ABC Fine Wine and Spirits Toasts Development Tool

Applications developed with SEAGULL Software's J Walk tool add speed and convenience to inventory and distribution management

ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, based in Orlando, Fla., was founded as a chain of liquor stores/cocktail lounges in the 1930's after the repeal of Prohibition. Since then, it has evolved to a statewide enterprise with 160 retail locations, selling wines, hard spirits, gourmet foods, cigars, beer and soda, plus all related accessories with revenue of over $200 million a year.

A traditional, centralized company, ABC ran its core business applications, financial management from Infinium (Hyannis, Mass.), and developed in-house inventory and sales auditing applications on an AS/400 Model 530 with V4R3.

The exchange of orders and inventory documents between ABC's headquarters and its stores was largely a manual, paper-based process, accomplished either by fax or via ABC's trucks delivering orders from its warehouse in Orlando. In some cases it could take days before changes were reflected in ABC's inventory system.

In the interest of speed, convenience and customer service, says Jim Dekle, director of data processing, ABC wanted to make inventory data on the AS/400 accessible to personnel at the store level in a way that didn't require familiarity with AS/400 green-screen menus and options. "Without too much programming, we wanted to decentralize data input and put the AS/400 data at our employees' fingertips."

ABC recently installed a frame relay WAN to connect all its stores and explored different methods that would take advantage of the WAN to exchange information. One requirement was that store personnel would have the ability to access the AS/400 via a browser, although communication would be over the private network rather than the Internet.

"We wanted the browser primarily for ease of use," offers Leonard Bolton, ABC programming manager. "Most people know how to run a browser, and since there is some turnover in the stores the browser makes it simpler for people to pick up the job quickly. The learning curve for understanding how to deal with green-screens would have killed any success. Everybody is comfortable with a browser."

Following a six-month product search and evaluation process, in October 1998 ABC chose J Walk from Atlanta-based SEAGULL Software. J Walk is a point-and-click development toolkit for building GUI clients for AS/400 applications and serving them on demand across a network or the Internet. At ABC, a Windows NT server serves the GUI and a Java applet that presents a sign-on screen for the J Walk applications to the store clients, and handles the connection to the AS/400.

The first new applications developed with J Walk were a product locator and an exceptions ordering system. The former gives store personnel the ability to locate inventory or a specific product in another ABC store. "If you've sold out of an item, you can tell a customer where he can find it, or have the item transferred to your store," says Dekle. "It has been extremely popular."

The latter gives personnel the ability to add a product or products to an order for the next scheduled delivery. "They can key in the product code for the items they want," Dekle says. "That information prints out directly in the warehouse, rather than having to be re-keyed from a hard copy document."

According to Dekle, although ABC is now in the process of developing an ordering system using J Walk, the stores' regular weekly orders are still paper based. "The initial intention was for exceptions," he says. "We have a product mix of about 15,000 items and the workstation running J Walk is on a counter in the store, not on a desk in an office where they could sit down and enter an entire order. It would be tedious."

Gourmet food ordering, however, is done using a J Walk-developed application. "Most gourmet food products are ordered in bulk and drop shipped," Dekle says. "We used to fax an estimated order to the stores, telling them what we thought they might need. They would approve it or modify it and fax it back. That was a very paper-intensive, time-consuming process. With the new application, store personnel can view the estimated order in the store, make changes and sign off on it."

In addition, store directories with addresses and phone numbers are available online, replacing paper-based lists that were frequently lost or obsolete, and ABC has found ways to improve customer service, such as the ABC Customer Card program.

Part of an ABC customer retention program, Customer Cards entitle cardholders to special discounts and services. "Previously, a customer would fill out an application form and send it into the main office to be processed. Now it can be done in the store. It's another way of getting data entry and information down to the store level online."

How has ABC benefited from the new applications built with J Walk? The advantages are numerous, but somewhat difficult to quantify. "How do you quantify convenience?" Dekle says. "I suppose there was a clerk in the warehouse who once answered the phone and entered data and who has now been reassigned. On that basis, you could say we've saved one person. And, since we relied on our trucking system as a method for moving documents back and forth from the stores to the main office we've cut lag time from days to zero."

But it goes beyond that, Dekle says. "It gives the stores more of a sense of ownership of the process, of being more connected to our business process. That's hard to put a price tag on."

Dekle emphasizes the improvement in customer service as well. "We're very big on doing what we can to make customers' lives easier," he says. "For instance, now we can change Customer Card addresses or phone numbers in the stores and we can locate products for them. That's customer service, and it's got to give us a competitive advantage."

According to Dekle, ABC will continue to look for opportunities to use the J Walk tool. "Our users like it, and our programmers are comfortable with it. We're going to keep removing as much paperwork from the process as we can."