Resourceful Retail

Hickory Farms improves productivity by building a Web-based application and datastore.

Hickory Farms improves productivity by building a Web-based application and datastore.

Nothing is easy when it comes to retailing. Parent companies often have multiple locations, hundreds of full-time employees, lengthy supply chains and perhaps thousands of retail items to deal with - keeping track of all this can be a chore.

Now imagine that the retailer runs a seasonal operation at temporary locations. The issues only compound, with maybe 20 or 30 outlets becoming 600 or 700, those full-time employees becoming temps, and for-sale items having to be determined and delivered well ahead of location openings. And then there are issues related to location leases and utility connections, all of which must be resolved before the retailer can take over a space.

Pity the poor regional managers who oversee all of this activity. After all, with sometimes extremely short business cycles - months or even weeks - it's incumbent upon them to make the most of every moment, ensuring they're in the right location, have a well-trained staff and their products are displayed in such a way as to move them quickly and efficiently.

One company operating under such a business model is Hickory Farms. Well-known for its holiday gift boxes and baskets of meats and cheeses, Hickory Farms conducts much of its business around the Thanksgiving to Christmas time period. "We start ramping up a week or two before Thanksgiving, and within a week or a week and a half we have 700 stores open and ready for business," says Cary Burnette, application programmer with Hickory Farms.

But because of this dispersed and time-sensitive business model, the company has a distinct need to keep on top of everything, including store locations, leases and utility support; its part-time, seasonal employees; and the products the stores need should they run short on any particular items. That's why it has developed what it calls its online Kiosk Management System (KMS), which allows district supervisors and regional managers to more easily share information with the corporate headquarters. And so far, according to Burnette, "We've seen quite a bit of productivity improvements."

Napkins and Shoeboxes

In actuality, the Maumee, Ohio-based Hickory Farms operates under three different business models: one, of course, involves the holiday kiosks; another, Web and catalog orders; and, the third, grocery-store sales. (It also has a single permanent retail outlet located across the street from its headquarters.) Although all of these distribution channels are significant, the seasonal kiosks, located in malls and other shopping centers across the nation, are largely responsible for Hickory Farms' brand-name recognition.

"Our goal was to get everything off the napkins and out of the showboxes and put that information into a single place where everyone could access it." -Cary Burnette, application programmer, Hickory Farms

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at

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