Robert Van Vliet, Ireland country manager at Zetes, spoke to the Business Post to discuss the technology strategies that can keep retailers on the road — literally, in some cases.
Business Post: Are different sectors dealing with the crisis to greater or lesser degrees?
Robert Van Vliet: The crisis has presented challenges for every industry and organisation but, in particular, retail. Huge pressures have been placed on ensuring efficient deliveries to stores and to homes at a level never experienced before.
BP: What is the situation for ‘non-essential’ retailers, many of whom have been less likely to embrace technology?
RVV: Non-essential retailers who have not embraced e-commerce within their business model will be most severely impacted. With consumers switching to online delivery during lockdown, businesses that have not had an online presence have realised that they either need to adapt fast or potentially see their business go under.
Even for those businesses with an e-commerce proposition, they have probably never had to deal with such disruption. The foundation for supply chain capability and efficiency has always been inventory visibility and accuracy enabled by technology for real-time data capture and process efficiency — in other words, supply chain digitisation.
Those who have relied on traditional manual or non-real-time inventory management practices will be at a disadvantage.
BP: Is there a single weak link between the warehouse and the final sale or delivery?
RVV: As mentioned, visibility is key. Blind zones in the end-to-end order fulfilment journey are very often the weakest link. Knowing what has been ordered, what is in stock, where it is and being able to track its journey to the end customer is critical in maintaining business trust. It’s ultimately about ensuring that the physical goods flows are synchronised with the digital information flows.
BP: How are purchase orders tracked through the chain of distribution and retail?
RVV: Once a purchase order has been raised on a supplier or a service provider, the challenge is to then ensure that all critical events related to the order are captured and shared.
So, for example if a retailer orders 10,000 toilet rolls from a supplier, destined for 50 stores then he wants to know that he will get the full quantity or make alternative sourcing arrangements with other suppliers.
As goods are packed, they are identified (usually via a barcode label or RFID [radio frequency identification] tag), and then scanned during each critical leg of their journey.
BP: How common are things like RFIDs and cameras in the supply chain and can technology be used to reduce fragility?
RVV: The use of these technologies can certainly aid visibility and efficiency. Possibly even more important, they help maximise order accuracy. For example, one of our technologies for shipping verification is a camera-based technology which reads multiple barcodes on a pallet almost instantaneously to validate the contents are correct.
It will also highlight in real-time any discrepancies so that the shipment can be corrected before sending. This eliminates human error manual counting or scanning and speeds up the entire shipping process. The supplier also has the advantage of an evidence bank, proving what was shipped so as to avoid potential fines and penalties.
BP: How common are collaborative warehouse systems and do businesses find it culturally difficult to give access to outside parties?
RVV: Collaboration across increasingly global and complex supply chains is more critical than ever. It is so important that information and system silos are broken.
Today, our experience is that this is not commonplace. Many organisations see this as too complex and costly to implement. However, we have demonstrated that this doesn’t have to be the case, having implemented very effective visibility solutions for major retailers such as Marks and Spencer in Britain.
BP: Are businesses that haven’t traditionally delivered (e.g. restaurants) having difficulties? What technologies can they use and do they need a lot of assistance to get up and running?
RVV: The same basic principles of digitisation apply. Capturing data and turning it into meaningful intelligence.
They can achieve basic levels through simple mobile terminal technologies or smartphones and standard track-and-trace applications.