IS4C: Integrated System for Co-ops

CoCoNuts coming soon to a co-op near you?

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Tak Tang of Wedge Community Co-op and Chris von Rabenau of Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth.

Two years ago, in the May–June 2003 issue of Cooperative Grocer, readers got an inside look at the Point of Sale (POS) system that has become known as IS4C: Integrated System for Co-ops. The article called it a software revolution, one that offers an open source data base designed by co-ops. The implementation and future improvements to this POS system are a collaboration aimed at creating a core of technical support that will help other co-ops adopt the software in the future.

Today, that software revolution is beginning to take form in and outside the Wedge Community Co-op. Currently, IS4C is now also running at Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth and is scheduled to go live at two more stores in May. It is a revolution because it is much more than a POS system. Designed by co-ops for use in co-ops, it uses a community of co-op nerds to constantly improve it, and it is available to all because it is open source—in other words, free. As more co-ops install labs (test lanes in back corners, basements, and closets) and deploy IS4C, the community of co-op nerds (CoCoNuts) will grow. As the technical support and networking becomes pervasive and distributed, each new installation becomes more efficient.

It’s a powerful vision. The revolution started four years ago at the Wedge and took two years to complete. The second installation, at Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, took nearly two years; the third installation, at Lexington Co-op in Buffalo, is on track for use in less than a year; and People’s in Portland is aiming for an even shorter time span. During the process of growth, timelines were stretched to the breaking point, improvements were made, some things didn’t work, and breakthroughs have occurred. A community of interest has developed, even outside the co-op sphere. Overall, it has been a good two years.

Implementation issues

This article will discuss the specifics of what went right and wrong at Whole Foods Co-op during the IS4C installation as well as, generally, what the CoCoNuts anticipate for the future.

After several delays and much work anticipation, IS4C rang its first transaction at Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth on Sept. 7, 2004. The implementation in Duluth used the first live version of the current software code. This was the first step towards a completely open-source/open platform version, which will allow other co-ops free access to the software code. Consequently, shared opportunities to improve the system was the culmination of a process begun nearly 20 months earlier when Whole Foods Co-op set up its test lane.

With the IS4C the version in the lab in Duluth set up, Whole Foods Co-op IT Manager Chris von Rabenau and IS4C author Tak Tang of Wedge Community Co-op began tackling the major obstacles to implementation. The challenges coalesced around four major issues. The first and largest obstacle was adaptation and integration of Whole Foods Co-op’s product and member databases. Additionally, the second issue, product and member maintenance, was intimately tied to the co-op’s previous POS system, so interfaces, methods, and reporting mechanisms needed to be created. Other hurdles included making Whole Foods Co-op’s in-store charge system function and cleaning up hardcoding in the software (after all, Whole Foods customers would have been confused by receipts that said “Thank you for shopping at the Wedge”).

Prior to installation of the new system, Whole Foods Co-op was running an ICL/S4 system with the Productivity Innovations member system. ICL is a reasonably solid POS system but lacks tools for smooth co-op integration, which is typical of many other commercial systems. Productivity Innovations was an attempt at providing the member tools that were lacking in ICL. Unfortunately, the product left much to be desired. Moving away from the Productivity Innovations software was one of the motives behind Whole Foods Co-op’s interest in IS4C. IS4C holds the promise of member system integration that co-ops dream of, but it does require effort to build. But with Productivity Innovations as Whole Foods Co-op’s member system, replacing the POS also meant removing the membership system and building a new interface.

Under normal circumstances, removing the POS might have meant also removing item maintenance. However, using parsers originated at Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Whole Foods Co-op continued to use ICL/S4 to maintain prices and reduced from essential to desirable the demand for development of a full-fledged product maintenance system. Creating this model has also proven that IS4C could play well with ICL/S4, a system that is widely used in co-ops.

The way IS4C was written at the Wedge left out some desirable options, particularly in the membership realm. Productivity Innovations has a fairly good model for some membership data, but integrating with IS4C proved to be more of a challenge than was at first anticipated and required modification of the IS4C membership data schema. However, with completion of that modification, it is now a more robust system and should stand up well against further integration. This is groundwork laying a smoother path for other co-ops.

One of the hurdles in this process was integration of the Whole Foods Co-op in-store charge system for its members. IS4C needed to be able to control charge privileges, based not only on historical use by customers but also based on current, up-to-the-minute balances. This exercise laid groundwork for development that has recently taken place at the Wedge. Afterwards, the Wedge was able to implement it to handle staff purchases.

The last major obstacle for implementation at Whole Foods Co-op was replacing references to Wedge servers, Wedge items, etc. Some Wedge-specific items did not rear their head until months into the project, and even today there remains some Wedge specific coding, but that coding neither interferes with nor affects the code that is used outside the Wedge. Every time something was found specific to the Wedge, it was generalized, so that the next co-op can more easily plop their information into a “setup” routine, making each new installation easier and more efficient.

Once the system was put into place at Whole Foods Co-op, the knowledge that the ICL and Productivity Innovations reports were never completely accurate became more apparent when attempting to create reports that mimicked them. A daunting feature of having complete access to all data created at the point of sale is determining what information is actually desired, rather than simply accepting canned reports and square-pegging the data into financial models. This process definitely had some challenges, but the tide is turning in the right direction.

Although these challenges resulted in a delay in the full implementation of IS4C in Duluth, the system that came out of this effort is a more open, easier-to-implement solution than what we had coming in. The next installation will be easier still, because it will use the improvements made at Whole Foods Co-op, which were built on the strength of the system running at the Wedge.

Ed Zielinski was evaluating IS4C for Lexington Co-op and “witnessed” the installation in Duluth. He said, “From my experience at Whole Foods Co-op, I have an even deeper hope that IS4C can be further developed for co-ops to use more widely, in the true cooperative spirit; yes, the same concerns expressed earlier apply—about support, documentation, back-end, configuration interfaces, install scripts, and the like. But that having been said, Chris, Tak, and Whole Foods have proven it can be done.”

The success of IS4C requires a leap of faith, not just by information technology staff but also on the part of the general manager. Sharon Murphy at Whole Foods Co-op took that leap of faith and, without her support, the project would most likely still be running only at the Wedge. For that support and commitment, IS4C owes a debt of gratitude.

Where does the future of IS4C reside? The current project underway at the Wedge is credit card integration. Using Go Software’s PCCharge interface, the Wedge is looking to have credit card integration in place by May. A completely open source Linux version of IS4C is being tested, and transition of all lanes at the Wedge to the version running at Whole Foods Co-op is under way. Whole Foods Co-op is developing its own item maintenance with the features, functions, and reporting it needs.

CoCoNuts

Another development since 2003 is the creation of CoCoNuts. CoCoNuts is a National Cooperative Grocers Association group dedicated to IS4C and its development in the co-op community. This group has met three times, putting focus on the obstacles to moving IS4C into the general co-op community. Topics of discussion have included support structures, models of implementation, and data organization. In this group there are several stores actively working on setting up test lanes: Lexington Co-op in Buffalo, N.Y.; People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Or.; Tacoma Park Silver Springs Co-op in Tacoma Park, Md. Their goal is full installation of IS4C in at least two of these locations in the year ahead.

Lexington Co-op’s Zielinski has made the most progress in setting up a functioning IS4C lab, and the fruits of that effort are that the store is chomping at the bit for a full installation. He reports that the lack of support is a bit frightening but that von Rabenau and Tang have been extraordinarily helpful. “There have been times when a question has been answered before I knew to ask the question,” said Zielinski. A system by and for co-ops has been long overdue. Lexington Co-op views IS4C as an incredible gift to the co-op community and appreciates the cooperative spirit behind the project.

As with all revolutions, IS4C is shaking foundations and thinking beyond the co-ops running it. With the software now operating outside the Wedge, the model has been proven to be resilient. Part of the success of that model is the proof that support can be provided remotely. Tang recently noted that it took two years to implement IS4C in Duluth but that the current path at Lexington is expected to be only half that time. Perhaps that is a trend that will continue as IS4C finds itself in more and more co-ops—maybe in a co-op near you.

See other articles from this issue: #118 May - June - 2005