The anatomy of success and failure
Any IT directors who have trouble extracting money from the board for measures to improve the resilience of their systems may wish to cite the experiences of a Sainsbury's superstore in Sussex.
The problems at the store in West Hove show how a minor computer problem can snowball into a financial and customer service disaster.
A few days before Christmas, at the height of the spending spree, a shopper and her husband were in the superstore having a mid-morning coffee in the cafe. She got up to collect a small trolley from the forecourt outside the store, while her partner remained inside. Moments later the doors were locked. Security guards refused to let anyone in. She and her partner were separated.
Inside, the queues at the checkout counters snaked back to the rear of the store. Backroom staff were called to help at the checkout area. A message on the loudspeakers told shoppers that there was a computer problem, engineers were on hand to sort it out, and people should not panic.
At the tills, assistants were grabbing scraps of paper and trying to add up the prices of items manually.
Meanwhile, a senior executive manned one of the tills and began waving through shoppers with the message that "you can have it on Sainsbury's". The aim now, it appeared, was to clear the store of customers as quickly as practicable.
Realising this, some people in the queues went back to collect more shopping and returned with trolleys piled high. They were waived through without having to pay, or were asked to guess the total price of their goods. If they shrugged without replying they were asked for £10. One customer paid £10 for shopping she estimated to be worth about £80.
As the store was packed at the time of the problem, the loss for Sainsbury's ran into thousands of pounds.
For those customers inside the store, the "computer problem" was an early Christmas present. Those standing outside the locked doors, some of whom may have travelled many miles to come to the store and will have queued to park their cars in the pre-holiday rush, would not have been impressed with Sainsbury's idea of customer service.
One shopper was told that the problem was caused by a new system that had been installed the day before. This was strongly denied by a Sainsbury's spokesman who appeared anxious to denounce any suggestion that the origin of the problem had, in some distant way, been related to the Y2K bug.
She said the problem was to do with a local server. "We cannot give any more details," she said.
She went on to deny that the store had closed its doors, but when confronted with information to the contrary she apologised and said the doors may have been closed for a short time. According to Sainsbury's, the superstore's doors were locked for about an hour.
What was remarkable about the episode was the speed with which a typical problem - a slowing down in the response time of computers - had caused a major disruption and financial loss.
But perhaps the main lesson for board and IT directors is that, such is the corporate reliance on computers now, that manual back-up processes may not be a feasible alternative to a system crash.