Delivering results

technology
Jason Finch shows how fresh thinking about the technology of delivering and invoicing improves customer service and reduces costs

Resurrected photography retailer Jessops lost out on three grand’s worth of camera equipment sales last month. The wonderful shirt company Charles Tyrwhitt now loses out every month. John Lewis will be losing out on a few thousand pounds in sales next month, too, despite its amazing free warranty extensions on Apple computers.

I live in a rural location and have stopped buying from companies that use couriers that consistently fail to show up when they say they will. No matter how good the prices, products or customer service, if their couriers can’t deliver, I’m choosing a different supplier.

Twenty years ago, when a few retailers were starting to think people may actually buy things online, we told them creating a website was the easy bit – order fulfilment would be the greatest challenge they faced. Delivered wholesalers know this very well.

We work closely with an Edinburgh c‑store that uses Glasgow-based Filshill for its core orders. I asked the owner why he prefers Filshill: “Their deliveries are always on time so I can schedule extra staff to handle the delivery only when they’re needed. I can almost set my watch by when the driver arrives.”

Simon Hannah, managing director of Filshill, is justifiably proud of the reputation. Nearly three-quarters of Filshill customers request a delivery window and typically this can be as short as two hours. Despite the random effects of traffic conditions and the issues of delivering to some of Scotland’s far-flung and sparsely populated communities, Filshill achieves almost 97% of requested time slots thanks to its technology.

[pull_quote_center]Think laterally: See what can be done cheaper with modern technology  [/pull_quote_center]

When considering the use of technology in your business, it is never enough to merely look at existing processes and think how technology could make each one more efficient. The genius lies in approaching your business as an outsider with a broad knowledge of different types of hardware devices and the assurance that practically anything can be coded into software.

By completely reimagining processes, you can achieve goals that may benefit from a totally different approach once technology is introduced.

Mushtaque Ahmed, chief operating officer of JJ Food Service, agrees. He analysed the ‘relay race’ that starts with a customer ordering, whether by phone or online, and ends with the goods being delivered, invoiced and paid for. JJ introduced entirely new processes and wrote software in-house to ensure all elements run smoothly and communicate with each other.

While they are in transit, JJ’s 150 trucks communicate their positions back to base. A centralised system updates routes and estimated arrival times for every delivery every minute. If traffic conditions cause problems, it indicates which customers should be telephoned to find out who can wait and who may need to jump the queue. Transport teams in branches work together with technology in the trucks to achieve an exemplary delivery record.

If you want to track vehicles or even let customers see where they are, it need not be expensive technology; even your smartphone knows where you are. Never be tempted to implement complex or costly traditional solutions to problems that more modern technology can solve both inexpensively and effectively.

[pull_quote_center]Credit where credit’s due: Get invoices right with mobile technology  [/pull_quote_center]

The Holy Grail of almost every delivered wholesaler seems to be achieving invoices that are not only delivered with the goods but are 100% accurate. Incorrectly picked items, rejected substitutions, and damaged or otherwise unwanted goods are a fact of life. Credit notes don’t need to be.

Ahmed re-engineered paper-based processes and, having a refreshingly forward-thinking approach to technology, has given JJ’s drivers a mobile printer that connects to a handheld device using Bluetooth. Instead of creating paper invoices or delivery notes at the branch and taking them in the truck, bespoke software on the handheld devices enables the checking of deliveries against orders on customers’ premises.

The drivers deal with any returns, update order details and print the invoice for the right products on-site, then communicate everything to the stock and financial systems back at base. Your drivers are the face of your business: give them the resources and technology that will help them to keep your customers happy.

[pull_quote_center]Build it and they will come: Enable web ordering and people will use it  [/pull_quote_center]

Although wholesale operations are generally behind the curve compared to retailers in their adoption of internet-enabled technology and services such as click & collect, JJ launched both online ordering and click & collect services back in 2008, the same year John Lewis introduced the service on the High Street.

Offering click & collect had a massive impact on JJ’s business. While it’s primarily only customers within 10 miles of each branch that come to collect, Ahmed reveals that offering the service meant the business could downsize its truck fleet by around 25%. That’s a lot of fuel miles saved and some huge costs taken out of the business: remember, these are orders that would have had to be picked anyway.

Web ordering is far better at upselling than an electronic point-of-sale (EPoS) system and, with today’s smartphones and tablets, far more convenient for many customers. You will sell more through an intelligent, mobile-optimised, web-based ordering platform than by the same customers using the suggested reordering algorithms of existing EPOS systems. I can almost guarantee it.

Many wholesalers seem to think they need to connect to the retailer’s real-time stock data to enable suggested reordering over the web, but that’s a red herring: again, think laterally.

Click & collect rewards you with a double bonus. You can get customers buying more stuff than normal and you don’t need to absorb any costs of delivery. It’s a tech-no-brainer.

[pull_quote_center]Learn from the giants: Do what Apple, Amazon and Google do [/pull_quote_center]

The key is to build systems in the way that companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google do: enable your disparate software systems to easily but securely, talk over the internet using the standard languages of the web. Don’t be afraid to introduce new hardware devices into the mix.

Learn about APIs. You’ll discover an approach to systems integration that a lot of wholesale technology hasn’t yet adopted. If you don’t have a technology team that can do that, you’re missing out on some really useful modern tricks that will transform your business.

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Jason Finch is the co-founder of Port80. The UK's first business combining internet software development and direct-selling retail consultancy, Port80 now focuses on wholesale and is working closely with Palmer and Harvey and other wholesalers that want to benefit from real-time data and online technology.

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