Despite the disappointing response that on-line shopping has received so far in the UK, retail giant J Sainsbury Plc has teamed up with Hewlett-Packard Co and trialed electronic commerce for its own office workers, with plans to make it accessible to the general public later this year. Although the service will only initially be available in limited areas of South East England, Sainsbury believes that there is a market for office shopping in spite of low demand for its existing on-line wine, chocolate and flower ordering services. The trial system operates between Hewlett-Packard’s UK head office at Amen Corner, Berkshire and the UK supermarket chain’s Savacentre store in Calcot, Berkshire. Limited trials began in July and it is now available to all of Hewlett-Packard’s staff with 100 of the 1,200 employees having used the service. Employees at the computer company can choose from a selection of 20,000 goods, the same number of products that would be found in a large supermarket, and place an order by 11am for delivery via specially adapted vans at their office by 4.30pm the same day. Staff at the supermarket receive the order and in effect do the customers shopping for them. Payment is made via credit and debit cards only, account numbers being held on a server until the goods have been selected and are ready for delivery. The trial has highlighted the need for Sainsbury to look into the existing infrastructure and change certain elements that it is not entirely happy with, such as payment methods and security devices. At the moment an HP P class server holds all the shopping information required for functionality. Mixed end-user hardware communicates with a Windows NT server, which manages the transition of data to the store, and forwards the information to a personal computer acting as the control centre for staff at the shop, via Netscape Communications Corp or Microsoft Corp browsers. A firewall and PGP encryption currently handle security, but both companies say that further development needs to be carried out to ensure that the service is fully secure.
Chaining staff to their desks
Both companies say that the main purpose of the trial was to learn about electronic commerce. Paul Bacon of Sainsbury said: We have learnt that no two shopping baskets are the same. Talking about the view that employers outside of the Hewlett- Packard will take on employees doing their shopping from work, he said: It can become an added bonus for employees to be able to shop from work, or it can be seen as a way of chaining staff to their desks. Asked why Sainsbury believes that it can operate a successful service when on-line shopping has not taken off in the past, Hewlett-Packard’s John Saw said: There is obviously a market there that is developing at the moment and we will see an explosive development in electronic commerce over the next five or 10 years.