December 14, 2005


Posted: 09.04
The Sweet Life
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Everything is cookies and cream for an ice cream and convenience chain with a new grip on mobile computing.  

By Michelle Maisto

High in New York State, at the green foot of the Adirondack Moun-
tains, is the photogenic town of Saratoga Springs. Lush, quaint and historic, Saratoga is home to rolling acres of horse farms, 13 golf courses, 10 museums, thousands of registered historical buildings, hot mineral springs and the oldest continuously operating thoroughbred racetrack in the country. It seems appropriate, then, that this idyllic town is also home to another beacon of Americana, the Stewart’s Shops ice cream chain.

Stewart’s modest beginnings were in Dake’s Delicious Ice Cream, a venture undertaken in 1921 by two enterprising brothers, Percy and Charles Dake. By 1929 production had reached 100,000 gallons a year and Dake’s was bought by a division of Sealtest. A non-competition agreement kept the brothers out of ice cream, but when a 1935 law required that all milk be pasteurized, they saw an opportunity and opened the modern Saratoga Dairy, pasteurizing raw milk for farmers from Maryland to Massachusetts. In 1945, the non-competing agreement expired, the post-war public was hungry for sweets and the brothers bought the Stewart Ice Cream Co. (an ice cream freezer, hardening room and storefront) from a man named Donald Stewart and opened the very first Stewart’s Shop.

The Dakes’ good business sense kept business growing. In 1948, Stewart’s introduced the first folding half-gallon ice cream carton, and later that year, Charles’ wife, Phyllis, came up with the idea to have bowls of toppings people could choose from—“Make Your Own Sundae”—an idea later made famous by television advertising. In 1957, Stewart’s requested permission from the Department of Agriculture to sell the milk from its dairy at its ice cream shops, which enabled it to sell at a cost 25 percent below the going rate. Today, there are 317 Stewart’s Shops, and in addition to milk, they offer a full line of Stewart’s brand “convenience groceries.”

Throughout the years, fresh products and innovative ideas have remained the cornerstones of the Stewart’s Shops’ success. And when its Information Solutions team recently implemented a new system for ordering supplies, these cornerstones again proved complementing ideals.

The Convenience Factor

In the convenience store business, keeping costs and inefficiencies to a minimum is essential. Stewart’s has upheld its reputation for offering the freshest products by keeping very little, if any, stock on site—which also keeps costs low by enabling stores to stay small. For decades, fresh supplies were delivered to each store every three days; ordering so frequently, however, created an extraordinary amount of time-consuming paperwork, both for the store managers and for the drivers. When a driver arrived at a store with a fresh shipment, the manager would hand over an order sheet—essentially, 20 pages of bubblesheets (think SAT answer form), with the bubbles filled in beside requested products—which meant re-ordering before the last order was off the truck. It also meant that if a manager predicted a store’s needs incorrectly—or if a sudden hot day drove up demand for ice cream—shops could easily be under- or overstocked. Managers needed a way to order in real time, while remaining small, maintaining low overhead costs and still offering the freshest products.

A technology upgrade was designed by the Stewart’s Shops’ Information Solutions team, headed by Rick Cobello, its director of information solutions. Now, stores that never even had a computer have HP iPAQs running Microsoft .NET and an ordering application, Order Book, that Cobello’s team wrote based on the identical organizational methods of each shop. For example, the first shelf of the first freezer houses the same products in each shop; so instead of drop-down menus organized by “dairy” or “snacks,” the menus are organized by each section and shelf. “When you have 317 stores,” Cobello laughs, “you have to be a bit organized.”

With the iPAQs, orders can now be placed as the need is realized by any staff member, instead of just managers, as was the case with the bubblesheets. And instead of three days, orders placed by 9 a.m. arrive the following day.

Orders are transmitted to a remote access server at the distribution center via Extended Systems’ OneBridge mobile solutions platform, which Cobello chose because it was the only solution that offered a serial network connection via phone modem—a modem that, in the frugal fashion of convenience stores, is shared with the credit card authorization machine. (Should Stewart’s decide to update its connection of choice, other options are, of course, readily available.) The modem is perfectly effective, however, because only very small files pass from the handhelds—the codes to start the ordering process are all run on the backend database through InterSystems’ Caché. With hundreds of shops placing frequent small orders, hundreds of thousands of transactions are now taking place in the background, and Caché processes and organizes them all.

“Caché is extremely fast,” says Cobello. “[It’s] so fast that we can run real-time queries against the live data, which you couldn’t do with Oracle. We’ll be an $880 million business this year, and I run the whole business on one Dell 4-processor server. If I were using Oracle, I’d have a whole room of computers. Everyone says, ‘Where’s your computer room for your application?’ and I say, ‘It’s right there, in that rack.’”

From the Source

Stewart’s has two facilities, one for manufacturing and another for distribution; it makes about 80 percent of the products it sells in its stores. In the distribution center, Caché collects all the orders for a store into a single list. Just 18 months ago, workers walked from bin to bin with a pencil and a list, crossing off items as they went. Today they wear Vocollect’s Talkman, a voice-directed software system consisting of a headset and small computer worn on a belt. The software announces which bin to go to and how many of each item (for example, the bin for ketchup and six bottles) to collect. The worker then walks to the bin, reads aloud the code on its side, so the computer can verify that the worker is in fact grabbing ketchup and not relish, and the number of bottles of ketchup he’s taken. (If the code was 21, then he would say, “21-6.”) The software, satisfied, then announces the next item. “Now, with voice selection, they have both hands free,” says Cobello. “The whole process, from the ordering to the picking up to the shipping, is paperless now.”

In keeping with tradition, the latest innovations at the Stewart’s Shops have been incredibly successful. In the 1970s, Stewart’s Shops began selling self-service gasoline, which is now available at 277 shops; using OneBridge, the IT team just wrote an application to help manage gasoline purchasing. Likewise, it wrote an application for all of its paper products, which also come from an outside vendor.

Among the benefits, three stand out in particular: Training new employees to place orders (no small consideration, as part-time employee turnover in the industry is annually 100 percent) now takes 20 minutes on the iPAQs, instead of several weeks. Fulltime employees—who own a third of the company—can now perform their jobs far more efficiently. And lastly, out-of-stocks are down. “If you don’t have something on the shelf,” says Cobello, “you don’t know how much of it you could have sold.”

Chances are good that on the next summer scorcher, your favorite hand-packed pint, whether Adirondack Bear Paw or Butter Pecan, will be in stock—right there in freezer three, shelf four.•

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