Salvation Army thrift stores move into 21st century

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New operating system will benefit customers as well as stores.

by Jamie Ehrl –

Take an old Salvation Army institution—the thrift store—add some new computer parts and software, throw in some training combined with a dash of willingness to learn a new system and what do you get? A revamped retail store ready to meet the challenges of the highly competitive 21st century.

The Western Territory Information Technology (I.T.) Department has nearly completed the modernization of the 130-plus Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) thrift stores in the 13 western states. This major undertaking—three years in the making—has better positioned The Salvation Army to be a competitive player in the ever-changing world of discount retail.

No easy task
Converting just one thrift store to a new Point of Sale (POS) cash register system is no easy task, and completing this conversion over 130 times takes careful planning and a dedicated crew. Many late nights, early mornings, overnight stays, phone conferencing sessions, and countless e-mails were required to install the new POS system.

“It was incredibly difficult to schedule and execute all the steps required in every store…Someone asked me why we just didn’t hire an employee to go around and install each store. That comment reminded me that the mark of a real expert is that they make something difficult appear to be easy. I think in this project, we achieved that,” Clarence White, I.T. secretary and CIO, said.

Since this process involves a period of time when the store is offline—swapping the old system for the new—installations were scheduled for early in the morning before the store’s opening time. This made for some early mornings. One technician jokingly refers to the 7:30 a.m. installation start time as “o’dark 30.”

The directors of retail and thrift store managers all concur that the effort was worth it. While there were some struggles, the benefits have far outweighed the learning curves and inconveniences met along the way.

The most notable benefit has been the improvement in the transaction speed for processing credit cards. The old system used a slow dial-up modem that often crashed during the middle of a credit card authorization. The checkout line would queue up with customers; some so aggravated they would leave the store, abandoning their intended purchases. The new POS system uses much quicker technology: either hardwired DSL or wireless 3G networks. Credit card transactions are quick and seamless, providing the customer with a better overall shopping experience. As George Erickson, director of retail, San Francisco ARC succinctly puts it, “A good customer is one that comes back.”

Additional benefits
The new POS system has other benefits—invisible to the customer but invaluable for ARC thrift store management. The directors of retail can send messages to all their stores via the new POS system, alerting store managers at a moment’s notice of competitors’ sales in the area. For example, if a local “big box” retailer is having a blowout sale on kitchen appliances, the director can send a real-time message to all of his/her stores, allowing them to adjust prices accordingly.

The director can also set sales centrally for all the stores, thus contributing to more efficient operations. At the end of each day, transaction information is batched and sent instantly to a central location. What used to be a tedious and lengthy process is now quick and automatic.

Future plans
Some exciting developments are on the horizon for the new POS system. According to ARC Command General Secretary Major Michael Dossey, work is underway with computer programmers to improve the data collection ability of the new POS system. Thrift store sales clerks may soon be asking customers for their zip codes. Such demographic data identifies the store’s customer base and leads to a more customized sales strategy. In addition, three stores are currently involved in a pilot project to collect customer e-mail addresses and send notices of upcoming sales to “preferred customers.” These tactics are part of the greater strategy of making The Salvation Army a more formidable retail competitor.

Almost completed
Only a handful of thrift stores remain that still need to be converted to the new POS system. All new stores opening from this point forward will automatically be set up with the updated POS system and will reap the benefits from day one. In the meantime, our technicians will have to brew an early cup of coffee and endure just a few more “o’dark 30” installations.

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