History of Shelf Layouts Chalk line to Computers Final Chapter

Around 1984 the trade press started talking about a new system of shelf layout management from America being demonstrated by a company in Swindon.
There was little appetite at the time for this new system so my access to the demonstration was denied.
However, I could see the major benefits and detoured to the demonstration office on journey back from a nearby branch. It was clear that this system known as ‘Spaceman’ had all the hallmarks of revolutionising how we produced and maintained shelf layouts.
The basis of the system was to match products measured in all 3 dimensions to the nearest millimetre to a shelf also measured to the same accuracy. Arranging a number of products on a shelf would show how many facings of each product could fill a set shelf length. A layout could be built up of a number of shelves in a vertical tier along with a number of bays left to right.
Around the same time Mr Smith, a senior manager in Systems had been charged with finding a system that would tie into the Branch Ordering System and produce more accurate shelf stock figures and thereby making branch ordering more effective.
By this time there was more enthusiasm for such a new system as it became widely publicised with demonstrations at Bracknell. The technical challenge would be to link any new system into the existing mainframe system that included order processing, buyer assortment administration and our own manual layout management via the MSI handset.
New variations of Spaceman were being developed by a number of companies and it was with some surprise that the rival Spacemate, American designed, UK managed system was brought on board.
We had no desk top computers at the time so a 14” monitor, processor and mouse were hired in for 4 weeks for a trial. It was then clear to all that this was the way forward and Spacemate was purchased initially as a standalone unit until an interface could be built to link up with the resident mainframe system.
Our first single desk top set up cost £25,000 (in 1985) which was vast amount of money in those days.
We then set about picking layouts that could be readily converted to Spacemate whilst retaining their normal paper based layouts for the time being. Spacemate was able to produce accurate planograms (the 1st appearance of this terminology) which helped to align the paper based versions.
There was a great deal of systems work going on in the background so that eventually we could manage shelf layout updates direct to the mainframe and onto the Stock Assortment and Layouts sheets printed each Thursday night for arrival in branches on Saturday.
In the 10 years to 1986 we had moved from type written and photocopied shelf layouts to those produced via a keyboard and mouse with automatic distribution to branches. However, there were unintended consequences of buyers having make dynamic changes to line availability sometimes out of step with layout production. The Branch Stock Assortment and Layout (SAL) would then appear to be inaccurate prompting branches to make changes of their own to adjust what was seen to be inaccuracy. When the missing lines were reinstated this added ongoing conflict on the SAL in branches with the master layout at Bracknell.
It became clear that the pace of product change would quicken and the 600 new lines coming on stream per year soon rose to 6000. It was also clear that buyers could be more agile in responding market trends meaning a strain on the Layout team resources to keep up.
One of the issues for the fledgling Spacemate system was that any requested improvements had to be designed by the software supplier and tested offline before being grafted onto the already complex SAL system. The true affect of the change quite often would only be found in the live environment which gave the computer systems team some considerable headaches.
Apart from more accurate stock management, the main benefit was the ability to produce and maintain an ever growing library of shelf layouts as not only could the buying team be more agile but we could respond more readily to the space variations in branches within our limited resources.
Although Spacemate served us well to begin with it was clear that the restricted ability to make improvements and resultant system breakdowns required change.
In the early 1990’s Intercept , from a UK company, came onboard which allowed our systems team access to its internal workings and was the way forward. It was with Intercept that product descriptions could be included within the product outline on planograms and subsequently include digital product images, particularly useful for Seasonal catalogues etc. Towards the end of the 1990’s my involvement with the mainstream layout system was reduced as I migrated to being involved with the emphasis on more organised product promotions and Seasonal layouts.

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