Businesses seeking to empower — and monitor — their employees in the field have adopted smartphones and tablet computers and are leveraging wireless capabilities to increase communication. In response, direct-store delivery (DSD) software and hardware suppliers are developing new options that help these mobile workforces.

“A beverage employee 15 years ago probably took the order off of a piece of paper and either called it in to somebody who was sitting inside the office or used a handheld device that you held up to the phone to transmit information,” says Cyndi Brandt, vice president of marketing for Roadnet Technologies, Towson, Md. 

These advancements offer myriad benefits for wholesalers and distributors, says Marty Johnson, product marketing manager of mobility for Zebra Technologies Corp., Lincolnshire, Ill.

“Within DSD applications, mobile devices offer optimized invoice, delivery, inventory and ordering processes,” Johnson says. “Both rugged and commercial mobile devices are being used for more than just taking orders or issuing invoices. They are also being used to capture pictures and video content to assist with training, damage documentation, market intelligence and data. These devices also have voice-directed applications and [global positioning systems (GPS)] for routing optimization or geo-fencing.”

The technology also addresses bottom-line concerns, which are top-of-mind for wholesalers and distributors.

“The profitability challenges that faced the beverage suppliers in the fourth quarter of 2011 only increased in 2012,” says Chris Macaw, president of bMobile Route Software, Eagle, Idaho. “They are looking to drive down costs both upstream at the strategic level and downstream to the operational level. Fuel costs are likely to hit record highs in 2012 so route optimization within their distribution is more important than ever.”

All-access pass

Consumer packaged goods customers are looking for DSD hardware that provides their workforce with access to e-mail, corporate functions and software programs, explains Ed McCabe, national sales manager for retail and logistics for Panasonic Solutions Co., Secaucus, N.J. Panasonic’s customers are looking for options beyond a traditional handheld device or smartphone to empower field workers to sell, merchandise and conduct surveys, McCabe notes.

“When you start talking about enabling the workers, obviously when you give them access to all that information they don’t want to be viewing it on a 3.5- or 4-inch screen size,” he says. “The trend is going to a solution that’s got a larger screen or larger form factor.”

Panasonic offers the Toughbook line of rugged mobile computers, which McCabe says are designed and tested to address customer needs. Pre-sales and route sales teams often opt for the Toughbook H2, a fully ruggedized tablet computer, he says. The Toughbook H2 has a 10.1-inch LED screen, sealed all-weather design and has a range of integrated wireless features for all-day access to company information, according to Panasonic.

“By allowing their workers to be connected throughout the day, it’s really shortening the work day and improving the employee morale,” McCabe says. “It’s one of those [return on investment] factors that we don’t necessarily look at; it’s normally: how do we make them more efficient? But employee morale is one of those intangible features that has improved the quality of their life.”

For employees who need to use a keyboard while out in the field, Panasonic offers the Toughbook C1, a 12.1-inch convertible tablet PC. The Toughbook C1’s screen can rotate over its full keyboard to create a tablet for users to show videos or planograms, McCabe says.

Fusing a mobile computer and a tablet, Panasonic’s Toughbook U1 Ultra has a 5.6-inch LED screen that automatically adjusts screen brightness, has a full keyboard and Windows 7 operating system. The U1 Ultra has a rugged modular design as well as optional features such as GPS, Gobi mobile broadband, a two-megapixel camera and barcode readers.

The company’s Toughpad line of tablet computers designed for durability and enterprise-level security will be available this spring. Panasonic’s Toughpad B1 with a 7-inch screen and Toughpad A1 equipped with a 10.1-inch screen both operate on the Android platform, have multi-touch and digitizer screens, and all-weather, water-resistant bodies.

Mobile management

When employees have the tools in hand, the next call is for programs that help them make more informed and efficient decisions in the field. Roadnet Technologies’ Brandt says one of the first and foremost requests the company receives is for voice navigation capabilities, which are incorporated in its newest version of MobileCast GPS Fleet Tracking release.

Another feature of MobileCast is monitoring employees, and Roadnet Technologies has seen more wholesalers and distributors looking to find out whether employees have accomplished tasks, visited customers, spent the allotted time with each customer, followed the proper route and traveled in accordance with safety regulations, Brandt notes. Roadnet Technologies also has seen more accounts using the company’s merchandiser module, which has the ability to schedule merchandiser arrival within a certain interval after a delivery. The company also is working on an enhanced version of employee tracking that is slated for release later this year, Brandt says.

Roadnet Technologies also offers telematics options that help companies keep an eye on driving behavior and safety standards. Brandt notes the programs are particularly helpful for fleets that have idling issues because it can pinpoint where the idling is occurring. In addition, the company is working on a new release to help customers deliver more efficiently.

“Margins are waning, they’re not gaining,” she says. “One of our customers 10 years ago didn’t care what it cost to get the trucks on the road because margins were so high. Now every year it’s ‘With what I did last year, how do I get two more stops on every truck because I have to drive the costs out of the vehicle?’ We’re working on our next-generation product and we’re changing our algorithms and we’re putting new concepts in. We want to make sure that we’re constantly trying to help people do exactly what they’re telling us, which is one, increase my capacity, and two, get more stops on the vehicle.”

Xora Inc., Mountain View, Calif., a mobile enterprise applications company, announced its Xora GPS TimeTrack app for the iPhone in September. “While mobile applications have long been used by businesses to streamline field operations and improve productivity for employees and other resources in the field, smartphones and tablets take these apps to a whole new level,” says Patricia Harper, vice president of marketing for Xora.

The app allows mobile employees to create electronic timecards, fill out forms and invoices as well as capture photos, electronic signatures and barcode scans on an iPhone, the company says. GPS TimeTrack consists of a mobile app as well as a secure, cloud-based management application, which is offered as a separate service, the company says. Using Xora’s cloud-based management application, managers or other office personnel are able to view real-time locations of mobile employees on Google Maps, dispatch jobs, communicate instructions, set up alerts for merchandisers as well as customers, and create reports from the data, the company says.

Service level

Bob Cushing, vice president of strategic consultative sales for Salient Management Co., Horseheads, N.Y., explains that retailers are requesting more frequent deliveries, smaller displays and increased merchandising service, which contradicts DSD’s tradition of large volume drops and setting their own merchandising schedule. This conflict is encouraging wholesalers and distributors to consider different delivery methods, trucks and merchandising ideas, which is where logistics solutions can help, Cushing says.

“By leveraging GPS technologies, an operator can better understand where vehicles and people are in the supply chain, can capture time and do it automatically,” he explains. “Taking advantage of these recent technologies, an operator can start quantifying the impact on customer-specific cost-to-serve, and more importantly, start capturing the net economic impact of a change in delivery frequency, more frequent deliveries and more frequent merchandising.”

Salient’s Collaborative Intelligence Suite 5.0 was designed to go beyond traditional segmentation of channel, package, brand and territory, he notes. The release is able to capture time, which creates customer-specific costs for delivery, selling, merchandising and marketing equipment service during a given period, Cushing explains. Going deeper, Salient’s software also is able to capture business results based on a specific store, product, salesperson and date in addition to incorporating weather, syndicated data, census information and customer purchase behavior.

To provide a holistic view of performance management, Cushing explains, Salient’s Collaborative Intelligence Suite 5.0 is designed with analytical, collaborative and communicative planks. These aspects provide access to analytical drillable dashboards and storyboards — a formal series of documented analytics that can transfer business management processes from one person to another or throughout an entire organization, he says.

Tracking is a key element of RouteMizer, a route optimization module from bMobile that helps customers monitor the driving and operational costs of the vehicle, Macaw says. To further mitigate costs, Jeremy Russell, sales director for bMobile, notes that more producers are contracting distribution to independent operators. Although this might help the bottom line, Russell says it creates a challenge for the producer to gather distribution customer sales data. In response, bMobile created an integrated mobile system that allows producers to track product movement, sales trends and distributor production instantly from independent operators, Russell says. The company’s 2012 release of bMobile Route software can be accessed from tablet computers and smartphones, he says.

Systems integrator Barcoding Inc., Baltimore, partners with Holland, Mich.-based Rutherford and Associates to offer its eoStar program to Barcoding clients. The platform is continuously updated with new features that are designed based on end-user suggestions including sales tools such as surveys, goals, retail execution and real-time reporting, as well as operational modules for palletization, truck loading and voice picking, says Kenneth Currie, vice president of business development for Barcoding Inc. The latest round of updates includes cloud-based delivery and optimization software that can be put to work in a matter of days, he says.

On-the-spot convenience

In-field advancements go beyond connectivity as the latest releases in portable printers also raised the bar for customer service.

“By printing invoices in the field, they help reduce invoice discrepancies, improve cash flow by beginning the billing cycle quickly and eliminate the need for back-end data entry altogether as all the data now resides on the handheld or tablet, which can be synced in real time with all the corporate data systems,” says Ravi Panjwani, director of business development and sales for Brother Mobile Solutions Inc., Bridgewater, N.J.

Brother Mobile Solutions offers its RuggedJet and PocketJet lines of mobile printers that were designed to fit customer demands of increased speed, a range of sizes of printed documents, ergonomics of the device, battery life and ease of integration, Panjwani says. The company’s printers use thermal printing technology that does not require ink, toner or ribbons, but operate with drop-in rolls that ease the change of supplies in the field, he notes.

Brother Mobile Solution’s new RuggedJet printers create 2- to 4-inch documents, can connect wirelessly to hardware, and are IP54 certified to withstand dust, moisture and 6-foot drops, he says. The printers also are available with an optional magnetic card reader for customers requiring credit card processing in the field.

The PocketJet 6 and PocketJet 6 Plus mobile printers from Brother Mobile Solutions offer thermal printing in a range of sizes. Available in four models with 200 to 300 dots-per-inch, the latest generation of PocketJet printers are able to print on 8.5-inch paper, Panjwani says.

Zebra Technologies’ Johnson says its customers request mobile printers that are durable and connect with smartphones, handheld devices, tablets and other hardware options. The company’s printers are designed to help suppliers who are taking mobile payments as well as issuing receipts and invoices, which can be printed with company logos, he says. Zebra Technologies’ future focus is on adapting wireless technology and security needs, Johnson says.

“We will continue to adapt to new technologies like adding more memory capabilities to mobile printers,” he says. “This will allow printers to have more advanced graphics and data pre-loaded on the device. Also as radio technology changes, we frequently update our products with the latest wireless technology and security requirements.” BI