Despite the economic downturn, direct-store-distributors (DSD) continue to invest in hardware, such as DSD sales and marketing solutions, to move their business forward. In this market, DSD industry trends run the gamut from increased connectivity, in-field flexibility and advanced portability, experts say. DSD sales and marketing solutions manufacturers have rolled out a plethora of advanced technologies to help distributors become more effective communicators.

“The distributors who survived last year did so by becoming more efficient,” says Chris Macaw, president of bMobile Technologies, Eagle, Idaho. “Many had staff reductions, so they were looking for ways to do more with less – less people and less equipment. DSD sales solutions can impact both of those areas.”

Consolidation of bottlers, as evidenced in the soft drink industry, also has affected DSD sales and marketing solutions. Guy Amisano Sr., founder and chief executive officer of Salient Management Co., Horseheads, N.Y., explains the industry model has changed from production modeled on a high volume of a few SKUs to smaller volume of more than 400 SKUs. The new consolidated business models present a challenge to the DSD industry, he says.

“Consolidating operations into fewer entities will drive faster go-to-market strategies as decision making will be centralized,” Amisano says. “There will probably be more focus on the cost to serve a customer, including the customer-specific costs for selling, delivery and merchandising.”

Recognizing the change in the industry, Salient has introduced new solutions to its flagship Margin Minder software suite. Margin Minder’s suite of analyses helps organizations of all sizes become more efficient operations and deliver growth, Amisano says. The company recently added new modules addressing cost-to-serve, trade spending, vending operations, retail execution and location intelligence to the Margin Minder suite.

In response to customer requests for mobility, Salient developed new access points for Margin Minder. Salient added a Margin Minder dashboard application that enables users to quickly view key performance indicators and granular level detail, Amisano says. It also added a Web-based application for Margin Minder, which helps operations with multiple locations share information, he says.

Staying connected
Technology has advanced to allow the entire DSD team to be better connected to its customers and staff members. An optional Web portal was added to bMobile Technology’s Route Software, which is advantageous to both parties, Macaw says.

“When more customers place their own pre-sale orders, the distributor’s pre-sale costs drop,” he says. “Plus, customers like online order tracking and having the control of ordering without a pre-sales person.”

Many DSD manufacturers also are observing the importance of wide area connectivity. In-field access on DSD devices has become a high priority to Motorola’s customers, says Jim Hilton, senior director of manufacturing and field mobility for Motorola, Holtsville, N.Y.

“The edge of the network has moved to the point of activity, and the trend going forward is to adopt and to adapt to take advantage of that advancement,” Hilton says.

Wide area connectivity has been incorporated on Motorola’s recent handheld DSD solutions and helps with overall company communication, he says.

“If I can know my orders as they happen, that can affect change in the warehouse and in production,” Hilton explains. “It can change the way I do business. If I know sales in real-time, I can re-route in real-time and provide an accurate picture of my business. I think five years from now this will sound like a cliché when we talk about where the network is today.”

In addition to optional wide area connectivity, Motorola has seen a trend toward GPS tracking on its devices. GPS tracking allows companies to track personnel in the field and can help eliminate blind orders, Hilton says. Motorola’s engineers also have developed advancements to its handhelds to allow for screen versatility, battery conservation and loss prevention. To prevent data loss in often rugged delivery environments, the handhelds include accelerometer technology that shuts down open applications if the device senses it is being dropped, Hilton says. Addressing another industry trend, Motorola also incorporated an enterprise-grade, 3-megapixel camera into every device it has released in the past 18 months, he says.

HighJump Software, Eden Prairie, Minn., also has seen the move to wireless data connectivity and GPS tracking. In addition, the company released its mobile suite for DSD customers, including HighJump Mobile Sales Advantage, HighJump Virtual Cooler and HighJump Route Xpress. The mobile suite combines order processing, delivery, peddle sales, invoice management and comprehensive settlement capabilities to streamline daily delivery activity, the company says.

The mobile advancements are complemented by HighJump Survey Management software. The survey tool allows for in-field capability to create surveys or gather data in field that can be divided by brand, retail location, competitive product, pricing, customer satisfaction or by store, restaurant or bar location, explains Chad Collins, vice president of strategy and marketing for HighJump. The company’s data gathering also helps sales in the field, he says.

“We can gather sales history and brand history to share with the buyer,” Collins says. “At the retailer, you’re competing against other brands, so whether you’re battling for a tap handle at a bar or space at a convenience store you can enhance your presentation with data, which is powerful.”

In addition to its HighJump Power Tools sales and management team offering, the company also introduced a dashboard oriented sales tool, HighJump Performance Advantage. The software presents in-bound, out-bound, order accuracy, customer, quality, capacity and utilization features in a real-time comparative graphic dashboard, the company says.

Advancing flexibility
DSD companies also have been tasked with reducing operating costs while doing more with less, explains Marty Johnson, product manager for Zebra Technologies, Vernon Hills, Ill.

“Drivers have to see more customers than ever,” Johnson says. “For example, if they once had to see 20, they now have to see 25. For customers, mobile technology reduces the timeline and provides more documentation and reduces the amount of time it takes to service each customer. Drivers can do more or see more at a particular site, which improves the end customer experience.”

Also helping representatives make the most of their time is Quofore, formerly O4 Corp., Atlanta, explains Americas President Harris Fogel.

“In addition to the typical DSD functions of order entry, inventory management, credits, DEX, etc., these companies are looking to make the most of their personnel in the store and equip them with merchandising capabilities as well as to include promotional compliance, new item distribution tracking, surveys, point-of-sale material ordering, just to mention a few capabilities,” Fogel says.

Quofore shaped its solutions around the concept of its proprietary Instant Field Intelligence platform, which provides near real-time visibility of store conditions, he says. In addition, it is responding to industry trends by offering solutions that allow DSD representatives to order, invoice, merchandise, ensure compliance, track competitive activity and capture photos, the company says.

“At the end of the day though, Quofore’s solutions are built to drive a significant return on investment by focusing on areas such as increased call coverage, increased compliance and reduced administration time, in addition to the standard DSD functions required,” Fogel says. “We also offer flexibility in DSD go-to-market models including pre-sale ordering and traditional DSD.”

Also incorporating flexibility, Motorola emphasizes its portfolio is not limited to a few solutions.

“We’re not a one size fits all approach,” Hilton says. “We recognize that pre-sale needs a different handheld than a side-load truck driver, who needs a different solution than a merchandiser.”

In response to varied needs, Motorola developed a platform approach that presents various models with degrees of portability, durability and connectivity options, Hilton says. The company also developed a racking system that allows for one convenient location for charging units at the end of the day, he says.

Portability is key
Handheld devices are not the only portable options in the DSD landscape. Customers frequently look for ultra portable, narrow output printers that push the limits of technology, Hilton says. The company has aligned itself with the best printer manufacturers from around the world to provide its customers leading edge solutions, he says.

Zebra Technologies also helps in-field service by providing portable printers that can withstand the often rigorous environments on DSD routes. Over the years, the company has seen the transition from vehicle-mounted dot matrix printers that produce three-part forms to mobile printers that allow the transaction to be completed in front of the customer. These more portable printers now have the flexibility to produce 4-inch or 3-inch wide receipts with pre-printed color logos as well as print-on-site promotional messages or coupons, Johnson says.

Many industry experts have had requests to adapt to the changing technology landscape. At bMobile Technology, Macaw reports a growing number of DSD distributors adding net books or tablet PCs to their portfolio of handhelds. To accommodate this change, bMobile has adapted its DSD Route Software to these formats while retaining all the functionality of the handheld software system.

Smart phones, such as Apple’s iPhone or Motorola’s Droid, also are impacting the DSD landscape. HighJump’s Collins thinks the prevalence of consumer use of smart phones might begin to impact sales technicians in the future. The phones also might one day allow  wireless connections to a printer, predicts Zebra Technologies’ Johnson.

Farther on the horizon, Salient’s Amisano predicts more changes in DSD operations.

“The bottlers and wholesalers will evaluate their relationships with their suppliers,” he says. “Operationally, they will start looking at the best type of distribution method by customer, better matching up current retail requirements and implicit constraints, such as higher levels of merchandising support, number of SKUs, backroom storage space, etc.” BI

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