Back in 1919, Proffitt’s opened their first department store in downtown Maryville, TN. While it didn’t quite have the prestige of a big city department store like Saks Fifth Avenue, it certainly had the technology of one.

As customers entered the Proffitt’s store, an electronic switch on the door would send a signal to the management office, advancing a counter for real-time traffic numbers. Browsing through the various departments of goods, perceptive customers would have noticed that the over-sized price tags were actually Hollerith Cards, to be fed into tabulating machines for summarizing the day’s sales. Purchasing goods was snap, requiring nothing more than a few taps on the electronic cash register or simply a telephone call to the credit department through the intercom telephone system. And certainly, no one could miss the pneumatic tubes, zipping around documents from department to department.

Proffitt’s embrace of retail technology played a crucial role in its growth over the following years. Each technological leap offered that much more of an advantage, allowing them to plan and expand the company. By the 1960’s, the introduction of basic, strategic computer operations helped so much that they began to acquire other department stores. However, all of those previous advancements paled in comparison to an innovation from the 1970’s: the computerized cash register.

Prior to computerized cash registers, sales and inventory management was arduous. The accounting department had to transcribe paper receipt tapes into punch cards, sort the stacks, and then feed them into various programs. Aggregating multiple stores in a timely manner (especially in the days before overnight shipping) proved to be almost impossible. But the computerized register promised to change all this with same-day reporting.

The system that Proffitt’s ended up purchasing had a fairly simple model. In the central office’s data center would sit a minicomputer that housed all inventory data, across all stores, in thing called a “database”.  Programmers could create virtually endless reports by simply “querying” this database.

Each cash register would read in a thing called a “barcode” from the tag, and then record the transaction to a built-in cassette tape. When a cashier would finish her shift, she’d simply take her drawer and the cassette tape to her supervisor, who would then count out the drawer and verify the records on the cassette tape with a computer terminal.

From there, the supervisor would place the tape into a “special transmitter”, press the TRANSMIT button, and wait until the light was green before removing it. Behind the scenes, the transmitter dialed the corporate office and dumped the tape’s data through its 300-baud modem.

After an enormous preparation and training effort, the new system was rolled out on a Sunday and put into use the next day. Aside from a few minor glitches, the deployment was a success. Within a week, management was happily receiving all sorts of detailed sales reports from hours-old data and, needless to say, they were ecstatic.

A few months later, however, their attitude quickly changed. Having no room in the management office, one of the stores had to place its “special transmitter” in the stock room. One of the stockroom workers, recognizing the device as “one of those things that plays the new-fangled cassette tape albums, popped in his Lynrd Skynrd album and hit the big green TRANSMIT button. You know, to transmit it over the stockroom’s intercom.

The “special transmitter” faithfully responded by dialing corporate, establishing a connection with the minicomputer, and playing the “data” contained on the tape. And while the upload program certainly had validation code to ensure that -1 of a product wasn’t purchased, the validation code really wasn’t prepared to handle Free Bird. Nor was the error handling code, as it wrote Free Bird to a small UNEXPECTED_DATA field and eventually overflowed into other data fields – namely, the inventory and financial files – and just kept overflowing.

In the three short minutes that it took for the stockroom worker to realize that the transmitter wasn’t quite a boombox, the entire inventory file had become corrupt. Things went kinda downhill from there.

As the IT staff worked feverously to restore the database, they discovered another problem: the backups they had been making were entirely unusable. All of the inventory and financial data, for all of the stores, had been lost. Worse still, there was no way they’d be able to get the system running before the next day.

After hearing the news from IT, management also realized there was yet another problem: no one had actually developed a manual process. With everything barcoded, there was simply no way they’d be able to make and record sales without working cash registers.

The following day, Proffitt’s management made the difficult decision of closing each and every store. Crews worked around the clock to manually reinventory every item, count every penny, and reconcile everything using printed receipts. The process took three full days to complete.

Since that fateful day, Proffitt’s has embraced yet another critical aspect of IT: disaster recovery. And it seems to have helped. The company went public in 1987 and had acquired a whole slew of other department stores in the years that followed. In fact, almost ten years ago to this day, Proffitt’s ended up purchasing Saks Fifth Avenue, and has been operating under that name since.

(Thanks to Shawn G for sharing the story)

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