CONFERENCE-GOERS SEEK DISTRIBUTION SOLUTIONS

CORONADO, Calif. -- Retailers and wholesalers say the distribution conference to be held here next month will provide blueprints to make their branches full partners in technology-based initiatives.Through conference sessions, retailers hope to learn how best to automate their warehouse and transportation operations, get a glimpse of cutting-edge distribution initiatives and enhance traditional programs

CORONADO, Calif. -- Retailers and wholesalers say the distribution conference to be held here next month will provide blueprints to make their branches full partners in technology-based initiatives.

Through conference sessions, retailers hope to learn how best to automate their warehouse and transportation operations, get a glimpse of cutting-edge distribution initiatives and enhance traditional programs like employee management.

The Distribution Conference, sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, and set to take place here Feb. 11 to 14, will give retailers a chance to compare notes and determine the next steps to take in developing new programs.

Distribution executives heading to the conference told SN the need to integrate technology with both warehouse and transportation operations has become crucial for the success of programs like continuous replenishment, for example.

"Getting the inventory down to just-in-time is what we're striving for," said Robert Groebel, director of distribution at Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.

Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, is in the process of upgrading warehouse operations with technology like management software and electronic communications, and hopes to learn at the conference how other retailers have fared with their programs.

The retailer contends that its upgrades are the building blocks of future Efficient Consumer Response initiatives.

"We're in the process of installing purchasing and warehousing systems that will enable us to look at something like CRP," said Prudencio Pineda, senior vice president of distribution.

CRP plans conceived with insufficient distribution-level input and technology often run the risk of failure, retailers and wholesalers said.

"CRP's a cinch on the purchasing side because it's really only a matter of numbers, but when you get to the distribution side it's more a matter of relationships," said Michael Frank, director of transportation and traffic for Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan. "That makes it a little more difficult."

The ability for a warehouse to communicate electronically with vendors and coordinate product arrivals is possibly the make-or-break factor for CRP, he said.

"A certain level of data integration has to happen: the data driven from a manufacturer's system and the data needed to drive our [warehouse] system," Frank added.

Other cutting-edge initiatives will also share the spotlight at the conference. One session, called "The Wireless Warehouse," presented by officials from H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, will give retailers a look at how radio frequency technology can be used to improve warehouse slotting.

Another seminar will focus on using RF technology at truck weigh stations to speed up transportation operations. The technology, called the "pre-pass solution," scans trucks at weigh stations and allows them to bypass the scales.

"The system actually weighs the rig and signals the driver in the cab with a red light/green light signal," said Larry Cooper, vice president of distribution for Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif.

"If it tells them that their weight and length meet legal parameters, they go right by the scale," he added.

The system is being used in a few southern California weigh stations, said Cooper, who also serves as chairman of this year's conference.

Retailers cautioned, however, that technology should not overwhelm operations-related initiatives. Simply managing their employees properly is an area many warehouses need to improve on, AWG's Frank said.

"We've got to be able to empty those trucks when they get here and not have drivers wait two to three hours," he said.

The wholesaler is trying to break the perception of seeing truck drivers as supplementary dock workers. "Sometimes we get so tied up in the technical issues we forget about human resources issues," Cooper added. "Effective recruitment and leadership efforts are important issues; without the people, the systems don't work too well, obviously."

A session titled "Human Resources Strategies for the Future," given by Mark Hollis, president and chief operating officer of Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., will give retailers advice on how to best manage warehouse employees and drivers.

Retailers said that even the subject of pallets is also turning up new wrinkles.

Minyard, for example, is discovering that its use of plastic pallets, while greatly improving operations, has raised questions about fire risk, according to its insurance provider.

"We started a plastic pallets program about a year ago," said Minyard's Pineda. "The selectors just love them because they weigh 33 pounds, as opposed to 60 to 70 pounds for wooden ones.

"But my fire protection company just audited my warehouse and they're coming up with second thoughts on plastic pallets," he added. While federal guidelines do not list plastic pallets as a fire risk, Minyard's insurance provider said it fears greater damage to the warehouse if the plastic pallets were ignited.

"One of my main goals for the conference is to find out how other people are handling this [situation]," he added.

Other retailers added they hope to come back from California with an armful of new ideas.

"I've learned a lot every time," said Arnold Wetzel, distribution center supervisor for John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind. "There's no doubt I paid for the trip in savings [from programs] I put in place when I got back."