Datalogic Mobile Technology 'maximises customer service' at Strack & Van Til

data captureSometimes the use of technology is leveraged best by smaller and more nimble enterprises. These companies have fewer layers of bureaucracy that allow and encourage the fostering of new ideas and their quick implementation. Such is the case with Strack & Van Til, a grocer in the Chicago area in the US.

Strack & Van Til is an 85 year old grocery company that has grown by focusing on customer service and neighborhood needs. The operation spans traditional grocery retail, warehouse retail, and everything in between. What you won't see are cookie cutter stores that try to push the shopper to match their format. Instead when growing through acquisition, the company will often maintain the original banner and items that meet the needs of the local clientele. This creates interesting challenges for the operational staff that sets up systems to keep all the stores efficient and stocked.
When Henry Bykerk joined the staff as Director of MIS in 1999, he knew the company could be getting more from their POS system. The group had acquired a store running IT Retail POS. The flexibility of IT Retail POS and its ability to generate in-house reports from the database was a feature Bykerk knew could be better leveraged. IT Retail POS specifies Datalogic Mobile computers as part of their warehouse and retail floor management. When Bykerk arrived, mobile computers were not in use, and that was about to change quickly.
Working with Angela Whitten, Head Pricing Coordinator, the team set out to automate many of the manual systems being used throughout their stores. Automation of the warehouse came first with the help of Datalogic Mobile's Falcon mobile computers. Falcon is designed to meet the needs of retail operations; built with industry leading ergonomics, an ultra bright display, and the ruggedness to survive tough warehouse environments.
Manual inventory generated keypunch errors as items were entered into the system. These errors were propagated across several stores multiplying their effect. Inventory errors are costly in terms of hard dollars in over-stocked items, and damage customer service when shoppers can't find an item. Using the Falcon, manual data entry has been eliminated and key punch errors are nonexistent. Automation has also increased business speed. Previously, a periodic inventory report could take a week to generate. With an automated inventory system, reports can be generated overnight.
People who work with technology can often accept new systems and equipment, but when working with manual systems and people who use them, the acceptance of new technology is not always quick. Angela Whitten admits "some employees were uneasy about changing to handheld computers." The implementation of new equipment can easily fail if the needs of front line employees aren't met. Whitten made the roll out easier by providing the right training and leveraging her many years with Strack &Van Til. "We wanted not only to increase our efficiency, but also make the work of our employees easier. When store employees tried using the handheld computer they saw it was easy to do and made their jobs easier. They were hooked!"
Enough cannot be said about the importance of ergonomics in handheld computers. Many devices focus purely on the computer hardware and forget the handheld interface. Datalogic Mobile's Falcon places heavy emphasis on both technology and human interface. The Falcon has a uniquely designed handle that makes it easier to hold. Its balance is superb, requiring minimal force to keep it secure in the hand. This minimizes user fatigue and maximizes user acceptance, which are primary goals for ergonomics; Datalogic Mobile's Falcon achieves both.
Inventory automation was the first step Whitten & Bykerk took in leveraging mobile computers but Tag Subscription is where the system pays dividends for the store and the customer. Every Strack and Van Til store has a unique location assigned to each UPC. Each shelf has a barcode assigned to it every 4 feet as a location identifier. Registering a UPC to a location is easy - point the Falcon laser at the shelf code and read, then read the shelf tag of each product moving right to left. In a matter of hours, the complete store is identified and every shelf tag is subscribed to a location. What you can do with this information is innovative and powerful.
Retail stores are filled with promotional signs attached to shelving. With a tag subscription program only the signs required for a specific weekly promotion are printed in the order they appear as someone walks through the store. Employees placing signs become efficient, moving through the store in an orderly fashion. Moreover, the location of the signs is printed directly on the signs, providing for an instant check prior to placement.
Product location information goes well beyond sign placement. The information greatly expedites the time required to prepare a new store opening. Bykerk states the savings in time and materials created by the tag subscription cut the time for signage and product placement on the shelves by 50%. Whitten added "when you open a store you have a large number of temporary employees working in an environment that they are not familiar with. They are trying to place product, signs, and other material without a map. With our Tag Subscription program people know exactly where to go to put items. It is a great help!"
Product location is a benefit to providing customer service. Whitten cites an example: "I was visiting one of our stores when a shopper came up to me with an item she had found somewhere in the store. The shopper wanted to know where she could find more." She used the Falcon to scan the UPC code, giving her the precise location of the product. "I was able to get that customer right to the location of the product she was looking for without being very familiar with the store."
It doesn't stop there. Today's shoppers are savvier than ever to technology. Bykerk is looking at ways to leverage this and their tag subscription program. He says "we are investigating the use of technology to help customers find products in the store using text messaging." Texting is becoming a ubiquitous form of communication. For some people it is a preferred means of communication. Bykerk continues, "a shopper could text us the name of a product and we could text back its exact location." With texting, the service would be almost instantaneous rather than spending time searching for an employee on the floor to ask. Sending text is almost no cost and eliminates the need to send someone out to help.
The team at Strack and Van Till continues to look at ways to leverage the technology they have implemented. Whitten informs us that while stores operate independently, they freely share information between them. Each store has a scanning coordinator who manages the handheld computers. "They are always looking for new ways to use the scanning guns," says Whitten. "If one scanning coordinator finds an interesting use for the handheld computers, the others all want to know about it." This grocer is one that will continue to maximize the value of its technology.

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