HONG Kong's largest retailers have begun using a new electronic data interchange system and may soon be doing business without paper. The EDI system, EZ Trade, was launched officially yesterday by the Hong Kong Article Numbering Association (HKANA). Supermarket chains Park'N Shop and Wellcome and retailers Watson and Circle K were only some of the well-know local companies that had tested the system in recent months and given it their nod of approval, HKANA chief executive Anna Lin said. The system, which was set up for the HKANA by computer giant IBM, is an attempt by the association to promote the use of EDI among its 1,400 members. A similar Government-sponsored EDI initiative, Tradelink, has been hampered for eight years and has yet to launch. However, EZ Trade became the second network in recent months to be brought on-line. It was implemented six weeks ago for a 'de-bugging' period before yeseday's official launch. CargoNet, another EDI network, was set up this year. The programmes are the first real steps to get Hong Kong on the road to paperless trading. 'We believe the industry is now ready to use EDI,' Ms Lin said. 'In the middle of last year, the board of the HKANA decided it should take the initiative to encourage members to use EDI. We spent six months studying the solutions that should be provided to users.' Other HKANA members involved in the EZ Trade programme included Nestle, Swire Bottlers, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate. Early last year, four computer and telecommunications companies - IBM, AT&T, General Electric and British Telecom - were invited to put forward proposals for the system. The HKANA signed a contract with IBM to implement the EDI system on January 26. 'We picked IBM because we wanted to use an existing network infrastructure,' Ms Lin said. 'IBM also has good marketing, good products and software. Although originally we aimed at local trade, it has to be able to connect to international trade.' IBM will run EZ Trade for the HKANA, and offer association members dial-up access to the network via PCs. The system is built on IBM's Global Network and provided users local mailboxes with international access, said Timmy Cheung Yun-tim, manager, networking system, greater China group, at IBM China/Hong Kong. EZ Trade users can transmit invoices, purchase orders and other business documents electronically over IBM's network. The data are structured according to established formats to ensure compatibility between companies. EZ Trade uses the EANCOM/EDIFACT message standard, and the EAN standard for product and location coding. EANCOM is a specific language that consists of a set of pre-defined messages that are commonly exchanged between trading partners around the world. It allows manufacturers, traders and retailers to exchange business documents between their computer systems no matter what hardware or software is used. EANCOM has been widely accepted as an EDI standard in Europe and Asia, but is not as popular in the United States. However, the client software provided by IBM for use with EZ Trade also supports NCX.12, the accepted US standard. EZ Trade runs on an IBM RS/6000 system. Mr Cheung said IBM set up EZ Trade so that it could be accessed by PCs, but other systems such as UNIX and Macintosh computers could also use it. 'IBM is involved to provide the total solution [to the HKANA],' Mr Cheung said. 'We are also doing joint marketing with the HKANA to promote the service.' Although IBM was responsible for running EZ Trade, Ms Lin said the HKANA would keep overall control of the project. Three training modules would be be offered in the second half of this year - one for managers, a second for technicians and a third for consultants. Mr Cheung said subscriptions to EZ Trade would be based on usage - 'the more you use the more you pay'. 'Low-end users, or casual subscribers, can start with about $300 per month, which would give them four to five business documents per day,' he said.