In the early 1980s Kmart came to the realization they needed to upgrade the cash register technology in the stores across the chain. A good majority of the stores in the Kmart chain were still running with NCR Model 5 mechanical cash registers into the 1980s and they were already at their end of life. At the time, Kmart had two separate initiatives in place to develop scanning technology for its stores. One group was working with NCR on their scanning system technology (presumably NCR 255/NCR 2552), another group was developing a system using IBM Series/1 Technology.

IBM Series/1 from the IBM archives sie.

Neither group was having much success and in 1985, Kmart hired David Carlson as the new Vice President of Merchandising Systems. David Carlson had previously worked for Data Terminal Systems.

While neither the NCR nor IBM systems were meeting the Kmart’s expectations, the IBM Series/1 solution was quickly abandoned. The IBM approach had been designed using a new proprietary system called “KIN”, or Kmart Information Network, and placed the vast majority of the transactional processing on the solo Series/1 system, which was overseeing the activities of 25 IBM point of sale terminals. The terminal of choice was the IBM 3683 (originally released in the very late 1970s), and while the 3683 was a very capable point of sale terminal for the time, it’s local processing power was substantially disabled in the KIN environment and the processing was left to the lone Series/1 system at the store. If the IBM Series/1 went down, the point of sale system for the entire store went down. Mr. Carlson deemed this approach unacceptable.

IBM 3683 point of sale terminals at a Kmart in 1985.

Work continued with NCR on the other project, but eventually it was determined that it would take far too much development time (measured in “development years”) to bring a viable solution to fruition. Around this time, it was in the mid 1980s, IBM had released the affordable PC-AT computer platform. The IBM PC-AT solution was based on the new IBM PC platform with additional hardware to support point of sale terminals. It was determined that two IBM AT-based store controllers could provide a redundant solution for a Kmart location. A third party software company in North Carolina, Post Software International or PSI, developed scanning software that would work with the IBM PC AT-based store controllers and run on several different types of point of sale terminals. Kmart wanted to implement their software on IBM 4683s connected to the new PC AT-based store controllers, however, IBM would only sell Kmart 4683s if they ran with IBM’s own software solution (General Sales Application) on the controllers. David Carlson bargained with IBM and was able to get 25 IBM 4683s as a test platform to develop the PSI solution. Working with a third party systems integrator, the PSI system was successfully built, tested, and implemented. It was called PRISM, or Point of sale Retail Information Systems Management. Several types of hardware from different manufacturers could be used at the checkouts. Each hardware type of system had a unique identifier, for example a PRISM system running with IBM 3683s was called PRISM-3, IBM 4683, PRISM-4, etc.

Eventually the Kmart PRISM-x system would make it across the chain of stores. The majority of the PRISM code base worked across all the hardware variations employed by Kmart. It wouldn’t be unheard of to see one Kmart store running IBM 4683s at the checkouts, another running NCR registers, and a third running Fujitsu equipment. While I never saw a mix of point of sale terminals at the same Kmart location, there could be two Kmarts in the same city or town each running their own brand of checkout terminals. (Canadian store chain Zellers would occasionally have a mix on the same network, for example, IBM 4683 on register one, NCR on register two, all running the same software).

Though this photo was not taken at a Kmart, this is one version of NCR POS terminal Kmart used for PRISM. Photo from AP.

Here’s three receipts from different Kmarts in the 1990s all running the PSI software. Because I’m a dork, I can tell you, simply by the print on the receipts, that the first receipt came from an IBM 4683, the second came from an NCR cash register, and the third from a Fujitsu cash register. 

All three variations of these registers featured a 2×20 alphanumeric display and relatively the same keyboard layout (some function keys local to the functionality of the terminal were specific to the manufacturer). Fujitsu registers had indicator arrow lights in the margin of the display, IBM 4683s did not. I was in only one store that ran the IBM 3683 registers during this time and I only remember that it was apparent the registers behaved quite differently from any other IBM 3683s I had ever encountered. I was always fascinated with the fact that it was very apparent the same software was running across these differing platforms, as before the standardization of the IBM PC (and clones) platform and their use as store controllers in the back office, each point of sale solution would run proprietary software that had absolutely nothing in common across manufacturer’s platforms.

Fujitsu registers, mid 1990s, unknown Kmart location. Found on Flickr.

When Kmart added the “Super Kmart” format, with groceries and typical Kmart merchandise all in one very large location, the company decided to go with a different IBM-based solution. It looked to be a variation of IBM’s Supermarket Application, but before I speak more to that I need to do further research.

The IBM PC-AT with PSI software, or PRISM system, was used by Kmart well into the early 2000s.  A very solid solution, I have used David Carlson’s philosophy in my approaches to software development over the years: “don’t buy products, invest in architecture”.

Kmart 9038 in Monticello, Indiana in 2003. Fujitsu point of sale terminal. Courtesy of Flickr.
Courtesy of retrojunk.com

Growing up in along Lake Ontario in Central New York in the 1970s, there were a few Kmarts within reasonable driving distance of our small town. My maternal grandmother was a fan of Kmart, and we would often go shopping with her two one of two stores in the Syracuse, New York area. The closest was the Kmart at Northern Lights Circle in Mattydale. The second choice was Kmart in Western Lights Plaza.

In the mid 1970s, when I became of cash registers and their differences, both of these stores had NCR Class 5 mechanical cash registers. The finest and last of the NCR mechanical cash register line, these machines served Kmart well into the 1980s, long after other stores were already converting to electronic cash registers and early computerized point of sale systems.

NCR Class 5 Mechanical Cash Registers at Kmart. Courtesy of pleasantfamilyshopping.com

There was a third Kmart in the Syracuse area, on Route 57 in suburban Liverpool. This store was a little newer than the other two, and they did not have mechanical cash registers, but rather early electronic cash registers by NCR. I believe they were NCR 230s, one of the the company’s earliest entries into the Electronic Cash Register space. The NCR 230 was bulky and the printer was loud, but from what I could discern, did everything the mechanical Class 5 registers did, but little more. I don’t believe there were any communication capabilities back to a central processor of any sort.

All of the registers had a sticker on the front to remind the cashier: TYFSAK! It took me a little while to figure out what that stood for, “Thank You For Shopping At Kmart”.

For years I had thought these early electronic machines were actually NCR 225 or NCR 220s, but I can’t find any evidence of there being such a thing. However, once I found a photo of the NCR 230, it looked very familiar.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

After the closure of the W.T. Grants chain of department stores, Kmart took over the space of the Grants store on outer Washington Street in Watertown, New York. We went to this store for the grand opening in 1977 and it had the same NCR 230 cash registers.

The receipts generated by the NCR 230 cash registers look like they came from a mechanical cash register. As mentioned before, the printers on the NCR 230 were quite loud, resembling the noises coming from the older NCR Class 5 mechanical registers.

To the casual eye, this receipt looks like it was generated from a mechanical register, but if you look closely, there’s a quantity included on the last item entry, and quantity management was not possible on the Class 5 mechanical registers.

Kmart in Oxford, Ohio, 1976. NCR 230 at the checkouts. Courtesy of pleasantfamilyshopping.com

While the stores I visited were using this mix of NCR mechanical and basic electronic cash registers, other stores in the chain were part of a plan to move forward with the computerized inventory management. At the time, Kmart had very basic inventory identification at the registers. While other chains like Ames, Two Guys, Walmart, etc, were using multiple-digit department and stock number information on their mechanical registers, from what I remember, Kmart had a very basic “Key 1”, “Key 2”, “Key 3” approach. Taking a look at the receipt above, the non-taxable items appear to be rung on “Key 2” and the taxable items appear to be rung on “Key 1”. I’m at a loss for finding a photo with enough detail to scope out a keyboard, but my hazy memory recalls up to “Key 10”.

As time marched into the mid 1980s, the vast majority of Kmarts still used this mix of mechanical and early electronic cash registers. In 1984 I found it ironic that I had purchased a printer for my Commodore VIC-20 at Kmart and the sales slip from Sight and Sound had been imprinted with an NCR Class 5 mechanical cash register.

Kmart did not make exclusive use of NCR equipment during this period. Once I went on to college in 1986, I stopped into the Kmart in Warren, Pennsylvania and noticed they were running Data Terminal Systems Model 440 cash registers. These registers had what I would call a “non-standard” keyboard on them, in that the “Key” buttons were on the right side of the number pad, and the tender keys were on the left side, which was opposite of any other DTS Series 400 register I had ever encountered (and I had a very keen interest in DTS registers back then). In addition, while every DTS Series 400 stamped cash tendered as “CA” (for example, 20.00CA would appear on the receipt), the Kmart DTS 440s were stamping “CS”. A subtle difference, but I noticed. Evidently, the Seiko EP-101 printer used for the Kmart machines did not have room for an “A” character.

As I started expanding life’s horizons and visiting other Kmart stores, it became apparent that the chain was not keeping up with the trend of moving into a more cohesive, computerized point of sale (and inventory management) experience. Some stores would have NCR 255 registers without scanning. Another store had an IBM 3683 system with really slow scanning.

From a 1983 Kmart Financial Report, NCR 255 registers. Notice the “TYFSAK” sticker to the left of the receipt printer, but no sign of scanning anywhere.

It would be well into the latter half of the 1980s when Kmart would start bringing their point of sale practices into a computerized management system of the times. Kmart began the process with the hiring of a Vice President of Electronic Merchandising Systems in 1985.