Safeway chief technology officer Brian Keating has been involved with significant IT developments at the retailer since the 1980s, including the move to central distribution, the installation of electronic point of sale systems, and the development of sales-based ordering and self scanning systems.
As CTO, Keating is leading changes from mainframe technology to a package-led, server-based environment integrated with enterprise application integration (EAI) technology.
What is the role of IT at Safeway?
We have to do everything that Tesco and Sainsbury's do. We have to have as much innovation, and IT has to punch above its weight. That's what we are trying to do. The challenge has always been that retail is a fast-moving environment.
What are the big technology trends?
I think Linux is going to be a big winner. The picking software [being trialled by Safeway] didn't run on Linux, but we asked the supplier to get it to. Microsoft is high cost, Linux is low cost and Linux doesn't attract nerds to try to give you viruses. I think Microsoft will have some problems with it.
Rival supermarket chain Morrisons has been cleared by the Department of Trade and Industry to make a bid for Safeway. How does the merger talk affect your IT department?
It has changed some priorities. The IT department supports the business and we have to look at our plans. Most things have not been affected.
We had money sunk into PeopleSoft so we continued with it; we believe that anyone that buys us will see that as a good thing to be done. Our plan is to get through the finishing line at high speed. [But] high-cost, high-risk work has been pushed back.
How are Safeway's IT systems changing?
We used to have a very simple architecture three years ago: OS/390 and nothing else. We are using lots more packages [now] because the business needs them.
There are more players out there with packages, when 15 years ago there weren't. Now we have a broader architecture because packages run on other platforms. [In future] we will have lots more Microsoft products as we use more packages.
What about outsourcing?
When people outsource they do it to outsource a problem. I'd never do that. The only valid reason is to make some money so you can finance other capabilities.
Safeway is also doing lots of work on EAI based on IBM WebSphere technologies. For 20 years people have tried to connect disparate systems and they haven't done it well.
There's now technology that allows you to do that. When the next thing comes along you just cut off the old and plug in the new one. With point-to-point [connections] you can't do that.
Once you understand the technology and have it all in place you can take a new system and put it in relatively quickly. It makes us much more agile.
What about Radio Frequency Identity tagging?
Nothing will happen until the price comes down, but there is great potential. There's lots of great stuff to protect the customer. We are working on small trials up the supply chain. It will be the next big thing, but not yet.
Understanding customer behaviour is the next big thing, but nobody has found a way of using that information. [Safeway ended its loyalty card programme in 2002 and spent the money on price cuts instead.]
What has been the impact of the intranet you've implemented?
People put up societies and things to do, through to real business information like current performance.
Good communication with everyone is paramount and the intranet has enabled that. It has been a big contributor to the fact that the morale on site is very good.
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