24/09/2021

ECRs, Electronic Cash Registers

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This was an interesting period as, despite what we would later say at that exhibition, traditional cash register makers were having to face up to new technologies such as scanner checkouts and ECRs. How might they co-exist with the traditional electromechanical business – and what new players might emerge?

Early on, Hugin’s ECR became known internally as ‘Jesus’ because while everyone believed in it, no-one had seen it. It was announced that it would be shown at that year’s Hannover Messe so I went with an overnight bag to see and review it. In the end I stayed for over a week awaiting its arrival. While I bought shirts and undies I had only the one suit which after several days of walking the huge event could stand up in the corner of my room at night.

Hannover Hauptbahnhof

In those days hotels were scarce and you had to go to an accommodation agency to make a private arrangement – or you could go to the Hauptbahnhof square (railway-central station square) where various women would regale you with the benefits of their accommodation, many accompanied by pretty young girls. I decided it was safer to use an agency.

I stayed with a Herr and Frau Pieper, sleeping in their double bed while they used a camp bed in their kitchen. There was no bath or shower offered, just a coldwater jug and bowl. My German was non-existent as was their English and we had some awkward moments. They were pretty poor at miming what a word meant, so it took some time to understand frühstück and their constant repetition of sieben; while I understood that to be seven, it was not much help. Miming putting a spoon to your mouth might have helped explain it was breakfast and tapping a watch or clock explain their preferred time to serve it. They also confused me with schlüssel which conjured up shower for me, being desperate for one. Surely showing me the latchkey they were offering would have been self explanatory.

Despite their being very hospitable I needed a bath or shower. I learned the Swedish team was in a roadhouse outside Hannover and said I didn’t care if I had to sleep on a bedroom floor, I was coming with them. In the event I got my own room and the bath I so needed. I was already intoxicated by the bath and sauna, before we got to the restaurant and bar.

ASIDE: I could pour down beers, having participated in yards-of-ale challenges, so when it was evident I was falling behind in the drinking stakes, I quickly caught up. Seeing this, the others challenged me to drink another strong German beer in less than four seconds. I got them to lay down their money and promptly did it. I excused myself and popped back to my room. For some reason I sat on the loo. Almost immediately, there was a knock on the door. When I answered it, Stig pointed out that I had been there for the best part of an hour!

The next year this led to some serious drinking games, including an evil brew called Ratzeputz. Today this is still sold as 58% alcohol but back then the alcohol level was significantly higher. Boy did it burn. It took two beers before any of us could talk.

But a British colleague, Barrie Lock, and I were remembered more for a different event. The group took several taxis down to ‘The Street’ in Braunschweig to walk past the window tableaus established by the local legalised hookers. As we walked it, we two Brits disappeared and there was much amusement when we were found playing table football in a bar having become bored by the girls. Albeit alluringly dressed and presented, perhaps it was their eyes that were most disturbing as they sought out the serious individuals from the window-shoppers.

I had shown an early interest in electronic point-of-sale (PoS) systems and DCP asked me to create a thorough report on the current UK status, our likely competition and future prospects. This unprepossessing front cover shows the state of the art back then – I used Letraset, laboriously scratched from a sheet to provide large characters. There were no IBM Selectric or Golfball typewritersand we were years from any form of word processing. Letraset made a report look good – or so we thought at the time.

Letraset-ed ECR report cover – August 1972
the content was good, the Letraset needed more work

 

My ECR report really changed my life (despite the poor Letrasetting) as I was soon posted to Stockholm to run the marketing side of Hugin’s move into electronic cash registers. My concern was defining saleable products and at the time I was unaware of the significance of this moment.

We were designing them based around the Intel 4004, the very first microprocessor. During this project things were moving rapidly; the 4004 was released in March 1971, the 8008 superseded it in April 1972 and the 8080 in April 1974. Given this constantly moving target, our designs had to be constantly reviewed.

Notwithstanding the microprocessors, the project necessitated a major rethink as while the old electromechanical registers had finite stainless steel components that had to be designed and built to add each new feature, these new electronic devices were almost unlimited in the features able to be created in software. In fact, some of the early proposed ECRs looked more like Christmas trees with too many buttons for a retail staff member to understand or use. Where electromechanical registers were defined by engineers, ECRs required definition by marketeers.

ASIDE: Around this time Jane and I developed the habit of driving around Europe and at 4pm looking through our two main guidebooks for somewhere to stay. On one occasion we were in Belgium and turned up at a hotel where the receptionist acted a tad strangely, insisting we could only stay for one night, which had been our expressed intention anyway. We realised the reason when we had checked in and went out for a late afternoon drive.

We turned a nearby corner and found the F1 Spa-Francorchamps ‘track’. Unbeknown to us it was the Tuesday before the grand prix and the public roads used for the race were yet to be closed off. We could still drive around the route. The pits were already built, the cars were in them and we could get up very close. I doubt this would be allowed today.

Returning to the hotel we ate in its restaurant. The haughty waiter passed me the huge tome that was their wine list which proclaimed on its cover that the restaurant had won top cave prize in Belgium for many consecutive years. In our mid-twenties, we were not yet well-drilled in wines and disposable income was not large, but I felt we had to pick something in the mid-range rather than go house wine. I chose one at £35, then a significant sum, and was distressed when it was decanted and chilled, killing its taste. This was my first ever chilled red and I have never been a fan since.

Over a period of three years or so I probably escorted most of the major UK retailers to Stockholm to show them our factory and its latest developments. It helped that our parent company was the Swedish Coop ( KF) which then had tens of hypermarkets, hundreds of department stores, thousands of supermarkets and a national distribution system that was worthy of investigation too. Of course there was also the NK department store and Ikea to visit while there.

KF infinity symbol
[see also Infinity Loop]
ASIDE: KF was a major Swedish retailer, responsible for over a third of Swedish retail revenues. This was helped by the long serving Swedish Socialist government giving KF one of the sites in a new town, with other retailers having to vie for others.

The organisation’s logo was the infinity symbol; today it is a little more stylised. It used the strapline
‘KF supplies all your needs from erection to cremation’
– not sure it would have been well received in the UK at this time, Mary Whitehouse would have been all over it..

KF had a set of tome-like manuals setting out everything from finding a new site, designing the store, through equipping and running it.  You might expect it to be very formulaic, a socialist-cum-nanny set of diktats. But the front cover bore a cartoon of someone scratching his head and some Swedish text. Translated this said, ‘If everyone follows the rule-book, then who writes the next rule-book?’ Nicely saved!

 

Appointment as Hugin National Sales Manager (Aug-1974)

At this time the British government was seeking to control foreign exchange and for every trip you took the amount you ‘exported’ was written into the back of your passport, making it necessary to resort to stick-in addenda sheets when travelling as often as I did. With its deliberately prohibitive prices for alcohol, Sweden was darned expensive. It had successfully reduced the consumption of hard liquor for ten or more years by the simple expedient of making it outrageously expensive. Alcohol could only be legally bought through the government-owned Systembolaget and restaurants did not get a wholesale price, only volume discounts. Costs were not helped by the fact that most restaurant dining was business dining, so none catered for low-cost eating. One year I was shocked to compare my salary with the amount I had taken to entertain clients in Stockholm. These expenses summed to more than five times my salary – quite sobering!

I took a group from Sainsbury’s and that particular visit led to it introducing the sloped escalators, where the trolley locks into the grooves, that they had first seen with me at KF. They were also interested in the checkouts Hugin developed with a Swedish shop staff union, that were redesigned on ergonomic principles. UK supermarkets had checkout operators standing side-on to the customer and sliding the goods underarm. The Swedes sat the operator facing the customer and sliding the goods in a sideways motion as we do today (now of course from a moving band and across a scanner) The cash drawer was removed from under the register and built-in in front of the operator as it is today.

ASIDE: DCP had a Swedish partner, Inger, and I sat with her for many days translating the tome that defined the Swedish union findings from Swedish to English. I listened to her explanation and wrote it down in English. Once the session was over and I reread what I had written I needed to rework it several times before it looked anything like English. I have admired translators ever since, particularly simultaneous translators.

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