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Retail Technology, Retail technology News

The Co-operative Group: Life in the fast checkout lane

Monday March 12 2012

UK retail giant uses Windows Embedded to tie point-of-sale systems to SQL Server-based data warehouse and tap a goldmine of transaction data

UK retail giant uses Windows Embedded to tie point-of-sale systems to SQL Server-based data warehouse and tap a goldmine of transaction data

 

The Co-operative Group, whose chain of more than 5,000 UK retail stores makes £13.7 billion annual revenue, chose Windows Embedded over Linux for its retail solution.

 

Using a familiar development environment, the Co-operative created a tailored solution quickly and cost-effectively. Now, it even offers other retailers this connected solution – which runs on any device with robust security – to deliver rich applications and real-time analysis.

 

Lawrence Freeman, store systems software development manager at the Co-operative Group, worked on the design, build and implementation of the point-of-sale (PoS) systems. “They’re not nickel-plated, but we deliver everything from the tills and point-of-sale terminals and mobile devices such as inventory scanners to back-office applications for analytics, administration, ordering and cash management,” he said.

 

In 2002, the Co-operative standardised on Microsoft technologies over open-source systems, because, said Freeman: “The Microsoft platform is so well-adopted and supported.” Based entirely on the Windows Embedded platform, the Co-operative has used Microsoft technologies to effectively fit its business and development needs around InControl Evolution, a PoS and retail management solution suite originally developed for internal use.

 

Flexible retail store solution 

 

InControl is comprised of nine modules, including those for digital signage, a store portal, and the InFront PoS system, which encompasses sales tills, kiosks, self-checkout, and InHand mobile devices. The InFront PoS system and InHand enterprise handheld devices are built on the Windows Embedded PoSReady and Windows Embedded Compact platforms, respectively.

 

Developers used the Enhanced Write Filter (EWF) in Windows Embedded Standard, the Microsoft .NET Framework 4, and Microsoft POS for .NET to abstract and virtualise InFront software code away from the hardware. This enables the Co-operative to deploy the same InFront software to its InHand devices, PCs, smartphones, sales tills and other devices, so associates and managers can perform price checks, cash out sales tills and review orders from the sales floor.

 

InFront also had to be secure and robust enough to support an average 200 million transactions weekly across 15,000 PoS terminals – the third largest in the UK. For optimised security and easy maintenance, the Co-operative deploys Windows Embedded Standard as read-only, with just selected components. Freeman explained: “We can run a 14-megabyte OS [operating system] footprint on PoS terminals, which is fantastic: small, agile, and very secure from attack.” The Co-operative uses the EWF to ‘lock down’ these read-only elements to prevent unwanted changes.

 

Streamlining retail management

 

With InFront, retailers can set up one central solution server to deploy automatic updates to their solution endpoints. This centralised model eliminates the need for dedicated update teams, and for having a database server at each retail branch. InFront also uses SQL Server Analysis Services to track sales and product data in real time, so retailers can respond to shopping patterns immediately.

 

The system makes use of the SQL Server 2008 R2 reporting services and Excel to slice and dice customer and product data generated by PoS systems and handheld devices. Besides offering a broad view of how stores are trending, the system is able to drill down to individual transactions and customers.

 

By running Excel-based analysis engines over the top of its data to look for patterns in shopping behaviour and make targeted offers to repeat customers, Freeman said real-time data analysis supports more accurate ordering and better sales-trend tracking for promotional pricing. Security officers can see variances in sales tills and react quickly, instead of waiting for a weekly report. In addition, he said: “Using Windows Embedded, we mobilised our managers and associates, getting them out of the back office or away from the tills, to help shoppers.”

 

Freeman concluded: “Windows Embedded gives us a framework that is abstracted away from the hardware, which allows for immense speed to market. And the ability to tie into the broader Windows platform lets us continually build functionality to engage our customers individually and intelligently.”