Scoville Units Unite

21 Mar

Elvis has left the building

Given that the company is long since dead it’s probably ok to write about the computer systems at Virgin Megastores.

Note: I fully expect to edit this for errors and clarifications when other former employees see this, especially as I can’t remember what each of the 20 function keys did so am making up the specific ones for illustration.

I started work in Virgin Megastore in Dundee in December 2001 and left in 2005. During this time I was at university so started off doing weekend work, more shifts during summer etc before being a supervisor (and the manager on duty Friday 4-6, Saturday 4-7, Sunday all day). I think one of the reasons I was initially kept on (apart from being brilliant, obviously) was I was able to pick up their bizarre computer system so quickly.

The core stock management system they used in stores was called ELVIS (EPoS Linked Virgin Information System) and used dumb terminals throughout the store. The other systems at the time I worked there were the intranet – a PC which had a mouse!, a Ticketmaster terminal and machine used to close and open the store for the day and return sales data at night.

Elvis had terminals at each till counter and in various parts of the back of the shop including the stockroom. It was used to check inventory or whether an item actually existed for customers and rough stock levels – sales were adjusted overnight although I believe it started using real time polling sometime after I left. In the back office it was used to adjust stock, add on deliveries and so on.

I did a variety of jobs in the store, from till duty, restocking, stock management, cash office, returns, customer orders and so on so can see how the system worked from a number of different angles.

The Basics

Your first interaction with the system was probably on the tills. You’ve just been taken on at Christmas thinking yay, some money and CV fodder little realising the sheer hell of the two weeks either side of Christmas in a busy retail store. You’ve had your till training and are confident that you can take a cheque, swipe a credit card with a broken magnetic strip and spot a dodgy tenner. With your encyclopaedic knowledge of real music (stuff you got into in the last year minus anything which later charted) as oppose to the drivel in the charts you’re pretty confident that you can help anyone with their queries.

Someone approaches the till and instead of having a pile of swag in their hand they ask you about the new single by FooBar and when it will be out. (In reality of course they will ask have you got that album by that band, that song by the guy and the girl – you know the one or the VHS of that film which comes out at the cinema next week, but we may return to crazy customers later.)

So someone else has logged in to the account limited to permissions that are safe on the shop floor and you move over to the terminal. So I don’t want to see what’s playing on the shitty in-house radio station I’ll go to the stock inventory search bitty using a function key (F4?). Good, now I can filter by categories, 200 is singles. If I’ve used the system for a while I might know that the band FooBar are in category 216 post industrial grunge funk unless some philistine at head office has added it under industrial grunge funk – 217 instead of course.

So you search for FooBar and you are sent to the index in the entire category starting at FooBar. You weave your way down the entire list of 12 singles on the page in alphabetical order. At this goes up to G and it’s a song starting at H you need.

So you page down by pressing either Page Down or a different function key – F6. You know this because at the bottom it says F1 is back up a level, F4 does something else and F6 is page down with F7 being Page Up. Notice the other ones missing. So you go to the second page and there it is in the second six. You press F9 to see more info and this refreshes the screen with 2 lines about each single instead of one. But you are on the first half of the page. You press F6 to page down and you see a new page with singles starting at S by that band. What was that did you press page down twice? best page up and find it. Ah there it is. You just found your first bug. Page Down always skipped page 3 when zoomed in.

I noticed this bug in 2001 about 5minutes after using the system. It was still there in about 2008 – the last time I asked someone in store to check for me.

You select the singles row using the up/down keys and press F12 to see more info about it. Name, label, release date, price, cat number (on side of case, maybe, alpha/numerals), quantity in stock, grade and SKU (virgins 6 digit numeric code). When I started the SKU for new items was about 800,000. I was really interested to see what happened when they hit 999,999. Well they did a clean up removing loads of old Laserdiscs, Super Nintendo games, cassette singles and so on which were still on the system. Any new items started from the earliest available free code.

Seriously in 2001 they still had SKUs for D&D figures and master system games on the system, in case anyone you know, wanted to order one.

From an items screen you could also, using function keys, see the order history of it, including current orders, future entry into sales or offers (and could advise people, don’t buy this DVD for £19.99, it’s going in the 3 for £18 tomorrow, sometimes they would take the advice…).

So it says 1 in stock in the new singles bit and you wander along to find it, sometimes with the customer following like a puppy dog, sometimes waiting at the till for your return. You then get it from the place in the rack, unless it’s been stolen, or someone has moved it in a different slot, or into the albums, or it’s sold.

Hold up.

Yep, you could have 1 in stock at 9am, open the store and sell it at 9:01. All day long the system still said 1 in stock.

This was actually useful if you were trusted to do the manual checks of daily sales, popular stock etc, but for dealing with customer enquiries it was a right pain. Every day you would get a print out of everything in the shop which had sold. You sold 1 copy of an old Beatles album so go check the correct amount are in the store and if there is 1 in the stockroom and none on the shelf go check it has the correct price (it may have lain there a year) and put it out for sale.

Old Stock Adjustment

After Christmas Virgin in their great wisdom decided to keep me on as a part-time employee. In January or so I had some free time from uni and there was some overtime available through the week. I turn up and I’m being introduced to our stock adjustment system.

VHS is dying, we still have a whole wall of it – 8 metres or so as well as several metre racks for different genres and only 4 metres of racking of DVD but it’s pretty obvious where the trend is heading. VHS take up twice the space of DVD per item and our stock room post-Christmas is creaking at the seams. There are about 80 boxes of VHS in there which is old and Deleted, 20 VHS to a box makes 1600 VHS. That’s money paid to suppliers for dead stock which is stopping us fill up the back room with lovely pretty new things. This is the task that really let me get to grips with the ELVIS system and Virgins product categorisation strategy.

Each item had a grade, 1 was Chart, 2 and 3 were popular sellers. 4-17 were various grades of obscurity and the smaller stores might only stock up to grade 10 stock sending their bizarre shit to the bigger stores who had more space and more chance of selling that concept album by that band only wanted by collectors and so on. 18 was new release and 19 and 20 were deleted. These were the stock which was impossible to order from the makers of the items, that 10 year old follow up album by a shitty 1 hit wonder who got dropped by their label shortly after and whos singer works in the Fast Food Emporium next door – that’s a grade 20. Grade 20 was also pretty awesome cos it was where you would find such wonderful stuff and amazing prices – Luniz 12″ album for £3.99 and A Man Called E by E from the Eels for 99p were two such gems. The E album was also the last copy of it in the entire Virgin chain and it had been gathering dust in the stock room for who knows how long.

Generally anything in stock which was grade 10 or better had at least 1 copy on the floor, unless it was like a Beatles album or the like and you would probably put that out too. When Biffy Clyro played an instore gig I trawled the stock room for early singles which were now grade 20 and put them out – selling out of loads of old stock which would never have ever sold under normal circumstances.

So anyway, getting back to the task – I had to go through all these old crap grade 20 VHS, check they were on the system so we could sort them to go in the next VHS sale at 99p each. Should they all go that nets the store an easy grand and a half for dead stock.

So I had to go through each item in each box with a big print out of all the stuff we expected to be there. When you had a video you could find it in the system by title, Cat Number, barcode or SKU. Sometimes the cat number didn’t match. Sometimes the cat number of the box said X137 and it was in the system as X00137 etc. Warner Brothers DVDs were amazing they said Z1642 and what that meant was it was really D0642. Little things like that you picked up in the stock room quite quickly.

Sometimes the item had 0 quantity in the system. That’s weird, you have it in your hand, probably someone couldn’t find it before and had adjusted it down by 1. Then you check the back and it has a sticker over the barcode 0123 4568 – 1.99 sale. So you check the system and it says there are 100 of them in stock for that barcode. Great, someone previously made a store specific barcode as a dumping ground for old shit and didn’t reallocate things off. Probably because it hadn’t sold at 1.99 so why waste money on such a useless task. So I then got a list of all these generic sale barcodes and noted how many VHS were already moved to them as I went.

Once I got through the whole box we then adjusted loads of the stock onto these generic codes and made the adjustments for all the discrepancies. This was a logon with a higher elevation than the store front one, say DUNDEE_BACKOFFICE or whatever. This system also shows the price the item was bought for so you could see that the VHS selling for 99p was originally bought for £10.99. This was revealing towards the end of 2004 you would see chart album bought for £10.29 selling for £13.99. You’d grab a paper at lunctime and see Tesco selling it for £9.99.

In this higher permissions account you would also see some of those missing functions from the shop front. As well as that access to other areas of the system which used different keys. F12 as more info on all the screens and F1 as back – that’s crazy talk. Lets allocate function keys to different functions on different screen and keep those damn till monkeys on their toes.

The night before the sale arrived and the stock was put out. I went in the next day and it was all in strict alphabetical order (genrefication of stock happened and was undone all the time, I actually think it was one of the causes of Zavvis failure, having a Film A-Z instead of Sci-Fi, Horror, Anime, Kids etc). This was especially amusing as there were 4 copies of some gay porn VHS flanked either side on the bottom shelf by kids movies. One copy was still there the last time I saw back-stock of VHS in the storeroom.

Stockroom

I was later trained to work in the stockroom. I got my own logon for the system with even higher permissions and the username DUNDEE_AG. Brilliant I get set up and go to enter my password “PASSWORD” – Error. Oh it’s because I used the same character twice. Your password then went through rotations every 28-30 days and you couldn’t choose any of the last 9. This inevitably led to you thinking up some seven letter word and appending a number to it cycling through them all.

Now I had my till log on (2 digits, 42 obviously) and my 4 digit password to remember. The password and account for front of store and my own log on and account. Later I would also have the ticketmaster info, safe combination and the alarm code to remember too. As well as all my online stuff and uni passwords etc which was great fun. Especially when you went to work hungover. (not that I ever did of course as that would have meant drinking on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night which just so happened to be when all the rock nights and gigs were on in Dundee.)

In the stockroom you had barcode scanners. You would get a parcel or packet in and find it’s order number. Bring it up on the system, check the invoice and each item. If it was all correct you would enter the correct quantities next to the order details on the system and save it. If there was an item missing you would fill our a form to send back to the supplier. If there was a wrong item – they send 2 copies of 1 item instead of 1 of a different one you would mark up that mistake so that the item was still outstanding. Depending on the item and it’s likelihood of selling you might keep it or send it back. If they sent an extra item then you adjusted that on and robbed some small supplier whilst making pure profit for Richard oppose unionisation whilst giving a million pound to the Labour Party Branson, mwaahahaha, mwaaahah mhhahahahaa! etc.

Customer orders also came in and you had to faff around and find the paperwork and then phone or write to the person letting them know that the order had arrived. Sometimes these would be days after an order, sometimes years after an order. Later pre-orders were handled the same way and you had to shrinkwrap the order form to the Spiderman DVD and keep separately so that the fanboys would make sure they could buy it on the day of release.

Supervisor

Around a year later I was promoted to supervisor and had my account upgraded to the Supervisor level of security. Actually that’s a lie. It was upgraded to Assistant Manager which put a couple of the other supervisors noses out of joint now I remember about it. Especially when they couldn’t find the manager to do something 1337 and had to ask me to do it for them. This gave me so much more power mwaha. To be honest I can’t remember much except now only 1 main option screen was out of action for me and I had pretty much full function permission on the other screens. This let me see the full extent of the weird UI decisions. Sometimes F1 would be back, sometimes F12 would be back. Sometimes F12 would be more info and sometimes F20 would.

It was truly bizarre and worst of all there seemed to be no way to feed back bugs about the system and so on. The fact that more functionality was added later shows it was being maintained at some level.

Where did Elvis go?

I really have no idea what happened to Elvis or where else used it. Zavvi still used it and probably Head as well. There are still some Head stores so perhaps it is used there. Was it made by Virgin or did they get the makers of some system to customise a core package with HMV getting a similar customisation made. I really have no idea but if you know leave a comment below with more info.

I also have no idea what language it was written in and so on. I remember seeing some old modems in the back which sent back the info and the whole kit looked pretty ancient. I first saw it in 2001 and it was apparently made in 1991. I would have no trouble believing some of the hardware (especially keyboards) had been in operation longer than that.

I probably also got some of the function keys wrong as it is 6 years since I used it so corrections are welcome for accuracy. A quick Google search didn’t reveal any images of the terminals either so I couldn’t check on them or include any for illustration purposes.

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