Asian fresh food retailers and grocers are operating under tougher conditions than ever before. Increasing competition, on-going price wars and diminishing profit margins have all become more common issues that directly impact on the daily interactions with local supermarkets and grocers. With the sheer variety of products on the shelves, the sector naturally lends itself to being a highly complex working environment that usually involves high volume of stock turnover and varied handling and order processes.
This complexity is accompanied by the challenges that centre on the need to streamline operations and control escalating costs. Increasingly, distributors and operators within the Asian fresh food retail or grocery sectors are turning to technology innovations as a way of protecting their futures, maintaining a competitive advantage against their competitors and assisting to increase visibility across both inbound and outbound operations, processes on the floor, and picking operations at a warehouse level.
The growth of specialist fresh food grocery distribution technology presents a range of opportunities to Asian retailers who are looking to improve their productivity. Increasing accuracy in the receiving process has a flow-on effect to all subsequent operational processes. Ensuring confidence when identifying one product, as distinct to the next, means there are fewer issues where staff needs to cross the floor to place items where they belong.
In more isolated instances, this can prevent the need to send an item back to a distribution centre for redelivery to another shop. Because of the unique nature of each individual fresh food supply chain, the difficulty lies in designing a system that can guarantee a level of accuracy to ensure that staff and products are exactly where they are meant to be.
When receiving perishable goods, it is imperative to accurately capture all incoming merchandise data. This data can include basic information such as item number, description and quantity, as well as more advanced data elements like lot numbers, serial numbers, expiration dates, track and trace data and product condition.
Even though there are many other proven methods of data capture, many Asian grocers still use paper-based methods for receiving, which is recognised as a time consuming process that is known to increase human error. By introducing an automated freight management system into their supply chain, Asian fresh food retailers are able to better streamline and manage incoming and outgoing food.
In addition to the automated freight management system, by integrating a barcoding solution and introducing scanners to replace outdated paper-based systems, Asian fresh food distributors can ensure that they are employing best-practice logistical solutions to increase their productivity and maximise efficiency.
Similar to best-practice barcode and scanning solutions, savvy Asian fresh food grocers are deploying mobility solutions to drive greater accuracy and productivity in their inbound operations. Pairing mobile computers with mobile printers on the receiving dock allows workers to take the ‘process to the product’, rather than the other way around.
Mobile computers give receivers the ability to automatically capture all necessary data through fast and efficient scanning. This process is more cost efficient and can drive productivity increases of 20-30 percent over more labour intensive paper processes. It is also far more accurate, eliminating data entry errors that can occur in the multiple phases of a paper process.
THE COST OF PICKING LABOUR IS THE HIGHEST INCURRED.
Picking is a labour intensive, physically demanding work process. It is also the most common place in a warehouse environment for injury incidents, with a high quantity of work related injury and employee turnover.
Implementing a mobile voice solution that addresses and improves all these aspects creates a recognisable and measurable return on investment. Within distribution operations, the cost of labour is the highest cost incurred, and within those labour costs, the cost of picking labour is the greatest. As such, any technology investment focused on improving the picking process can have a profound effect on bottom line results.
Voice picking is an accurate, efficient and ergonomic method, which is increasingly accepted by some of the big players as the best-practice picking solution. It is a hands-free and eyes-free process that removes unnecessary labour associated with paper and/or label pick methods in the distribution centre.
Productivity improvements of 35 per cent are typical. Indeed, the use of check digits and voice confirmations drives accuracy levels in the range of 99 percent. This eliminates the costly work associated with mispicks and drives high store satisfaction levels. This rise in store satisfaction comes as a result of the higher accuracy leading to better filled orders, and less time wasted on both sides of the supply chain.
The key advantage of implementing a voice solution, as mentioned above, is that it leaves the operators with their hands and eyes free. Where in the past, pickers were essentially chained to their paper order forms and pens; the voice-directed system speaks to each individual operator via a headset.
By keeping the hands and eyes free, pickers are then at liberty to accurately and safely complete the task at hand—without having to refer to pieces of paper or handle any other equipment. A by-product of this is that the warehouse then becomes a far safer working environment, contributing towards the company’s health and safety compliance obligations whilst increasing job satisfaction for those on the front line.
Mobile computers, printers and scanners, as well as voice recognition and RFID can be deployed in several combinations that will increase productivity and accuracy in the outbound processes. Specifically for the fresh food industry, accuracy in loading operations is vital to ensure that all merchandise is delivered on time and free of spoilage or damage at its final destination.
While independent printing is becoming more advanced in the Asian fresh food sector, in most cases, a mobile printer is still matched to a mobile computer that can perform direct printing and is capable of running other logistical applications.
While most mobile printers have basic compatibility with dozens of mobile computers, many users are surprised to learn that printer performance can vary significantly depending on the computer it is paired with.
The printer-computer combination is an important variable for productivity and should be evaluated during the selection process. The compatibility between a computer and printer goes beyond whether each device supports the businesses desired interface.
Before choosing a mobile printer/computer combination for your business, Asian fresh food professionals should test their own label and receipt formats to determine which printer-computer combination is fastest and most responsive for operations. Ideally, the printer should also be a close match with the computer in terms of form and functionality.
For example, if you require a ruggedised printer for your distribution centre, chances are that you will also need to employ a rugged mobile computer to deal with the same environmental concerns. As with other supply chain technologies, ruggedness and durability can vary widely among mobile printer and computer models.
Scanning containers into trailers with mobile computers or RFID technology, having correctly barcoded and recorded the containers, can eliminate the errors associated with paper processes and enables a cleaner, simplified electronic invoicing process at the time of loading.
Deploying mobile computers at the receiving docks in stores facilitates a more efficient unloading process at the point of delivery and ensures the accuracy of each load, saving time and money at each drop off.
These devices can also be effective for unloading direct store delivery orders and capturing signature data, while using them to perform perpetual inventory counts at the store level has also proven to drive inventory accuracy improvements and reduce labour associated with searching for non-existent product or handling excessive safety stock.
By implementing track and trace processes that record important information about food products from the field to fork, local grocers and fresh fruit distributors can be a lot more confident of the produce they are distributing. With a greater industry and regulatory emphasis on ensuring that all food products sold are safe for human consumption and identifiable throughout the supply chain, this ensures the industry can benefit in a number of ways.
Mobility solutions are being successfully deployed throughout the food chain to help address issues around traceability. Growers and producers of produce, such as poultry, meat and seafood, are using mobile computers, scanners and mobile printers to capture all relevant and required data at the point of harvest.
These solutions are also being deployed in the processing plants, along each point of transport and in the distribution centres, to capture the data and update the systems in the event of a recall. This information, captured in real time, can be retrieved immediately, ensuring the safety of the consumer and resolving the problem quickly.
Competitions Driving Innovations
There is no doubt that competition in the food sector is heating up, and Asian fresh food grocers and supermarkets are an area where competition is becomingly increasingly concentrated. This competition, while providing short term pain, also drives innovation and out-of-the-box thinking which leads to more efficient, profitable operations.
Where innovations over the past decade have focused on merchandising, product positioning and the marketability of brands, investment in technology is now providing much clearer return on investment when it comes to streamlining the operations of the food sector, and returning the focus to making operations more efficient, rather than just more attractive to the end consumer.
[This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of APFI.]