Barking Up the High-Tech Tree

Best Friends Pet Resorts and Salons was in the doghouse. The $14-million kennel, with headquarters in Norwalk, Conn., aims to be to animals what the Ritz is to people: a "quality hotel," according to CEO Charles A. Cocotas. Among the personalized services Best Friends provides are grooming, day care, obedience training, and overnight boarding in soundproof, odorless "suites." Its guests' owners, Cocotas believes, should be pampered as well. They should be able to easily reserve the room of their choice and receive daily updates on their pooches' progress. But the simple kennel-oriented reservations system that had worked for the company when it began, in 1991, couldn't begin to handle all those requirements, let alone Best Friends' growth--from 15 units when Cocotas came on board, in 1995, to a planned 60 units by 1999.

"We needed a system with the capability of managing, from an information perspective, a large chain," says Cocotas. "The system would allow us to extract data to analyze our business, including customer demographics and sales, and would support centralized reservations, so we could maximize occupancy.

"If you can't extract and analyze data," he adds, "you can't make intelligent decisions."

Unable to find what he wanted in programs for kennels (although they could schedule appointments and keep medical records, they couldn't track room occupancy, for example, or repeat customers), Cocotas decided to, literally, think outside the box: he turned his attention to customized property-management software used by the swankiest hotels. After about 18 months of searching, he came upon SMS/HOST (Springer-Miller Systems, 802-253-7377, price varies according to need), integrated software for the hospitality industry.

In early October 1997, Cocotas had Springer-Miller Systems install, in two trial units, a pet-ified version of the software, including the Front Office, POS, and Recreational Scheduling modules, all running on an IBM server and LAN. The system allows any worker, using a single screen, to call up a detailed guest history ("ah, Willie prefers the corner suite, needs his lambskin bedding plumped, and likes to take his walk in the morning"), analyze room availability, make a reservation, schedule a myriad of special services, and check guests in and out. The modifications in the Recreational Scheduling module were perhaps the most inventive: once a place to book spa treatments, tennis lessons, and tee times, it is now a repository of pet-grooming, playtime, and doggie day-care appointments flanked by "profiles" that track guests' vaccinations, allergies, medication needs, and food preferences. And because the module lets Cocotas view its calendar by service, facility, guest, or even employee, he can track on an hourly basis how many pets are participating in each activity and can schedule personnel accordingly.

Today when owners call to check on their pets, the Best Friends staff can, with a few keystrokes, give them every detail of the day, right down to the time and texture of their charges' last, um, elimination. And Cocotas can keep his finger on the company's pulse--through system-generated reports on such things as the services customers are buying and promotions that attract them--even as Best Friends expands: because SMS/HOST is networked and scalable, it can grow as the company does. "We have estimated that the system could improve same-store sales by 5%," says Cocotas. "That's a pretty significant number." --Emily Esterson

Problem: Managing a rapidly growing chain of kennels like a five-star hotel

Solution: Customize a "people package" for pets

Payoff: Maximal kennel occupancy, more attentive service, potential for expansion

Laying Tracks

At Freight Systems Inc., speedy turnaround is everything. For 20 years, the 100-employee magazine distributor, based in Commerce, Calif., has prided itself on quickly breaking up the thousands of pallets of shrink-wrapped magazines it receives from printers each week, and sorting and shipping the pallets off to the appropriate mail drops in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Timing is critical, notes MIS manager Jim Morey, as the "post offices are really picky about when they'll receive particular pallets. If you send one a day early, they'll refuse it." And if a deadline is missed, subscribers may not receive their magazines on time.

Until a year and a half ago, Freight Systems had four employees working on its loading dock to take stock of the received goods and to make sure the appropriate magazines made it onto the appropriate trucks. But with no way to track the precise location of each pallet on the loading dock or how many pallets were to go to each mail stop, the "guys worked off memory," says Morey. "It wasn't impossible, but as our volume increased--we now ship half a million magazines a week--it became more of a chore."

Convinced that there had to be a better way, Morey decided to try an off-the-shelf software product called the Barcode Anything System (Zebra Technologies, 800-423-0422, $299). The software--which comes on 10 disks or a CD-ROM and includes labeling, scanning, and tracking features--turns any Windows-based PC and printer into a complete bar-coding system. Within two weeks, working on top of his other duties, Morey had instituted a viable tracking system for his company.

Here's how it works: Using an application that comes with the software, Morey creates a database containing vital information, such as the number of pallets expected, their respective mail stops and due dates, the titles of the magazines, and a tracking number for each pallet. Next he uses the labeling feature of Barcode Anything to make labels containing that data and prints them out on his laser printer. (Note: Barcode Anything can design labels using data from almost any database, spreadsheet, or accounting software.) "Now, when the freight hits the dock, we already have labels printed up," notes Morey.

Barcode Anything comes with a scanning wand that plugs into a PC, but since his employees need to be mobile, Morey opted to purchase some handheld scanners that Zebra recommended (from R 2 Barcode Technology, 800-499-0461, $1,595) that work with its software. After the pallets are broken up and moved into their respective locations, employees slap the labels on them. Then, using the handhelds, they scan the labels to record their tracking numbers and key in the number of pallets received, as well as a location code identifying where on the dock they're being stored. Finally, they check to see if the identifying information matches the company's records by uploading the data from the handheld into a nearby PC and querying the database.

The process has reduced errors and is so much faster than the old way that it now takes just two people instead of four to sort and ship off the pallets. "Barcode Anything paid for itself within its first two weeks," notes Morey. But perhaps the greatest payoff lies in how the system has transformed the way the company does business. "Bar-code labeling and tracking has made us a business partner with our customers," says owner/president Roger Cooper, "instead of just another vendor." --Alessandra Bianchi

Problem: Tracking randomly scattered inventory

Solution: Software that turns a PC and a printer into a complete bar-coding system

Payoff: Cost savings due to increased accuracy, 50% time reduction