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Aaron Rents is rolling out new technology to all its Aaron's Sales & Lease Ownership stores, automating key functions that will free employees to sell and serve consumers.

The company, one of the largest U.S. rent-to-own operators, used about 20 stores for a test of inventory barcode technology, global positioning system tracking for delivery trucks, and auto-dialing technology to remind customers of due payments.

Tests at company-owned and franchise stores in large and small markets have been so successful that Aaron is rolling out the technology nationwide. It expects to equip all of its more than 800 Sales & Lease Ownership stores by the end of the year.

The new technology is "giving our folks more time to focus on key performance areas," said Ken Butler, president of the Sales & Lease Ownership division. He didn't offer numbers, but said the test stores outperformed the rest of its store base in all categories from collections to returns to deliveries.

"It's less work and more results," Butler said. "We think we're onto something pretty big here."

Barcoding was a logical move, he said, because the company typically takes inventory every week, which requires about half the employees be present to count goods, all while consumers were walking in the doors. With the barcode system, one employee can do the same work in about 90 minutes, he said.

On the service side, GPS tracking lets Aaron know where its trucks are at all times so it can better communicate with customers waiting for deliveries.

And like barcoding, the auto-dialing system has been another key way to free up employees.

"We're a monthly business. We're not a weekly shop like some of our competitors," Butler said.

He said RTO stores that collect weekly have to get on top of customers the day they are late, while Aaron's has a month to collect. Butler describes auto-dialing as a friendly voice that reminds a consumer of a payment a couple of days after it's due. Then Aaron employees can follow up a few days later if the payment is still late, but the number of calls is cut dramatically.

"Were trying to take some labors out of the store at the first of the month," he said.

"When most of our customers have money, we would rather be renting to them rather than (concentrating on collections)."

He called the new technology "the biggest no-brainer we've done in a long time."

Butler said Aaron is trying to set standards that will enable more of its stores to become what it calls "double diamond," or stores that do $2 million in revenues annually. That number was unthinkable a few years ago, but in 2002, eight Aaron's stores pulled it off. Last year 13 stores made double-diamond status, and this year at least 32 stores are shoo-ins, while others have potential.

"What we have to do is take some of the burden off the store staff to do it," he said.

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