Leading edge

Whether providing a cash and carry or delivered service, a wholesaler’s most important asset will always be its staff. But investing in the best tools to help them to do their jobs as efficiently as possible is becoming more and more essential. The latest technology can offer a potential advantage in a highly competitive market.

One of the business areas where technology can make the biggest difference is stock control. Tony Beales, distribution systems director of supply chain technology provider BCP, comments: “In some ways the issues are the same as they always were. It’s a case of forecasting customer demand and optimising reordering so that the right stock is available to meet demand. It’s ensuring that stock recording and order picking are accurate so that the right stock gets to the right customer on time. And, of course, quickly and efficiently dealing with any mistakes that are made. But what has changed is both the level of performance expected and the level of efficiency demanded.

“The old arguments about whether a person can do the job better than a computer have finally been put to rest by the realisation that the computer is merely a tool to assist people to do their jobs more accurately and more efficiently. Current computer forecasting and replenishment systems allow a single buyer to manage thousands of stock items.”

Radio frequency (RF) technology enables wholesalers to track stock from when it enters the warehouse until it is sold in the depot or delivered to a customer and means that at any instant they know precisely how much stock they hold. Voice directed picking systems, which guide staff as they pick an order, have also helped to achieve very high accuracy in deliveries.

And when all these measures still fail to provide the perfect service, technology can also help to resolve the problem. Beales says: “The days of jotting down a customer’s message on a Post It note are over. An integrated CRM (customer relationmanagement) system will forward the issue straight to the right person and will provide the mechanism to monitor progress on the issue and keep the customer informed.”

Looking to the future, mobile computing is likely to have an increasing impact on the wholesale sector. When a rep calls on a customer it enables them to access current stock availability and pricing, or when a driver delivers goods it can save time and money by sending him details of a return that needs to be picked up.

Until recently the cost of such an online system has been prohibitive and the availability, quality and reliability of the telephone coverage has not been strong enough, but with the introduction of 3G mobile phones and improvements in national coverage these issues are being conquered.

Beales explains: “We’ve been alert to the potential benefits of mobile computing for some time and have been monitoring the technology closely to see how it settles down. We believe that the cost benefit analysis looks more favourable now and the reliability of the service is such that the take-up will increase.

“The requirements of the marketplace are, however, many and varied, as are the technical aspects. Instead of a ‘one size fits all’ solution, we are working closely with specialist partners to bring the benefits of mobile computing to our customer base in a flexible format.” He cites the example of Serious Foods, a recent business win for BCP, where the company is partnering with Eastern Data Processing to develop a mobile version of its Accord system for Serious Foods’ van salesmen.

== Transport ==

With the cost of fuel rocketing and shortages of drivers in some areas, obtaining the most efficient transport solution has been a priority for delivered wholesalers and the growing number of traditional cash and carries now also offering a delivered service.

One way in which increasing numbers of wholesalers are seeking to reduce costs is by introducing multi-temperature deliveries. This means they can satisfy all a customer’s requirements with a single delivery rather than making separate deliveries for ambient, chilled and frozen products. Many customers see it as a benefit too because it cuts down on the number of deliveries they have to cope with.

One of the biggest investments in multi-temperature capabilities has been made by Woodward Foodservice, which is spending pound;9m on 150 purpose-built Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Unlike its current vehicles, all of the new Mercedes-Benz Ategos will be capable of carrying Woodward’s full range of ambient, chilled and frozen products. The first 20 vehicles were delivered to the business in February.

Ed Hyslop, managing director of Woodward Foodservice, says: “As a company that makes more than one million customer deliveries a year, the quality of our vehicles is increasingly important as the business grows.

“Investing in a new fleet ensures that our customers get the most efficient service, as all deliveries can now be made to a single establishment in one visit – it will also significantly increase the number of deliveries we can make across the business in one day.”

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=== case study ===

We introduced Sanderson’s Swords system in December 2003. There were several reasons for this, mainly the need for a bespoke wholesale software package, the pending expansion into our new North Street depot, and the need to introduce an efficient system to all areas of the Features > Business, especially goods in, order picking, finance and sales.

The new system brought a number of immediate benefits, including:

l Goods in – scanning goods inwards allows staff to instantly spot any order fulfilment errors from suppliers. Another benefit is the barcode capturing/maintenance function at goods in to allow a smooth passage for all stock through the warehouse.

l Warehouse – the introduction of real time scanning to the warehouse enables us to be up to the minute for barcodes, locations, gap checks and availability.

l Picking – handheld terminals provide a much more effective picking system, via barcode and location recognition. We now achieve far more information and accuracy via RF picking than ever before.

l Sales – mobile sales ordering allows reps in the field to have instant access to current stock levels by product. This eliminates potentially selling stock that we don’t have. It also gives stock on order figures. Orders can be input to an IPAQ and then transmitted via Bluetooth to the warehouse and a picking note is automatically generated. This cuts out time consuming input by an order processor, thus allowing reps to quote shorter lead times. Other information available via the mobile sales ordering unit includes customer account details including current invoices, how much a customer owes and aged debt analysis, which in turn assists credit control.

We are now planning enhancements to the system. In the showroom touch screens will allow customers to carry out stock enquiries when booking orders. We are also improving our telesales service, linking it to the customer PLOF, offering on-line alternatives and substitutions, promotional activity, sales quotations and on-line enquiry.

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