In a recently completed survey of 250 companies with direct-store-delivery (DSD) operations, nearly two-thirds of respondents stated that their businesses are becoming more complicated, according to survey sponsor Intermec, an Everett, Wash.-based subsidiary of Honeywell Scanning and Mobility. “Beverage companies are especially experiencing this as consumer and retailer demands for new products and packaging options are placing significant pressure on selling and distribution systems,” says Brian Schulte, director of industry marketing. To reduce their business complications and streamline processes such as monitoring performance data and managing personnel and inventory, many companies turn to DSD software and hardware solutions.

These solutions can help companies cut through the fog and gain a better understanding of their businesses, says Derek Curtis, vice president of sales for Minneapolis-based HighJump Software Inc.’s DSD solutions and mobile logistics group. “Increasingly, DSD software has to be more than just the backbone of an operation; it has to be the brains too,” he says. “In the beverage industry, knowing the why behind the what is half the battle. Our customers are demanding to know why something is happening, not simply that an event has already taken place. With this knowledge, a user can act more quickly to keep operations running smoothly.”

Curtis offers the example of a DSD manager receiving an alert that the warehouse has 500 cases of a particular SKU available. Depending on the situation, this could be good or bad, and advanced DSD software can help a manager make that judgment call, he says. “It may alert a sales manager that the inventory must be pushed out quickly or, conversely, [alert] the purchasing manager to order more [inventory] based on the typical sales volume,” he explains. “This creates a sense of urgency that drives the manager to take action.”

Performance Advantage, the newest component in Highjump’s DSD route management suite, gives users access to these types of insights through its business activity monitoring features, Curtis says. Users can set inventory thresholds and receive notifications when a given SKU falls under the pre-defined threshold in order to allow the management team to order more products to avoid out-of-stocks or late sales, he explains.

DSD software also can help managers uncover unproductive trade spending, including discounts and allowances, feature advertising and merchandising support, and take the steps to correct it. Horseheads, N.Y.-based Salient Management Co. offers a Margin Minder tool that captures several years of detailed transaction history, including invoices, merchandising and customer development agreements, advertising spend, and other financial data, to create a visual model of the whole marketplace down to the individual and product transaction, explains Chief Executive Officer Guy Amisano.

“Using tools such as interactive scatter-grams to locate customer or product performance outliers visually, [users] can, within seconds, get down to a short list of individual underperformers and then, as quickly, search the history behind any member to see exactly how their own business decisions, such as pricing and product mix, drive results,” he explains.  “Having this actionable ‘root cause’ information at their fingertips enables managers to more precisely guide their resources to the activities that will bring the best possible return. Efficiency comes in the very next sales cycle and builds over time by iterating the same practice within every new sales cycle.”

Time is money

Time efficiency is another important piece of the puzzle for boosting productivity while maintaining margins. Greater productivity through software is the single most important offset to continuous increases in regulation, materials and energy costs, Amisano says. In today’s highly competitive market, customers are demanding lower prices, so companies need to focus on efficiency in order to meet their thin margins, adds Patricia Harper, vice president of marketing for Xora, Mountain View, Calif. DSD technology gives companies the edge to do just that, she says.

The first timesaver is eliminating the need for paper DSD documents and exchanging them for electronic documents that can be quickly entered, stored and shared among multiple team members, which in turn reduces the time costs of a transaction, explains Jeremy Russell, director of sales for bMobile Inc., Eagle, Idaho. “If I’m doing things by paper, it means I’m writing things down, I’m doing math by calculator, I’m producing it once, and then I’m coming back, and if I’m using any sort of accounting … system, it means I’m re-keying that in again,” he explains. “I’m doing the work two to possibly three different times, especially if things change in the field as I’m doing delivery.”

By instead utilizing DSD technology to record stops, sales, receipts and more, companies can cut down on this reconciliation time, says Paul Rutherford, vice president of sales for Rutherford & Associates Inc., Holland, Mich. When Dallas-based Andrews Distributing started using Rutherford & Associates’ eoStar route management software, the company was able to cut its reconciliation time by a full day every week, he says.

However, these time savings are harder to realize if your DSD team has trouble using the software. Softeon Inc. addresses this issue through a rules-based approach that customizes the software for individual users, explains Michael Gibbs, director of beverage for the Reston, Va.-based company. “Rules-based and menu-level security allow us to modify the user interface and make the system as simple or complex as our end-users need,” he explains. This customization gives each user access only to the aspects of the software that he or she needs to complete their specific tasks efficiently, he says. The software functions also can be turned on and off as needed to accommodate the changing needs of a DSD team, he adds. 

Beyond helping representatives in the field, DSD solutions also can help managers in the back office save time in their employee-management duties. For example, Xora StreetSmart, a suite of cloud-based mobile apps offered by Xora, includes mobile timesheets that allow employees to check in via mobile devices and reduce errors associated with paper-based time tracking, Harper explains. This system also enables managers to connect with drivers in the field and transmit delivery assignments to them digitally, she says. Both of these features reduce the number of times drivers need to physically check in at an office to punch in and punch out or pick up paperwork associated with new assignments, she explains.

Even though drivers might now be stopping in the office less frequently, managers still can keep track of where each driver is by tapping into Xora StreetSmart’s GPS capabilities, Harper says. This way, they can ensure that deliveries are happening on time and accurately answer customer calls about when a delivery will arrive, she adds.

Where’s my stuff?

In addition to keeping track of employees, DSD solutions also can help companies keep track of their products as well. “The explosion in the number of SKUs in recent years has led us to design software solutions that help customers track inventory and comply with regulatory requirements through detailed product tracking,” HighJump’s Curtis says.  “Understanding your inventory, whether it is in the warehouse or out on a truck, is critical, and our software can determine inventory across multiple locations with merely a point and click of the mouse,” he says.

By sharing DSD technology with sales managers and delivery drivers in the field, the entire DSD team can communicate with each other in order to keep inventory records up to date and ensure orders are prepared and delivered accurately and in a timely manner. For example, eoStar DSD software gives a sales team in the field the tools to manage point-of-sale requests and sync that data with the warehouse’s system so that team members there can begin the fulfillment process, Rutherford explains. In turn, the sales representative can view warehouse inventory in order to make sales that can be fulfilled in a timely manner, he says. The same software gives delivery teams the ability to make edits to orders at the time of delivery, sell additional inventory to a client at the correct price, and maintain accurate records of their truck inventories for quick reconciliation at the end of the day, he adds.

Gear up with gadgets

For a DSD representative in the field to access all of this information and convert paperless records to hard copies for customers, they need to be equipped with the right hardware, too.

Intermec recently released its CN51 mobile computer for on-the-go use in a DSD environment. Compatible with both Android and Windows operating systems, the new device gives users the flexibility to run whatever DSD software they want, regardless of what operating system the software requires, Schulte explains. For fast and convenient on-the-go use, the device also offers high-speed processing to ensure that large data files do not slow down sales representatives in the field; a larger display screen that offers 25 percent more screen real estate for application viewing than comparable devices to minimize the need for scrolling; and a long battery life to keep it running throughout the day, he adds.

Mobile printers also have been primed to meet the needs of the DSD industry. “DSD customers usually require a hefty drop specification and Internet protocol (IP) rating as well as a wide operating temperature range due to the outdoor and harsh environmental conditions of the application,” explains Juan Carlos Garcia, transportation and logistics vertical market lead for the Americas at Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies Corp. To meet these needs, Zebra offers its RW420 rugged IP54 receipt printer, which is able to resist multiple 6-foot drops to concrete.

For enhanced connectivity on the road, it also offers its iMZ320 MFi-enabled, Link-OS printer. This enables the user to wirelessly connect mobile phones or computers, including Apple devices, to the printer to produce the necessary documents. Should users have trouble with the printer while in the field, the Link-OS technology allows them to tap the near-field communications tag with their devices to access the Zebra Utilities help site, Garcia explains.

 With the right software and hardware tools on hand, DSD teams are equipped to go into the field, make accurate sales and deliveries, and document each step of the process all while keeping in constant communication with the back office to ensure optimal productivity across the board.  

Connecting in the cloud

Many software-based solutions, including Microsoft Office, Amazon and even Instagram, make use of cloud technology to share information. Although many consumers think of “the cloud” as an invisible storage space above their heads, it actually is a network of servers, with each server offering a different function, according to Mashable, a digital technology news site. These functions can range from running an app to delivering a service to offering storage space, it reports.

According to Seagate Technology, Cupertino, Calif., more than 60 percent of businesses utilize the cloud for IT-based operations. This includes beverage businesses, according to Michael Gibbs, director of beverages at Softeon Inc., Reston, Va.

To keep up with technology trends, Softeon’s direct-store-distribution (DSD) software is Web-based and cloud-enabled to allow users to connect with the system from most devices in many different locations, Gibbs explains. This capability also allows DSD teams to save money by shedding some of their IT infrastructures, adds Senior Director Christian Miller.

“When systems are hosted on servers, they are required to have database administrators and people who understand servers, so going to the cloud allows you to shed the IT infrastructure and host the data through [another website],” he explains. “The speed is as though you have it in the server in the back room, but it allows you to focus on operations other than IT.”

However, sometimes the idea of storing sensitive and proprietary company data off-site poses some security concerns for users, Miller notes. For added security, some of Softeon’s customers choose to use private clouds that offer a straight pipeline to the cloud’s server without mixing data packets with other cloud users. Softeon also offers customers the option to forego the cloud altogether and host the server at their own site, if they prefer. “We’re willing to work either way, but I think we’re seeing more people in the cloud,” Miller says.