Choreographed Chaos: Ahold USA's Moonlit POS Overhaul


The complete overhaul of its front-end took a logistical miracle and a lot of elbow grease to pull off, but after four years of hard work Ahold USA can finally boast of a unified tech stack and best-in-breed solutions.

In 2010 the retailer made the decision to invest in its aging POS technology. The existing system was roughly 25 years old and in dire need of a refresh. The Northeast supermarket powerhouse had disparate solutions in use across its banners and wanted to streamline processes to eliminate the headaches and expense associated with supporting multiple systems. After an extensive RFP process the organization selected the Toshiba platform to power its POS and unify its systems.

What started out as an enterprise-wide POS upgrade quickly morphed into a full, front-end overhaul as the leadership team decided to invest in streamlining processes and aligning solutions beyond the project’s original POS scope. “This created a big bang effect for us,” Nick Montepara, vice president, store support, Ahold USA says. “Now that we had the hood open we started thinking about what modifications we wanted to make that would put us in a much better position as an organization running a standard solution for the future. We took a holistic approach that everything that touched the front end of store operations needed to be aligned.”

Ahold USA was utilizing 10 different POS technologies, which was streamlined down to four after the upgrade. “You might say why four, why not one?” Montepara says. “We had already made significant investments in the self-check-out space and didn’t want to lose those investments.” Making up the four POS technologies are two self-serve solutions, a fuel solution, and the brand new main-line deployment.

In addition to streamlining its POS offerings and unifying the remaining four solutions, the monumental task of integrating the front end included more than 240 applications that interact with the POS on a constant basis. “As a software guy I looked at that and said holy cow you have to take all these applications and make them come together?” Paul Scorza, CIO, Ahold USA says. “They all had to interoperate and had never been combined before. That was a pretty scary proposition.”

To make this integration possible, departments throughout the organization worked side-by-side with technology vendors to create a mixed team of executives with a common goal. Tolt Solutions was selected as the project’s primary integrator and provided both the manpower and real-world experience to help Ahold USA and the various vendors involved successfully complete the project on time. “I couldn’t tell who was an Ahold USA employee or who was a Tolt employee,” Scorza said. “That is how much of a team we were.”

Members of the project team were unified by their shared goal and put their departmental and organizational affiliations aside for the common good of the project. “We had very robust business engagement throughout the process particularly in the planning phase when we were developing the technical requirements for the solution,” Joe Sheldon, senior director application development, Ahold USA says. “We had partners sitting around the table from all aspects of our business, marketing, merchandising, finance, and HR to make sure it would meet everyone’s needs. In the end we ended up with a product that aligned business processes.”

Midnight Madness
It is one thing to sit around the conference room and map out an upgrade and deployment plan, it is quite another to put that plan into motion. This was not a situation where new software could simply be pushed out to the stores — each location required a massive hardware overhaul that included new processors, scales, displays and back-room equipment. The Ahold USA POS refresh was a monumental undertaking, 768 stores needed to be upgraded over the two-year deployment process, which could only be achieved with eight separate installation teams processing one store each per night. Installation teams worked throughout the night to get locations ready for the start of business the next morning.

The breakneck speed at which the teams needed to operate at to rip and replace the decade’s old hardware and software — at its height more than 30 stores were brought on board each week — was not present at day one. Rather it was earned in the trenches following a precise ramp up schedule. The deployment teams consisted of a mix of Ahold USA and Tolt Solutions employees that operated like a well-oiled machine that got more efficient the longer it ran.

The highly-skilled and experienced installation teams were just one small piece of the logistical marvel. Before they arrived onsite for their overnight work session, six weeks of preparation had already taken place to train store associates and stage all of the necessary equipment and supplies. Communication between headquarters and store-level staff was crucial during the six-week preparation phase to ensure all tasks were completed and the store was completely prepared for the installation team’s arrival.

To manage the preparation process a web application was developed to help store managers track all of the 86 individual tasks that needed to be accomplished before the installation date. “In one day stores were expected to seamlessly go from one system to the next,” Montepara says. “We never shut down a store, even the ones that are open 24 hours. A big part of that was thanks to communication and preparation.”

Getting Associates Up to Speed
While equipment and supplies were flowing into a store in preparation of the installation team’s arrival, store associates needed to be onboard with the organization’s plan and be trained on the incoming system.

“The first thing associates needed was general communication that there was going to be a change and why it was happening,” Bhavdeep Singh, EVP, store operations, Ahold USA says. “Very often the leaders of an organization understand why something is happening but the people impacted don’t. We communicated with the cashiers well in advance and let them know the tools we would be giving them and what the end state would look like.”

In order to ensure associates could hit the ground running on the go-live date Ahold USA instituted a peer-to-peer training program. During the course of the two-year deployment 700 store associates were elevated to trainers and tasked with showing fellow cashiers the ropes on the new system. Trainers were not only given a crash course on the new POS, but were educated on how to best relay what they learned to the 70,000 associates in need of education. “It is not about being technically complex for the cashier,” Singh says. “The system is not difficult to use. It is about implementing change and insuring that when you put a new system in you are able to maximize the capability of the system.”  

Bump in the Road
When Scorza took the top IT position at Ahold USA a little over a year and a half ago the POS rollout had already been underway for a few months and the aggressiveness of the project coupled with production turnover was straining the conversion teams, project timeline and budget. Management had agreed to a very aggressive timetable and the project was in danger of not meeting its expected completion date — an unacceptable result for both the project leaders and the organization’s upper-level leadership.

Due to the intense speed of the deployment plan, installation teams were only allotted one night to replace all of a store’s front-end hardware and accompanying software. In the early stages of the ramp up the deployment teams were dealing with the regular hiccups associated with a large-scale hardware installation, but didn’t have the appropriate amount of time built into their schedule to troubleshoot the system. After one night in the store the team would turn the system over to break fix and head off to their next installation site. Without a proper transition stage between the installation and support teams a backlog of repairs to the newly-installed systems was inundating break fix and threatening to derail the hyper-aggressive deployment timeline.   

To address the installation issues and get the project back on track Scorza created an onsite support team that would take over from deployment the morning after the installation. This newly formed “Hyper Care” team was onsite in the freshly-updated stores for an entire day to address any and all issues and did not leave the facility until all systems were bug free and running at top capacity.

“After working on software deployments for 32 years I was used to the process of things going from development and getting turned over to support,” Scorza says. “When I saw there was no plan in place for that switch I knew there was going to be huge problems.”

The Hyper Care team was a simple, yet elegant solution to a complex and escalating problem and was a resounding success. By building in a full-day of on-site support and evaluation into the rollout plan the majority of the small issues plaguing the project were able to be addressed at their source. In addition, feedback was constantly passed to the deployment team helping streamline and accelerate the installation process. “Once we put the Hyper Care team in place our problems disappeared,” Scorza says. “We got our ramp up going again and we met our schedule.”

The End Result
The four-year, front-end revamp was completed in September 2014 and is already producing operational and economical return on investment. By unifying its tech stack, Ahold USA was able to eliminate massive amounts of overhead from its multiple legacy systems, savings the retailer is able to leverage to provide greater customer value and reduced prices.

“For the first time in the history of Ahold USA, we now have a common technology portfolio employed across the enterprise,” Sheldon says. “This contributes to an overall lower total cost of ownership and directly benefits our customers. The solution has allowed the company to reinvest savings directly back to serving our customers.”

In addition to the cost savings and customer service benefits, the replacement of the decades-old legacy systems has greatly reduced the pressure on the IT department to maintain the disparate systems and will allow the retailer to seamlessly deploy new software and upgrades in the future.

After two years of planning and another two for deployment the Ahold USA development team can finally relax and hopefully get some sleep.
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