NZ wholesaler reaps mobile PC benefits

Retail distributor Wilson Consumer Products has a long history of supplying field sales staff with mobile technology. But after an unsuccessful redevelopment of its original technology, it was forced to return to paper-based systems and has only recently found a solution.

Health and grocery distributor Wilson Consumer Products has a long history of supplying its field sales staff with mobile computer technology. But after an unsuccessful redevelopment of its original technology, the company was forced to return to paper-based systems for four years and has only this year found a solution that answers its needs.

The New Zealand consumer products company originally adopted computing for its field sales staff in the early 1990s. That DOS-based system running on PDAs worked well for many years. However, a change in the company's accounting system in 2000 effectively made it obsolete and Wilson Consumer Products went in search of a replacement.

The replacement ran on Compaq iPaqs and Nokia Bluetooth phones. The software was locally developed and very quickly proved to be fundamentally unstable. The system would lock up and crash and was effectively unusable. Eventually the developer simply refused to spend any more time or money to fix the software and after eight months of effort, in a highly unusual backwards step, the system was simply thrown away. Manual, paper-based systems were reintroduced for the first time in nearly a decade.

That meant field staff had to return to the office for a couple of hours each night to complete paperwork, reducing time available to serve customers and to increase sales. Purchase orders were sent by fax.

By early 2005, Wilson Consumer Products (WCP) had decided it was time once again to look to technology for a better way. After a year of searching, the company found O4 Corporation through its mobile communications supplier Vodafone.

Finance and Administration Manager, John Hall, said the company evaluated a number of mobile sales systems. The O4 software met the rigorous criteria set by his team.

John Hall

"When the O4 Solution was demonstrated to us, we knew we had found the solution we needed," Hall said. "There are a multitude of offerings out there covering the basics of processing sale and stock data but the O4 Solution offered an array of invaluable reporting facilities in the O4 Management Suite as well as considerable efficiency gains for the sales reps."

WCP implemented the Field Operations Solution, including the Workbench, Management Suite and Mobile Client, for its sales representatives. The Workbench component allows the software to be customised to the company's unique needs.

The software was rolled out over four months, going live in May this year on i-mate Pocket PC devices using Microsoft's Windows operating system. Networking for the 20 devices in use across the company's two product lines -- grocery and beauty products -- is provided by Vodafone's GPRS network.

Hall says the reaction of staff to the technology has been very positive. Wilson Consumer Products has also seen significant productivity benefits. He says the cost of the project, around AU$250,000, will be paid back within eight months of rollout.

The system, he says, saves staff up to two hours a day as all documents are processed and transmitted during the day. Field sales staff report they now have a life after work as they don't have paperwork hanging over their heads at the end of the day.

In addition, some feedback indicates the company is achieving improved delivery times by placing an order at the time it is made rather than by fax at the end of the day. Customer service has been improved too, through the ability to query an order from the field as well as the ability to query stock on hand.

Immediate data entry gives offshore brand owners access to Web interfaces so they can get up-to-date and accurate reports.

Local representatives have also gained the ability to manage promotions and stocking across multiple brands. The technology allows sales representatives to view store information on specific promotions, save display details and product ranges and capture digital images of innovative store displays.

"Currently sales reps have to match promotional offers with pricing information manually, so it's very easy for mistakes to be made," said Hall. "When orders are taken through the O4 Solution, the system will automatically notify the sales rep which promotional prices apply to a specific supermarket so that orders are correct every time."

The Pocket PCs are linked to the corporate Exchange servers for e-mail and what Hall describes as "basic" Web browsing to allow them to check proof of delivery and other information from the distribution centre. The devices are also loaded with Microsoft Word for report writing and Excel for some basic field calculations.

WCP is not yet investigating further extensions to the system but Hall acknowledged the possibility of using global positioning systems in the future.

Hall said one of the biggest challenges faced in the project was to achieve one system that would service both the grocery and health and beauty sides of the business. Some business processes had to be changed to make that possible but now some field staff cover both lines, delivering even more efficiency benefits.

Hall credited part of the project's success to a decision to bring users into the management team right from the start. The project team included two field staff from each side of the company's business. The rest of the staff was kept informed as well through regular meetings. The result, he said, was a seamless go-live.