Handhelds can offer compelling returns

When used for remote sales force order processing, handhelds offer an attractive ROI.

Biscuits Leclerc Ltd., a Quebec-based cookie and other snack foods manufacturer, is a case in point. The four-generation, family-owned company that began baking and selling cookies in the family kitchen in Quebec City in 1905 today operates five production facilities in Quebec, Ontario and the U.S. It employs more than 450 people and sells worldwide through stores some 30 to 50 different Biscuits Leclerc products ranging from granola bars and cookies to cereals and crackers.

Initially, sales representatives were assigned to a number of stores to check on inventory and process orders when product was running low, ensuring that grocery store shelves were always stocked with Biscuits Leclerc products. As the company grew, it became more difficult to keep track of orders and deliver product in a timely manner. Until recently, sales reps used an outdated method for order processing that entailed hours writing orders on paper with the grocery manager, keying in data, and then relaying the information by phone to the warehouse.

Francois Levac, vice-president of information technology, recalls that data had to be manually entered twice, which was very time consuming and frequently inaccurate. Biscuits Leclerc searched for an affordable solution that would allow orders to be transmitted reliably, quickly and accurately. After testing different mobile devices, they chose to work with CyberCat, an application developer in Quebec City, to develop a wireless solution.

CyberCat developed an application on the Palm Tungsten W, a wireless device with GPRS connectivity, supported by Rogers AT&T Wireless networks. Cybercat’s GizmoLink provides a synchronization engine for data sharing between a Web server and a multitude of Palm PDAs. After a one-month trial, Biscuits Leclerc ordered a unit each for its 30 sales representatives servicing hundreds of stores across Quebec and eastern Ontario. These reps now remotely access the company’s data and place orders instantly to Biscuits Leclerc’s systems for quick and accurate order processing.

According to Levac, on any given week, more than 25,000 cases of products need to be delivered across Quebec and eastern Ontario. The wireless device enables them to keep track of store inventory for each individual product. Via their wireless device, sales reps key in critical data and monitor items such as the quantity of product available in each store.

The CyberCat application also provides a three-month history of product inventory on the Palm Tungsten W screen so sales reps can see the history of the product flow charts from any store location to check, for example, inventory status and which product sells the fastest. Users can track where an order was sent and when its receipt was acknowledged. Items such as store manager birthdays, delivery times for individual stores, to-do lists that used to be written on Post-It notes are now stored on the wireless device.

Biscuits Leclerc claims its order processing has been optimized with turnaround time from order status to delivery now less than 24 hours – a 25 per cent improvement – and order processing errors reduced by an estimated 80 per cent.

MDKS Solutions Group president Rick Kingston also finds that customers using Palm Pilot for remote sales forces enjoy an excellent ROI. “They spend $7,000 to $10,000 and eliminate at least one full-time order entry person – on day one,” he says.

MDKS mobile customers range from flower wholesalers wielding Palm Pilots to manufacturers tracking component serial numbers with Symbol Technologies’ handheld devices. Among the latter is Sunrise Whirlpool Spas in Grimsby, Ont., where assemblers use Symbol Technologies’ PPT2846 colour handheld devices to scan the serial number of every part. That part number is fed live into the manufacturer’s information system.

Beyond ensuring the accuracy and completion of logging part numbers, the handheld can be used to ensure compliance with quality control procedures, prompting tasks to be completed and recording who did what and when.

“They are updating the status of the spa as it is being manufactured,” Kingston says. “Without anyone doing any work other than just scanning and checking the boxes for what they’ve done, they’ve updated the status of the order throughout the system.”

Sunrise also uses the Symbol scanner for picking and packing in the warehouse which helps ensure the right items are packed and keeps the order status current and accurate.

Kingston speculates that the initial cost of purchasing wireless access points and hardware is only part of what stops more people from using wireless technology. It can be a hefty hit to get the software for wireless warehouse picking and packing applications, for example. Plus, that software may not integrate with a firm’s existing accounting system, he suggests. MDKS supplies Infinity software that includes the wireless warehouse module and costs about $50,000.

And then there’s security.

“The demand for greater levels of mobile security will only increase as enterprises come to better understand the utility of mobile handheld devices and the returns that come from putting the freshest data into the hands of those in the field who can do the most with it,” notes Kevin Burden, IDC research manager, Mobile Devices.

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