March 2004 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Inner City Direct-to-Store Delivery: Complex but Improving

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Last month's column dealt with the problems associated with transportation and logistics in an inner city environment. The staff and manager of a New York City supermarket, in their attempt to receive a shipment, were faced with numerous challenges such as parking restrictions and limited access to delivery doors.

The problem of receiving, however, is not confined to this particular New York City supermarket. When it comes to direct-to-store deliveries, each situation has unique challenges, says Marc Mitchell, transportation practice director, Enterprise Information Solutions (EIS).

"The highest-priority information for the trucker in this situation can vary, depending on the nature of the relationship between the trucker and the supermarket, the specific delivery location, the tasks to be performed, and who is expected to complete them," Mitchell says.

Truckers need to be aware of certain factors, however, when attempting to drive certain sized trucks into inner cities. The size and accessibility of the streets, for example, can impact the success of the delivery. Drivers must also know if, along the delivery route, any restrictive features exist, such as narrow driveways, trees, or construction.

The type of merchandise being moved is also a factor. Whether the delivery items are large or small, on pallets, or in cartons are all details to consider.

"Another consideration," says Tom Cagney, executive vice president of SEKO Worldwide, "is the final destination of the merchandise. If it is going on an elevator, will the product fit? What type of flooring does the store have? Drivers don't want to rip up carpet or a nice floor. A priority is determining if a lift gate is required, or if a blanket or 'booties' are needed."

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

A common scenario involves a supermarket that receives a delivery from a third-party carrier at a location with minimal dock facilities. In this situation, the supermarket is often expected to perform some, if not all, of the physical unloading.

In such a scenario, says Mitchell, one key piece of information the two parties need to exchange is an accurate dock arrival time.

"This could either be the driver sending his arrival time based on current location and ability to physically drive to the dock, or the supermarket communicating the actual time window when it is able to accept and offload the truck," notes Mitchell.

This is obviously a two-way communication in terms of coordinating the unloading.

"Supermarkets need to take a new view toward dock availability communication, and carriers need a new view toward making and meeting window commitments, for any amount of technology investment to increase efficiency for both sides," adds Mitchell.

Shared knowledge can alleviate a slew of miscommunication issues. "The trucker should know in advance exactly where at the site he is to make the delivery," agrees Cagney.

The trucker, however, often does not have this key piece of information in advance because, in many cases, it is not included in the company's software application.

"Most routing software does not include dock-to-dock information, only street-to-street," says Cagney. "If the driver has not been to that market before, he may not know where the loading dock is with respect to the building address."

Constant Contact, Instant Access

But what about unforeseen changes to the delivery schedule? How can a trucker inform the store location of a change in the planned delivery?

By utilizing an in-cab phone or handheld device, truckers can communicate with the store to alert the the receiving manager of changes or problems associated with the scheduled delivery.

"It's also possible to contact the store via e-mail," says Cagney. "If the trucker communicates schedule changes to his dispatcher via walkie-talkie, the dispatcher can then contact the store to alert someone to a change in the scheduled delivery."

"By combining the cab's GPS, assigned routes, and street mapping data, a truck's 'time to target' can be easily calculated either from the dispatch/home office or from an intelligent device in the cab," says Mitchell. "When this calculation finds an 'out of window' situation—either late or early—alerts could be sent to the dock via e-mail, fax, voice or some specifically integrated mechanism, all dictated by the operation of the dock itself."

While communication is certainly an integral part of the delivery process, it is also important for the trucker to be able to adjust to less-than-optimal situations that may arise at the delivery site.

"In certain situations, a trucker may be able to change the order of deliveries and respond to required delays by going to other locations first," says Mitchell. "If that's not an option, truckers can adjust non-revenue events, such as fuel stops and food breaks, to make the most efficient use of their time leading up to a delivery. Operations may allow, or dictate, the switching of drivers in order to accommodate shifts and the new Hours of Service constraints."

Truckers should also make sure that all scheduling changes made prior to a delivery are coordinated with the site. "For instance," says Cagney, "if there is only one person in the truck and two will be required to offload the freight, the driver will contact dispatch to send another person.

"It is generally not a good idea to deliver beyond the threshold of the building, as any damage inside the property can cause a liability claim," he adds. "If a problem occurs, the driver should ask the customer to contact the dispatch office to determine the best way to offload freight without damage and to avoid liability."

It is also important to note whether reverse logistics come into play for this situation. Is the driver removing any stock? Both trucker and retailer should be aware of this information prior to the delivery.

Aside from the technical issues that may arise, another issue that has to be addressed is trust, adds Mitchell. "Most operations today, even those that do try to coordinate schedules in advance, rely to a great degree on working out the fine details once the truck can be physically seen at the dock," he says.

The problem is a complex one, but improvement is certainly possible. With open communication, collaborative planning, and greater visibility of the delivery process, enhanced by real-time knowledge and mobile technology, truckers and retailers can be on their way to smoother and more efficient direct-to-store deliveries.

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