Auto-Parts Chain Goes Modern, Stays Frugal

Larry Buresh, the CIO of the 1,138-store CSK auto-parts chain, said he knew that his current store technology was out-of-date and not especially competitive, but he also knew that the short-term productivity cost—not to mention the actual dollars and time investment—of a major, enterprisewide upgrade was not practical.

Buresh’s answer? Replace all of the hardware, but somehow keep all of the software. That’s easier said than done when the to-be-replaced POS (point-of-sale) systems are, “12 years going on 50 years old,” Buresh said.

“What we recognize is that we have antiquated hardware and software in our stores. And to do a wholesale swap is a monumental task,” he said. “So, we developed a strategy that would allow us to upgrade the hardware without changing the software.”

That old hardware includes 333-MHz servers “from a mixture of brands and all long past their prime” and “some very old registers and old display stations in the store,” with the servers all running MegaBASIC from a defunct company called ProfitPro (bought in late 2000 by Wrenchhead).

CSK Auto Inc. owns and operates retail auto-parts stores in 19 states under the brand names Checker Auto Parts, Schuck’s Auto Supply and Kragen Auto Parts.

The first part of the transition was to create a series of touchscreen registers that precisely emulated the old registers, to minimize training and maintain productivity during the transition.

The new POS registers are also intelligent and communicate directly with the back office, Buresh said. The value of the intelligence is in their fault-tolerance. There is one server in the back of every store, capturing all sales and inventory data. “If the servers do go down, the registers can continue operations and can run 24 hours without the server,” he said.

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The servers talk with corporate using a private VSAT network that crawls at about 19,200 baud. “But with compression routines and spoofing, we’re able to make that network work very effectively for us,” Buresh said.

Buresh’s chain is now using SCO UnixWare, and it will be running SCO and SuSE Linux in tandem. “It positions us so that, at some point in the future, we will be 100 percent Linux,” he said, adding that the switchover target is late 2006, early 2007.

The CIO said he has lost faith in SCO’s strategy. “We will migrate ourselves out of SCO. Their current business model seems to be one of litigation,” Buresh said. “I think it will be very difficult for them to attract a new customer base.”

But attracting a new customer base—and solidifying its loyalty within its installed base—is precisely Buresh’s plan for the new systems.

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For example, CSK has quietly started a free service offering electronic diagnostics. Let’s say a consumer is driving, and suddenly a check-engine light comes on. The driver can drive to a CSK location, plug in a reader and download all of the car’s trouble codes for free.

CSK is not in the auto-repair business, unlike rivals such as Pep Boys, but it is in the car-parts business for consumers (primarily do-it-yourselfers) and mechanics. One of Buresh’s key goals is to become an easier one-stop shop for those customers and, to that end, he turned to multimedia technology and interactive kiosks.

Next Page: Using kiosks as CRM units that customers actually want.

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