Real Productivity, Unreal Measurements

Technology has brought big leaps in productivity across the economy, from the local drugstore, to the crossroads gas station, to the nearby suburban mall, but they are often officially unrecognized.

A few examples:

* Since computerizing inventories early this decade, Walgreen has launched "just in time" deliveries to stores.

The result: $200 million in annual savings, 54 percent of last year's $372 million profit, says Michael Polzin, spokesman for the Deerfield, Ill., drugstore chain.

* With centralized, computer control centers, Mobil Oil cut staff about 15 percent at its five US refineries. The controls streamline refining and let managers anywhere track production, minute-by-minute, via computer. Refinery productivity jumped 20 percent, says Jerry Teitman, new business manager at the Fairfax, Va., corporation.

"The system has allowed us to run our assets right up against the peg," says Mr. Teitman. He estimates computers boosted his own productivity at least 20 percent.

* Sears, Roebuck earlier this year launched a computer system that lets headquarters track daily sales at 2,800 stores. The system delivers details down to merchandise color and size. Sears can now respond more quickly to consumer hankerings and identify wares that pack the most profit, says Jonathan Rand, director of merchandise information.

Critics of government methods of measuring productivity say such examples are understated or overlooked since the statistics focus only on total output.

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