As the retail landscape faces growing competition, it also is balancing the number of new beverage products available to consumers in the marketplace. Left to steady these ever-changing forces, beverage distributors rely on mobile apps and wireless direct-store-delivery (DSD) hardware and software solutions in order to provide the best customer service, ensure accuracy and boost efficiency.

SKU proliferation has been among the dominating challenges facing beverage distributors, as they manage the growing number of products now available and ensure accurate distribution to their clients.

“SKU proliferation has a key role in driving innovative technology for beverage distribution and DSD. Today, we see more beverage brands and choices than ever. … As SKUs increase and routes become more complex, the challenge for distributors is to ensure delivery of the right products to the right place at the right time,” explains Brian Beans, distribution industry specialist at Westminster, Colo.-based Brother Mobile Solutions. “To achieve this, they have increasingly turned to software solutions designed to automate, integrate and coordinate processes, from warehouse management and strategic truck loading to route management and DSD.”

Chris Kampfe, vice president of marketing at Denver, Colo.-based GoSpotCheck also highlights the impact of SKU proliferation, noting the benefits that software-based solutions can offer to DSD operators.

“With pressure from consumers to offer a wide array of product options, beverage companies have more products headed to store shelves,” he says. “Consequently, it’s becoming harder for beverage distributors to keep track of all the moving parts of their operations in a way that allows quick access to actionable insights. DSD technologies like GoSpotCheck are working to address this problem.”

GoSpotCheck is a software-based solution that obtains actionable data and information for real-time insights, Kampfe explains. The product allows users to monitor conditions and shelf interactions, gather shopper feedback and monitor competitor activity in the store, he adds.

Via a combination of hardware and software, DSD operators are realizing the variety of benefits these solutions can offer, according to experts.

“Hardware and software enable better tracking of data such as date, lot [and] batch information for traceability and freshness. Retailers and DSD firms are also relying on mobile devices for planogram efforts to maximize space,” explains Bruce Stubbs, director of supply chain marketing at Fort Mill, S.C.-based Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. “These solutions can also streamline the delivery process to reduce costs. For example, they support dynamic routing and real-time communication with dispatch and allow drivers to react to traffic issues or store emergencies. Using mobile devices — such as handheld computers, rugged tablets and printers — allows for faster onboarding of new drivers.”

Yet, as beverage distributors are faced with increasing changes and challenges, technology is advancing to help support them. Brother’s Beans notes that wireless and cloud-based technologies have allowed automation of a variety of tasks, which has helped to boost customer relationships between distributors and retailers.

“Relationships between beverage distributors and their retailer partners are fast-paced and time-sensitive. Today’s next-generation automation solutions, based on innovative wireless technologies and smart, versatile handheld mobile printers, typically integrate multiple functions, including sales, distribution and delivery, warehouse, inventory management, reporting, and office processes — all accessible through a mobile wireless platform,” he explains. “These comprehensive route management systems have proven to streamline operations, reduce overall operating costs, increase productivity and improve customer service.

“When it comes to eCommerce fulfillment at the retail level — i.e., retailers selling merchandise online via click-and-collect and delivery services — the importance of timely and efficient route management and DSD solutions has been reinforced even further,” Beans continues. “Online shopping and eCommerce in general make it even more essential for stores to anticipate consumer demand in real time to keep warehouse and store shelves stocked and to minimize out-of-stocks.”

Brother Mobile Solutions offers a portfolio of rugged mobile printers, including the Brother RuggedJet and PocketJet Series mobile label and receipt printers, which feature several connectivity options, like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Beans says. The printers include Apple AirPrint and Android Cloud Print, he adds.

Laura Theodore, director of global operations at Mountain View, Calif.-based Xora Inc., also notes the ways that mobile DSD solutions can solidify or further improve relationships between DSD operators and their retail clientele.

“I think the customer engagement and the ability to bring additional value to the customer, we’re hearing pretty loud and clear in the distribution area and even just in general in field service [is] that customers are becoming so much more demanding,” she explains. “They expect so much more. They expect the Uber experience or the Amazon — I order it this morning and I get it before it’s dark out. The expectations from a service point of view for distributors is that is going to happen as well. So, the communication lines need to be different, which our solution can help enable that, being able to communicate back to the customer.”

Xora Inc. offers StreetSmart, a mobile workforce management application, which can manage almost all field operations, Theodore explains. The application can handle time sheets, dispatch jobs, evaluate job productivity, collect evaluations from the field and even take photos of merchandising placement and providing customer receipts, she says.

Jim Chenoweth, engagement manager at Xora Inc., adds that StreetSmart also features GPS tracking and mobile timecard and mileage reimbursement solutions.

Cost-saving benefits also can be realized from the use of high-tech DSD hardware and software solutions, Honeywell’s Stubbs notes.

“Our solutions are helping DSD firms address intensified cost pressures from retailers and providing increased revenue opportunities by offering greater visibility into operations. Cloud-based sales software and mobile computers can support upsell opportunities on a driver’s route,” he explains.

Honeywell offers a variety of hardware solutions including rugged mobile computers, tablets, printers and barcode scanners, Stubbs says. Additionally, it provides Movilizer, a cloud platform that connects delivery personnel to back-end management systems, he adds.

In line with the growth of technological solutions in DSD operations, experts note that as younger workers enter the field, they’re easily adapting to the solutions and some expect to be digitally engaged on the job. Chenoweth highlights that this especially is true of mobile application software solutions.

“Some interesting feedback I’ve gotten from a few managers of these types of companies is they say their workforce is fairly young, it’s a more entry-level style jobs for a merchandiser, and that most of these people already really know how to use mobile technology, so the whole idea of using an application to do their job resonates with them and it’s easy to train them, they pick up on it really fast,” he explains.

Technology innovations are anticipated to continue as beverage distributors automate field operations to provide the best customer service and ensure accurate and on-time delivery of product, according to experts.

“We anticipate that Android will continue to become a more popular operating system as Windows mobile reaches its end of life,” Stubbs says. “There will also be a greater need for increased speed and accuracy as DSD firms cannot afford any errors in delivery, which would impact customer service. DSD firms will look to mobile technology to help them upsell to increase revenue opportunities. Technology will enable better ability to track and trace products throughout the supply chain, and companies will look for intuitive, app-based systems.” BI