generation.

'Expense register: all petty cash dealings are maintained here.

 'Mirroring of bank account.

Tech Armour at Welcome Store 
  • Three desktop computers with P4 processors
  • Two 9-inch colour monitor and one 15-inch LCD monitor
  • One laptop
  • Two Epson Printers
  • A GSM Modem
  • A 100 Mbps LAN switch
  • A CAT-5 cable
Total cost: Rs 1,40,000

'Multiple sales screens: "simultaneous" billing of two or more customers because of the "minimise" option: one customer's bill process can be minimised and put on hold while the next one is being processed.

'A database of top customers and profits generated from each.

'Charting of sales and profits for analysing sales trends and forecasting.

'User privileges can be defined and password protection assigned for different registers such as purchase, expense and cash drawer reports.

On To Telecommuting
Tech-savvy though he was, it was only in early 2006 that Uttamchandani got himself a mobile phone. His reason: any technology should help in saving time or money, otherwise it is pointless. With the help of a GSM modem, a SIM card, and Real Time- a software he got free because of his offer to run it on a trial basis-Uttamchandani can now access all sales and purchase reports on his cell phone.

Opting for a "200 SMS free" plan, he decided, was the best bet. The most important information is the outstandings due and payable, categorised customer or supplier-wise. Apart from that, total sales, profits categorised date/month or yearly, and the latest purchase price of any item with its date of purchase and supplier is available on an SMS, thus giving him much-needed mobility while being in command and control of a business which, by its very definition, demands physical presence.

Tech Not For Tech's Sake
Uttamchandani used this freedom to overcome the limitations of a counter-sale/cash business which, in the Indian context, requires the presence of the proprietor who could only be relieved by a family member, thus requiring at least two persons from the family to be fully occupied. While technology has freed Uttamchandani's son to concentrate on his career with an MNC, it has granted Uttamchandani the leeway to undertake other ventures-such as manufacturing of a petroleum jelly, and also the time to pursue his hobby of interior designing.

Another advantage of systematic data processing was capitalising on the market research  requirements of large corporations. For example, a multinational company wanted to buy three years' sales data in nine categories of soaps, which he could give them at the stroke of a key. He made a similar deal with a market-research organisation in town. His tech initiatives have now generated another revenue source for him.

Also very popular is Welcome Store's customer loyalty program. Customers are tracked on the basis of their annual and monthly billing, and profitability rankings are developed for the top customers. Annual prizes are given away depending on a customer's rank.

Welcome Store is a classic example of the possibility of technology deployment even for a small setup. Tech is certainly a business productivity enabler even for such stores. Systematic inventory management in this little retail outlet not only proved to be a valuable tool in hedging against typical business risks, but also opened up vistas in data mining and business expansion.

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