Internet users and computer gurus have labeled it ``the end of the world as we know it.'' While the Millennium Bug or the Year 2000 Problem (Y2K for short) may not necessarily wipe out civilization, it is a dilemma serious enough to devastate a tire dealership if left unchecked.
If you haven't paid attention to news accounts lately, Y2K is a programming error dating back to the 1950s. Because computer memory was expensive, programmers squeezed four-digit years into two-digit date fields, using only the last two digits, since the first two were understood to be ``19.'' Such computers will be unable to distinguish between the years 2000 and 1900.
The practice began with large mainframes but continued to many of today's personal computers. Computers that read 01/01/00 as Jan. 1, 1900, instead of as Jan. 1, 2000, will malfunction, freeze or spit out wrong data.
Tire dealers who ignore the problem and think that Y2K won't impact them may be in for a rude awakening next year.
``To do nothing, to have no preparations, to think there will be no disruptions, either in our economy or in our personal lives, would be, at best, foolhardy,'' said Peter Carlino, vice president of sales for Pittsburgh-based Signal Software Corp.
A big headache
The Small Business Administration's Y2K Web site cites Federal Reserve estimates that 1 to 7 percent of U.S. businesses will fail because of the Year 2000 Problem. Worldwide, approximately 10 to 15 percent of small businesses are expected to shut down for at least three days, according to the Gartner Group Inc., a consulting and research firm based in Stamford, Conn.
But what can the Millennium Bug do to a tire dealership?
For one thing, dealers may be locked out of their own stores on the first work day of 2000 because the alarm system reads their codes as invalid, said Wayne Croswell, president of ASA Tire Systems Inc., a division of ASA International Ltd.
``(Dealers) need to understand that the magnitude of (Y2K) is beyond their business computer,'' Mr. Croswell said.
If the store's alarm system works, a dealer may find the credit card verification device won't function because the phone line is dead, or the heating and cooling system has shut down, or perhaps there is no electrical power at all, said D.J. Caulfield, an SBA public information officer.
The most obvious problems will surface from the dealership's computer, particularly since many dealers run accounting software custom-made for the tire business. Those who don't prepare their computers for the year 2000 will find that if the machines still work, they may record a crazy date like 1965 on orders, Mr. Croswell said.
``It's nothing more than a mathematic algorithm in the chip incorrectly calculating the date,'' he said. ``If you start gathering all your business data with erroneous dates, it's just going to wreak havoc with your business numbers.''
That means ``it's going to put sales in the wrong general ledger months,'' or calculate interest charges wrong or not include certain sales for commission calculations.
The problem becomes so complicated that fixing it after the fact will be a terrible inconvenience, he said. ``It's just going to create a huge mess. And then to dig out of it could be incredibly time consuming.''
Tackling the bug
Among the software suppliers to the tire industry, ASA Tire Systems, Signal Software and Quality Design Systems Inc. agree that the first step in fixing the Millennium Bug is contacting hardware and software vendors and asking if their products are Y2K ready.
Many tire manufacturers also have urged dealers to call their vendors for Y2K information, according to a Tire Businss survey.
If any part of the computer—the hardware, operating system or software—is not Y2K compliant, then the machine will be useless, said David Elsey, director of marketing and corporate sales for Quality Design Systems in Eagle, Idaho.
Dealers who use computerized diagnostic equipment also should call the makers of those machines to see if they are Y2K ready, he said.
``Most people think, `Well, my computer system is my only worry.' But they don't realize that the same computer equipment, the embedded chips, are in alignment machines and everything,'' he said.
Embedded chips are integral microprocessors that control the operation of all electronic equipment. Some chips can be so hidden within equipment that a casual observer wouldn't see their presence in the system.
Not all embedded systems are date sensitive, but that doesn't eliminate the need for dealers to check which ones are, Mr. Caulfield said.
But don't completely rely on the vendors' word with regard to the PC, he cautioned. Look for an independent verifier—a competent computer consultant who didn't sell the computer or software—to double-check the system's readiness.
Dealers can find consultants at the SBA's home page, www.sbaonline.com/y2k, or by calling their local chamber of commerce for referrals, he said.
The SBA is advising all small-business owners to contact vendors of phones, heating and cooling systems, security systems and even the utilities for Y2K compliance, Mr. Caulfield said.
Dealers also should call all their suppliers, including tire makers and distributors, to see if they will make the Year 2000 deadline, he added. If suppliers can't ship tires, then dealers will need to decide if they should stock up on inventory for the first quarter of 2000.
``They should plan for an alternative to their existing structure in the event there is a problem,'' Mr. Caulfield said. ``If wholesaler A can't ship to you, you might have to opt for wholesaler B and anticipate a slightly higher cost.''
Take action now
With fewer than 11 months remaining to 2000, procrastination is not an option for anyone in the tire industry. The longer dealers wait to address Y2K, the less likely it is that all problems will be corrected by the deadline.
``The biggest advice I have is: Don't wait until the last minute like everyone's going to do....This year is not too late, but don't start thinking about it in August or September,'' Mr. Elsey said.
In general, small dealerships that haven't done anything yet about Y2K can still check and update their equipment and software in time, but larger dealerships that haven't started probably won't make it because of their expanded networks, Mr. Elsey said.
But no one should sit around and do nothing, because as 1999 progresses, computer techs who can fix Y2K will be in short supply as more companies race to meet the deadline, Mr. Caulfield said.
``I think the most important consideration at this point is that a retail owner must move from awareness of Y2K to action on Y2K,'' he said. ``The time is now. It is only going to cost you more headaches and more money if you delay.''