In the late 1970s, the Framingham, Mass. based Zayre Discount Department Stores renovated all of their stores to a new “orange and brown” decor, complete with an orange asterisk and a mixed case logo, the last logo that would be used with the department store chain. At the time, like other department stores of the era, Zayre was using Sweda Model 46 cash registers with inventory control capabilities. The registers would punch inventory information on optical tape and the tape would be sent to the main office to be fed into a mainframe. Zayre used two digit department numbers for tracking purposes.

Screencap from a 1981 Zayre Commercial.

In the early 1980s Zayre moved into the electronic era but in a seemingly unified way. While several other discount chains were using a mix of point of sale systems (for example, Kmart used a mix of NCR, IBM, and Data Terminal Systems at the time), Zayre moved to NCR 2552 cash registers up front with a pair of NCR 726 minicomputers in the back. Zayre opted to use the NCR 2552s in a “distribution fashion”: the cash drawer was mounted under the checkout counter that faced the customer, the printer (with three print stations: receipt, journal, and form) sat where the entire cash register would normally sit in a traditional checkstand setup, and the keyboard and display were mounted on a pedestal at the corner of the checkstand. Unlike the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System at the time, the NCR 2552 (and its older counterpart, the larger NCR 255) used a standard keyboard layout. Many of the keystrokes required for a Zayre transaction would mirror the same keystrokes for the same transaction at a Hills store using the same equipment. Unlike the older NCR 255s, the NCR 2552s allowed the cashier to see numbers on the display as they were entered into the cash register.

Like on the Sweda mechanical cash registers, Zayre used two-digit department numbers. Further inventory control was maintained by a four digit “Style” number. “Generic” entries, like a candy bar in department 91 but without a “style” (or SKU) number, would be entered with the department number repeated twice as the style, so candy bar would be entered 91 [DEPT/STYLE] 9191 [DEPT/STYLE], the function key being to the left of the number pad.

Transaction #4135 by cashier #310 on register #10.
The only time I’ve seen an item description on a Zayre receipt. I need to research this further. Apparently electronics was register 25.

In 1988 Ames Discount Department Stores purchased the approximately 400 stores in the Zayre chain. After closing about a fifth of those stores, Ames began the task of converting the Zayre locations to new systems. At the time Ames was still using the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System, a system no longer manufactured by IBM, as IBM had introduced IBM 4680 OS, the IBM 4683 and 4684 cash registers, and General Sales Application. Without 3680 hardware available, Ames decided to go ahead and install the IBM 4680 system in 315 former Zayre stores… in 120 days in 1989. The reasoning for the move was the Zayre NCR system didn’t do what Ames wanted it to do and the IBM 4680 system would be fine since at the time, the stores didn’t communicate with one another.

Computerworld, October 1989.

Ames sent training coordinators to the Zayre location, advising them they were now going to be training on IBM 4680 GSA and the learn the system. General Sales Application was modified to work a lot like the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System that was in use at the legacy Ames stores, and while GSA was designed for scanning, Ames opted to not use scanning.

IBM 4683 in a former Zayre location (note the orange checkstands). This screencap from a training video is from after Ames added scanning to the registers in the early 1990s. The original implementation did not include scanning.

When Ames implemented the new registers for the change over from Zayre to Ames there was a mix of inventory marked with Zayre pricing information while others were marked with Ames stickers. The new IBM 4683 registers had a similar keyboard layout to the IBM 3683s at the legacy stores. The “SKU” button was actually labels “AMES SKU”. Zayre department and style information was entered as DD00SSSS where the two digit department number was followed by two zeroes and then the four digit style number. The cashier then pressed ENTER instead of SKU, before entering the quantity and/or the amount of the item.

At the time, Ames was using the slogan “It pays to shop at Ames Everyday!”. Before Zayre stores were converted to the Ames nameplate but after the registers had been changed over the new system, receipts printed “It pays to shop at Zayre Everyday!”.

The layout of the Zayre receipt is similar to what Ames used on the IBM 3683 systems, with the exception of the header and footer information, which matched the typical General Sales Application layout. At the top of Bradlees, Walmart, and other chains using the same system at the time you’ll see the “CASH-1” designation.

The way you can tell the difference between the 3683s and the 4683s is also the tender information being left justified and the print quality being (surprisingly) not quite as good as found on the older machines.

Customer feedback during the changeover conveyed frustration with the new cash register system at the former Zayre locations, as they were slower than the older NCR systems they replaced.

Ames officially changed the Zayre stores over to their new nameplate in November 1989 (though some of my research disputes this as well). The receipt footer was modified to It Pays to Shop At  Ames Everyday with an extra space between “At” and “Ames”, where Zayre had been five characters long.

Scanning would be introduced a short while later, at first with the newer IBM 4683 General Sales Application registers at the former Zayre locations, followed by a significant upgrade to the older IBM 3680 registers. The older registers would get a new keyboard layout and workflow, and the “Ames” logo at the top would disappear in favor of the standard “AMES” in all caps. Curiously, the store in my hometown (store #80) printed the store address at the top of the receipt as well, but I didn’t see this at other locations.

A receipt from an IBM 3683 running the newer software in its last days before the entire chain was standardized. Courtesy of a Facebook group.

Ames store #80, Pulaski, N.Y., one year anniversary photo, 1979.

In the early 1980s (still researching the year), our local Ames was upgraded from mechanical Sweda cash registers to the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System. Our family was visiting this Ames on a roughly weekly basis. At the time layaway was handled up front at the Service Desk. The Service Desk normally had two Sweda Model 76 cash registers, one for refunds and one for layaways. Larger than the counterparts found at the regular checkouts, the Model 76 registers had more administrative buttons and printed receipts on double wide paper. The Model 76 registers could also print on forms, something the registers at the checkouts couldn’t do. Even though this Ames location had been open only a couple of years, the store had already outgrown the four checkout lanes and additional registers were on the end of the checkstands. During busy times the store would move two customers through one checkout lane at the time, one working at the normal register location, the other working on the end of the check stand.

But back to the service desk. The geek in me immediately noticed a new IBM 3683 cash register installed between the two Sweda Model 76s. Powered up but with nothing on the customer facing display, this register wouldn’t be used for customers for a little while. Once in a while I’d see a person working on this new IBM register, but they didn’t seem to be assisting customers at the time, but rather just entering information from various paperwork.

From the IBM Archives, this is not an Ames installation, but the same type of register

I believe data entry was taking place in preparation for the impending conversion to electronic point of sale systems.

Our family was visiting towards the end of business hours on a Saturday when it was clear changes were taking place with the installation of new cash registers throughout the store. An IBM 3683 terminal was already sitting on the jewelry counter, the Sweda cash register was gone. There were boxes of equipment marked “IBM” below the checkouts. I recall overhearing a woman ask the manager of the store, “what are the registers on the end of the checkouts”? The manager replied, “I keep a couple extra around in case one of these registers break down.”

Curious about the IBM register sitting on the jewelry counter, I walked by slowly to take a look. There was receipt paper hanging out of the register; it looked like a tech was doing some testing. This was the first time I saw the Ames logo printed on a register receipt.

Screencap from a commercial from the late 1980s.

I was excited to know the next time we went to Ames they’d probably be using these new IBM machines that were being unboxed and installed.

It would take a few visits for me to get to know the functionality of these machines by sight and sound. I would take notes, look at receipts, and try to figure out what was going on. Scanning was still in its infancy and most relegated to supermarkets at the time. Ames went with an eight digit SKU (stock keeping unit) system, which was entered by hand, followed by the item amount.

The keypad was calculator style, with 7-8-9 along the top. CLEAR was a double-height key on the first left-hand column of keys, in parallel with the zero and 1-2-3 rows. To the right of CLEAR was Modify Ticket. SKU was to the right of the number pad, parallel 7-8-9 and the function keys above the number pad, QTY below that, and ENTER / CASH to the right of 1-2-3 and the zero row. Tender keys were to the right of these keys, with SUBTOTAL and TOTAL all the way on the right in the lower two right hand positions of the keyboard.

Like some cashiers on the Sweda mechanical cash registers, some pressed SUBTOTAL then TOTAL, others just pressed TOTAL.

When the IBM 3680 system was first brought to Ames #80 the cash drawer wouldn’t pop open immediately after the cashier hit the type of tender key, a few lines of the receipt would print first, then the drawer popped open. This was changed within the first year of the system being adopted here, where the drawer opening was moved to be instantly after the CASH tendered key was pressed. This was the way it was when I worked at another Ames store in the late 1980s.

One function that seemed to trip up cashier quite a bit was having to select the type of transaction for every sale. Curiously, Ames cashiers had to press the MODIFY TICKET key to start a sale, when the TRANS TYPE light was illuminated on the display.

Another capture from an Ames commercial.

While I have yet to locate documentation for the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System, the early IBM 3650 Programmable Store System also had a Modify Ticket key, which was used by cashiers to indicate they wanted to change the price on a “wanded” item. Normally, when TRANS TYPE was illuminated, a cashier would have pressed “1” for CASH SALE, but for some reason Ames decided to use the Modify Ticket key for this.

It would be a few years before the registers would have the capability of knowing an item price by SKU. Originally the registers would know if an entered price was too low or too high for the entered SKU. This was based on the first three digits, which was the class number of the item.

Ames’ eight digit SKUs were all based on the original two-pass class/SKU entries on the older mechanical registers, and many items were marked with both during the transition to the IBM system. For example, a price ticket would have a top line of 112 237, second line of 23701120, and then the price. On the Sweda register, pass one would be 112, pass two would be 237.

At first it looked like cashiers had to “fill up the screen” with zeroes when entering generic SKUs. Before candy bars were 67235515, they were originally entered as 67200000. The LED display on the register held eight digits at a time; longer numbers (like credit card numbers) would simply scroll off the screen as they exceeded the width of the display.

The one thing I could never reverse engineer from the receipts was all of the data included in the “DOC #” at the top of a receipt. Like other point of sale systems of the time, the receipt contained the store number, the transaction number (usually four digits), the cashier ID number, and the date and time. But Ames also printed a DOC #, which restated all this information, along with other information, in one long numeric string.

A typical DOC # would be something like 08000116512348, where:

  • 080 is the store number
  • 001 is the register number
  • 1 is the transaction type (here it’s cash sale, 5 would be layaway)
  • 65 – never figured it out
  • 1234 – transaction number
  • 8 – never figured it out – maybe a checksum digit?

When Ames acquired Zayre in 1989 and began replacing their NCR 2552 registers with IBM 4680 General Sales Application, the receipts were much more like other stores using IBM 4680 at the time and they didn’t include the DOC # like the 3680 PSS registers did. However, a layaway transaction at a former Zayre location did use the same scheme for the Layaway Account Number.

Image from Ames Alumni group on Facebook

It was Ames #80’s migration to the IBM 3680 Programmable Store System that kicked my interest in computers, point of sale systems, and software engineering into high gear. When I worked a few months around the holidays at another Ames store in 1989, Ames was pretty much still using the same software with a few upgrades here and there.

It would be a couple more years before Ames would add scanning to the 3680 Programmable Store System.

My overall interest in computing equipment kicked into high gear when the Ames Discount Department Store chain opened in my hometown. It was September 1978 when the store opened, and I remember shopping there on opening day. To handle the crowds, several temporary checkout lanes had been installed near the exit of the store. These supplemented the four regular checkout lanes and the service desk.

At the time Ames was still using mechanical cash registers with inventory tracking capabilities. When the store opened it looked like some of the cash registers were not new. Some were darker in color than the others. After a few visits and my typical study of receipts, I found differences there too. While many of the receipts had a header and footer that THANK YOU and CALL AGAIN (very generic), some of the older registers printed an old Ames logo that looked like kids building blocks.

The cash registers were made by Sweda and resembled this register I had a couple of years ago.

There were a couple of differences from the register shown in the photo. First of all, Ames utilized a three digit class system for their inventory, so the fourth row of inventory numbers on the right side (positions 1000, 2000, and 3000) did not exist on the Ames registers. Instead, there was a second “Mdse Number” button where the 3000 button is shown above.

If you look on the left hand side of the register, you’ll see a small plastic window. The mechanism on that side of the register punched a data tape. Here’s a sample in a photo from Wikipedia. These registers used the narrower version of the tape shown on the left.

As cashiers rang up items they would enter the three digit class number on the left side of the keyboard and the amount of the item on the monetary keys. Other department stores did the same thing with Sweda registers, but the stores we frequented that also used this type of cash register usually had two-digit department numbers instead of the three numbers used by Ames.

In some instances, usually with clothing purchases, Ames tracked that inventory with “double pass” items. This is when the two modifier keys were used. For example, a garment might be marked 112 237 and the price. The cashier would press the top modifier key and punch in 112 with no monetary amount and hit the motor bar. The cashier would then press the bottom modifier key and punch in 237 and the price of the item.

I believe the use of the modifier buttons punched a special flag on the punch tape, perhaps indicating the “beginning” and “end” of the data for an item sold. I don’t believe the sale amount was recorded on the tape; a cursory inspection of the cash register I had seemed to indicate only inventory information was punched into the tape. On the rare instance that I was able to get my cash register to ring something up it would only punch four characters on the tape when ringing up an item.

The data tapes would be removed on a periodic basis and sent to a processing center. The spools of tape in the register were very long.

The cash registers were incapable of subtraction, so if an item was rung up wrong, the cashier would total out the sale and start over, saving the first receipt to be voided. This where the red VOID key was used. They’d ring the sale up all over again under the VOID key instead of the A key. It was then up to the managing team to take VOID totals and do the necessary math in the back office to balance the cashier’s drawer. I’m sure the data tape was also punched to indicate it was a void, which would put that inventory back into circulation.

Years ago I read a newspaper article about the Zellers chain in Canada; they had “triple pass” items where three codes were entered for an item.

Each of the registers at Ames were numbered with a unique number that appeared on the receipt. I remember Register 1 would print “984” up the right hand margin of the receipt. One of the older registers printed “017”. After a few visits I was able to determine which register belonged to what checkout lane. On the rare occasion a cash register was swapped out (due to mechanical issues or whatever), I’d have to figure out which checkout lane the register belonged to.

Ames held onto these mechanical Sweda registers into the 1980s. When Ames bought the Big N chain a year or two after the store opened in our town, we visited a former Big N that had been turned into an Ames. They did not have Sweda registers but instead ran with the venerable NCR Class 5 machines. The Class 5 registers also punched a tape and all of the same class number practices were in place. The only difference was the NCR Class 5 registers printed a “TX” (for tax) indicator on the receipt; the Sweda registers just showed tax as another item. Class 900 was used on both types of machines.

When Ames made the leap to electronic cash registers they moved to the IBM 3680 system with IBM 3683 and 3684 cash registers. I’ll be writing about that in a future blog entry.

Incidentally, the Sweda cash registers at a nearby Jamesway department store were inherited from the regional chain they purchased, which was called Westons. I remember going to Jamesway after the change over and seeing they were using the same registers. Something had been modified to prevent the “Westons” named being printed on the receipt but otherwise they worked identically to the way Westons had originally ran the inventory.

Computerized inventory with mechanical cash registers. I find the approach to be quite ingenious considering the equipment available at the time.

Found through a Google search.

When my interest in cash registers became apparent to my mother and grandmother, they began purposely saving receipts so I could study them. If in attendance at the time of checkout I would associate the keystrokes I had observed the cashier doing on the cash register with the actions I saw printed on the receipt. Luckily, I have a very good memory and after one or two passes through a checkout I was able to memorize the layout of a cash register keyboard for that particular model in a particular store. As time goes on I can’t remember the keyboard layouts like I used to, but I do remember differences from store chain to chain and I mostly remember where the most important buttons (SKU, TOTAL, CASH TEND) were located.

I found the receipt shown above when doing some research on Bradlees back in the day. Being a native of Central New York, I wasn’t introduced to Bradlees until I moved to the greater Boston area in the latter half of the 1980s. However, when I saw this particular Bradlees receipt online I immediately knew what kind of cash register had generated the receipt, it was an electronic point of sale system by Sweda, the same system used by the nearby Two Guys when I was a kid.

Two Guys moved into the former W.T. Grants at the Northern Lights Shopping Center in North Syracuse, N.Y. in the mid 1970s. I remember it feeling like it was a big deal because the Grants building would no longer be empty and Two Guys was an up and coming department store chain from downstate and New Jersey.

Image courtesy of

The distinct font found on the receipt generated by the Sweda POS system made it easy for me to identify which stores were using that system. Sweda was easy for me to remember, there were tons of Sweda mechanical cash registers in the various department store chains in the area. This was the first time I remember seeing an electronic Sweda cash register.

I don’t remember a lot outside of the distinctive print from the register. I have a hazy memory of the registers having two drawers and the Cash Tendered key being up in the upper left hand corner of the keyboard, one marked “A” and one below it marked “B”. As far as the accuracy of that hazy memory, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Sweda did not make a huge splash in the electronic cash register business and they were quite rare to find when visiting various stores. NCR, IBM, and Data Terminal Systems were all much more prevalent from my point of view in Upstate New York, however, I did encounter some Sweda scanning systems at Quality Markets in Western New York, though without the distinctive font shown on the receipt above. Shaw’s in Massachusetts also used Sweda scanning systems around the same time.

The only photo I’ve been able to find of one of these Sweda machines is shown in this photo from a Two Guys closing sale in 1980. If you look in the lower right hand corner of the photo you can see a Sweda cash register, the housing being rather distinctive and fitting the design language of standalone Sweda registers of the time.

Photo courtesy of The Morning Call.
Photo courtesy of “Remembering Hills Department Store” Facebook group.

I am not in the photo shown above. I am, however, old enough to remember when the cash register you see in that photo was brand new. In fact, I’m old enough to remember when all the department stores and supermarkets were still using mechanical cash registers. Except for Sears. I don’t ever remember seeing a mechanical cash register at Sears; they had already migrated to one of the first computerized point of sale systems in the United States. It was made by Singer-Friden. More on that in a future post.

The cash register you see in use above is an NCR 255. It is being controlled by two NCR 726 Minicomputers in the back office. While the NCR 255 was capable of scanning, at the time scanning was found only in some progressive supermarket chains. It would be a little while before scanning became standard operating procedure at your local grocer; and it would be even a little longer before Walmart led the way to bring scanning to the discount department stores and other merchandise vendors across the land.

I am a software developer by trade. I have always been interested in technology and what led me into technology to begin with was the blossoming field of computerized point of sale and cash register equipment in the 1970s and 1980s. It wouldn’t be until the mid 1980s that I would actually use (and in some instances, program) this equipment, but I knew the ins and outs of how these devices worked before I was a teenager. If there was appropriate testing back in the day I’d probably be pegged for some sort of spectrum, and cash registers and the like were my primary focus. I knew how they worked, I could tell the differences between systems just by a receipt, and I knew I wanted to play with computers for the rest of my life.

This blog is born from my personal blog elsewhere on the Internet. I have a lot of information to share, mostly based on memory, some anecdotal, and even more from research I’ve been doing. There’s not a lot of information on the Internet about these early systems, but I’m always on the search for anything I can find. Operator’s manuals. Memories and anecdotes from others. Anything I can share because I know I’m not alone in this interest. I’ll be categorizing my entries by store chain and equipment manufacturer. I’ll also be adding an area for document sharing.

Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to adding more information soon.

In the meantime, here’s what a receipt from the NCR 255 would have looked like. This receipt is also courtesy of the “Remembering Hills Department Store” group on Facebook.

The paper appears yellow from the scanner used to save this image digitally.