A plethora of market trends continue to impact the global supply chain including automation. In PwC’s “Global Supply Chain Survey 2013,” the market research firm found that 54 percent of companies surveyed in the retail and consumer goods industries listed automation as high importance with an additional 5 percent listing it as high importance by 2015. With the growing importance of automation, manufacturers of direct store delivery (DSD) solutions are developing new products and software that can accommodate its impact on distribution practices.

“In today’s competitive world, where retailers require efficient, on-time delivery of volumes of different products to meet customer demand, automation is absolutely essential,” says Brian D. Beans, senior account manager of strategic accounts for Broomfield, Colo.-based Brother Mobile Solutions. “That has led to the rapid adoption and growth of supply chain management and DSD software systems designed to coordinate warehouse and direct store delivery activities using handheld electronic devices and mobile printers.”

Among the trends contributing to this adoption is the proliferation of SKUs, which has impacted sales and delivery associates. “As our clients continue to deal with the boom of new products, especially in the craft space, portfolio and market presence analyses are becoming even more heavily relied upon for managing effective distribution,” says Brendan Boris, director of marketing for Salient Management Co., Horsehead, N.Y.

Matt Talbot, chief executive officer and co-founder of Denver-based GoSpotCheck, echoes similar sentiments. “The proliferation of SKUs in recent years has become burdensome to field teams calling on accounts in the field,” he says. “Smart brands are turning to DSD software to give their field teams the ability to access product catalogues on the road as opposed to lugging around binders to each door they visit.

“DSD software has also provided companies greater visibility into where their product is and how it’s performing on shelves, giving them the opportunity to make real-time, data-driven decisions faster,” he continues. “As businesses inherently become more tech savvy, DSD software will have an increasing need to integrate with other systems.”

DSD hardware also has been impacted by SKU proliferation. Brian Schulte, senior DSD solution manager for Honeywell Sensing and Productivity Solutions, Freeport, Ill., notes that that larger display screens and increased use of scanning are some of the ways suppliers are responding to this trend.

“Larger displays are being implemented to show more SKU-specific information to aid sales reps while selling and to provide the ability to see more SKUs at one time,” he says. “Since it is no longer possible for a sales rep to remember all of the product item numbers, more companies are implementing scanning-based data capture solutions to quickly identify products or jump to product categories.”

Shelf management also will benefit from advancements with DSD handheld solutions, notes Jim Hilton, director of global solutions for manufacturing and DSD for Zebra Technologies, Vernon Hills, Ill. Whether its merchandisers, DSD field sales representatives or pre-sales associates, each division can take advantage of the increased transparency of shelf documentation.

“They’ll snap a picture of that shelf and move it to an analytics environment, and that picture just became an image that gets broken down and tested against all kinds of algorithms that determine stocks, proper placement of product, proper pricing verification, did the display get put in the right place, [is it] being maintained,” he explains.

The advent of consumer-grade devices also has helped field associates become more comfortable with the use of advanced DSD software and handheld solutions, notes Derek Curtis, vice president of sales for Minneapolis-based HighJump.

“This removes the natural apprehension some users may have had to address when staring at a foreign, rugged handheld,” he says. “These devices, along with omnipotent wireless coverage, expand the value that DSD solutions can provide. Real-time access to on-hand inventory, customer [annual reports] [and] current  discounts are merely a few areas that improved device/network options provide to ensure that field users provide enhanced customer service.”

Smartphone technology also has aided DSD field users’ familiarity with products, says Hector Negron, managing director of Florida and Caribbean for business transformation for BlueTec. Additionally, evolving technology has increased the cost-effectiveness of DSD solutions.

For example, the Doral, Fla.-based company offers a subscription-based licensing model where a client might not even need a server to run the technology, he explains. “Basically, they just pay a monthly fee,” Negron says. “That initial investment that a customer needed to make, a capital investment, a lot of times they needed financing for this or a pretty big yearly budget. Now, it’s being stuck down to a monthly expense item like renting a truck or renting a warehouse.”

With advancements like these and many more, companies employing DSD capabilities also are benefiting from a savings perspective because of mapping and reporting technology. “This type of software lets managers and supervisors coordinate routes, help them [develop] prototypes and put routes in a certain order where the person is doing their stops in a more effective manner,” Negron says.

The technology also can aide in the reconciliation process by tracking inventory that wasn’t sold or returned, as well as payments and invoices, he adds.

Examining the roles and responsibilities of different users and ensuring they have the right tools also can help when it comes to the bottom line.

“To reduce costs, companies are evolving their employees’ tasks, in some cases splitting out or reassigning responsibilities between their users or creating new positions,” Honeywell’s Schulte says. “This impacts the type of devices deployed. For example, we have seen companies determining that a consumer-grade or semi-rugged tablet with full-screen software could be the best platform for their pre-sales reps and supervisors but a smaller, more rugged device is better suited for their delivery drivers.”

Manning the ship

Just as cargo ships depend on qualified, experienced seafarers to transport goods across the seas and oceans, DSD field users depend on reliable software to keep their operations effective and efficient.

“Historically, businesses have spent vast amounts of money on in-store collateral without any way of telling how well it’s being executed,” GoSpotCheck’s Talbot says. “With DSD systems, businesses now have insight and intel into how well their product is doing on-premise and off-premise. DSD software has also changed the way beverage brands market their products.

“The craft movement specifically relies on organic marketing pushes and field teams as opposed to billboards or commercials,” he continues. “With DSD, budding breweries can now map back to exactly what’s working and what’s not to ensure they get the most out of their marketing spend.”

For example, in its case study “SweetWater Brewing Co. streamlines field marketing with GoSpotCheck,” the company details how the craft brewer wanted to ensure its brand activation managers’ engagement with consumers was consistent with the SweetWater culture. Software allowed the team to collect real-time data, organize the numerous data points into a shareable format and then distribute that information to representative throughout the company, the case study notes.

“One of the biggest pain points with field intelligence is the delay between when relevant information is collected and when a resolution for those issues are deployed,” Talbot says. “With GoSpotCheck workflows, field teams and admins have the capability to instantly and automatically alert the proper party if they see an issue while on site. This drastically decreases the time lost between a problem being reported and the problem being solved, resulting in solutions being implemented more quickly than ever before.”

Through its Margin Minder software, Salient also is dispensing out-of-the-box analyses that can support sales and distribution decisions, Boris explains.

“We offer a desktop license, which is heavily used for advanced analysis by roles in the sales, operations and finance departments,” he says. “We also offer dashboard and mobile app licenses that are used by multiple levels throughout the organization, from the C-level to the frontline sales reps out in the trade.”

The company has upgraded its portfolio with the v.5.75 of Salient Dashboards and Power Viewer, a new dashboard user type. “With Power Viewer, users can navigate in any direction, going beyond pre-defined paths,” Boris says. “They can also add or remove available metrics to adjust charts. This advancement allows users to quickly adjust perspectives based on their questions.”

Companies also are releasing new products in the DSD handheld space. Zebra Technologies released DX30/SmartDEX Solution in November 2015. Armed with Bluetooth capabilities, the product features a wireless keyfob design that eliminates cable failures, Hilton explains. The SmartDEX application also delivers plug-and-play operation and improved transmission reliability on Zebra mobile computers, according to the company.

Wireless also is impacting the printing side of DSD operations. “Mobile wireless printers are an essential component in route management and DSD solutions because they provide the necessary accounting paper trail in a direct and immediate way,” Brother Mobile’s Beans says. “Today’s drivers are expected to make more deliveries per day to keep up with demand, and well-designed truck-mounted and/or handheld mobile printers deliver the speed and reliability to support this demand.”

Brother Mobile also has updated its printers with Brother RuggedJet 4 Series, featuring 4-inch mobile receipt and label printers, and Brother PocketJet 7 Series, full-page mobile receipt and label printers, Beans says.

On the computer and printing side, Honeywell recently released Dolphin CT50 mobile computer, which supports both Windows and Android operating systems, and CN1 PrintPAD integrated printing solution, Schulte says.

Highjump also has upgraded its capabilities with enhanced Route Optimization, GPS Tracking and Warehouse Management. Curtis notes that going forward, DSD suppliers will need to take technology a step further.

“To continue to advance the beverage industry, DSD software is moving away from the ability to mine data and find a situation that was either problematic (or opportunistic) in past tense,” he says. “The key now is predictive in nature. Alerting users of a situation, or notification in advance of a potential customer satisfaction issue so that it can be addressed immediately, or perhaps even before it happens, [which] allows distributors to enhance the value they provide to their partners.”