February 2004 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Direct-to-Store Deliveries: Not Always Easy

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Some software providers see their goal as offering a fully automated supply chain. It is a great goal and one that can have significant bottom-line results.

Between the striving for that goal and the reality of achieving it, however, some setbacks can occur. These problems are the consequence of the reality within which we live. While these setbacks may appear unavoidable, we can take certain measures to reduce, if not eliminate, these breaks in the supply chain.

Let's take an average supermarket retailer in the upper regions of midtown Manhattan as an example. Supplying the store by truck in this environment is certainly not the easiest task.

The trucks that supply the retailer are standard rigs. The store is located on a busy avenue. The first consideration is parking. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily the area in front of the store is restricted to trucks; parking and standing is prohibited for all other vehicles. Any properly identified truck or van can take a parking spot but spots are not often available. To make matters worse, the traffic along the avenue is intense.

The rig is more often than not forced to double-park and use a side door opening to deliver the boxes, and that means no lift. Not exactly an ideal situation.

Of course, before the rig gets to the store it may encounter traffic tie-ups, gridlock, accidents, inclement weather, security problems, the inevitable construction, or other unforeseen delays.

Supply Chain Inefficiency at its Best

The storefront poses additional problems. Access is limited to the customer double door and a three-foot by three-foot door that provides access to the basement via a metal ramp with rollers. The double door is not available for deliveries because customers use it.

Because the basement is the most logical place to unload the boxes, they are brought from the interior of the trailer to the trailer door. A store employee takes one box at a time and places it on a four-wheel carrier.

When pressed, the employee might even use a shopping cart to move the items. Don't laugh.

This "rolling stock" is brought to the little doorway and the boxes are lifted out by hand and placed on the conveyor. Down below, an employee unloads and stacks the boxes, then places them on additional carts to be put into zones for vegetables, frozen food, bottled beverages, dairy, and meat.

The manager of the store is right out there with his staff. As if those challenges weren't enough, it should be noted that at this particular supermarket, employees who do not perform well at one store are shifted to another whether the manager likes it or not. Shuffling boxes in sleet, rain, and snow is certainly an unpleasant task, especially for a disgruntled worker.

The Proof is in the Damaged Pudding

The end result of this sloppy piece of the supply chain is multifold. It is trying for the trucker, manager, and work staff. The damage resulting from this process gets passed on to the customer. Boxes are moved, stacked, and dropped many times. This, in turn, results in leaking milk containers, dented soup cans, and bruised fruits and vegetables. Damaged goods can mean loss of customers and that translates directly to the bottom line.

It is safe to say that this retailer's problem is not an isolated one nor is it confined to New York City. Most city stores were not designed for receiving shipments. Redesign is not always possible, and parking strictures are not always applicable.

In many instances, the store and the manager have to live with the infrastructure's imposition on the logistics. For instance, the hand trucks should be designed to deliver the boxes in and out of the store at the same height as the doorway. That would remove one lift.

There are other ways to improve the situation, such as planning and maintaining greater visibility of the delivery process. Can we cheaply connect the trucker and the manager? Can we keep the trucker going with real-time knowledge of conditions? Can the manager have a better means of keeping his staff working as a team? Can the staff better communicate with each other?

While the situation cannot be prefigured, improvement is certainly possible.

In next month's column, I will look at the priorities of information the trucker needs, including the technology that is available to provide this information in a timely and cost-effective manner. The technology also can help the trucker and the manager better communicate, and provide visibility into each other's processes.

Tools such as wireless technology also can contribute to the solution and help alleviate some of the problems of visibility, tracking, reporting and event changes.

Retailers, I have a few questions for you:

  • How do you keep your automated supply chain running smoothly?
  • How do you plan for the unexpected?
  • What methods and processes do you have in place to ensure the shipment and receipt of goods are conducted efficiently and cost effectively?

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