D-day looms on shop floor

Millennium meltdown: The Easter pay packet fiasco will pale against what is in store for the year 2000. Charles Arthur reports
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The Independent Online
Sainsbury's intends to have the doors of its UK stores open on Saturday, 1 January 2000 - and if any of them won't open or the computer systems can't cope, Bob Hammersley knows he'll shoulder the blame, writes Charles Arthur.

Mr Hammersley was appointed five weeks ago to the position of "Year 2000 business systems manager" in the giant grocery retailer. The first thing he did was to make sure that the managers of the computing systems would report directly to him about any issue related to the end of the century.

He has a full-time staff of nine people working solely on finding solutions to the "Y2K" problem, as it is known, and the company has budgeted pounds 30m to fix it.

"It's a sufficiently major problem that we need to have a dedicated team," he said. "We have actually been planning for it since 1995: we were aware then that there would be a problem."

The timetable that has been devised is to have everything sorted out by Christmas 1998 - a full year before it is necessary. But for Sainsbury's, which relies utterly on computer systems, it is a necessity to be ahead of the game.

"It's going to affect almost any computer or device with a chip that we have," Mr Hammersley said. "The checkouts print the date on the receipt: we can't just pretend it's 1900. The car park barriers depend on dates too. There's the sell-by labels, which are often produced in the back of the shop."

It would be disastrous if, for example, a sell-by printer decided in June 1999 that any object which had a seven-month shelf life was 99 years old, and hence out of date. Although Sainsbury's has not suffered that, a similar problem is rumoured to have happened already at another major retailer.

The reaction at Sainsbury's is not schadenfreude, but relief. "I think it's possible we will have some problems before we have cleaned it all up," said Mr Hammersley. "But it will be small, isolated problems - rather than a massive one."

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