Smartphone use is becoming more pervasive at retail, and it's not just consumers who are optimizing visits with mobile apps.
Third-party field associates are likewise trading paper and pen for devices that support real-time reporting, facilitate location verification and allow for assignment modification on the fly.
“The retailer is always concerned that what was supposed to happen will indeed happen in their store today. Now we can more accurately show them, ‘Yes, in fact that price change did happen or that display was set up,’” Stefan Midford, president and chief executive officer of mobile solutions provider Natural Insight, Sterling, Va., explained.
It all begins when the rep “checks in” at a store on their GPS-enabled device. If they're using Natural Insight's NI WorkTrak Android app, the system verifies that they are where they're supposed to be at the appointed time.
If their GPS coordinates don't match their assigned location, they'll receive a warning. “We're checking the GPS to validate that he's really there, he's not at Starbucks and almost there,” Midford explained.
If for some reason an associate fails to check in, his supervisor is alerted. If he can't be located, the system can identify all the reps within a certain radius of the unmanned location and send a text message to see who is able to pick up the shift. The first to respond is assigned the task.
Though it sounds futuristic, iPhone and Android apps are supporting a whole host of efficiencies that benefit the food industry today. One reason is price. Mobile devices cost a fraction of what they did a decade ago, said Bill Lecznar, former director of operations for Delhaize America and CEO of Richmond, Va.-based Synergy Systems.
“Five or 10 years ago a handheld would cost you $800 to $1,500 each; today you can get them for $99,” he said.
Currently in pilot phase with an out-of-home media company that services supermarkets and other high-traffic venues on behalf of CPG clients is an Android app designed by Lecznar. Synergy Systems is tweaking the app based on feedback from Steve Kerler, owner of the Y4 Services consulting firm and advisor to the media company that is using Synergy Systems' GlobalWorx Android app.
The app runs on Samsung Galaxy Tabs, and replaces a labor-intensive system whereby field associates would visit stores, place advertising, take pictures with a digital camera to verify their work and record survey information on paper.
After completing up to 10 visits per day and collecting 150 photos, the rep would rename and upload the images to an FTP site from home and key into spreadsheets the data collected on paper. The process was arduous.
“It could often take them another six, seven or eight hours at night and they'd literally be working 14-hour days,” said Kerler.
The back end was likewise riddled with inefficiencies as data sets had to be manually consolidated. Compounding matters was the fact that overworked reps sometimes didn't enter data until five days after it was collected. In the meantime, the client had no way of knowing that what it had hired the company to do had been done.
Now that the app is supporting processes in the field, visits are confirmed in real time.
Work assignments are automatically loaded onto the tabs so once a rep arrives at a store they open the work order via the app, key in survey information, turn the tablet to its side and snap a photo. Information is uploaded immediately, eliminating the need for data entry at night. Reports are consolidated automatically on the back end.
“Now instead of having to wait days to report [the data] to our clients, we're able to pretty much report it instantly,” Kerler explained. A benefit of more timely data review is the ability to execute same-day assignment adjustments.
“A manufacturer may hire a company to do a survey in the store, but let's say one-quarter of the way through the project they want to add something to it,” Lecznar said. “You can make immediate changes and push them out in real time.”
Mobile apps also provide interactivity. If the answer to the question, “Have you located the materials for the display?” is “Yes,” instructions will follow. If the answer is “No,” an automatic email or phone call is triggered, Lecznar explained.
Reassignment decisions can also be made during the day. “Since we can see the uploads as they happen we can say, ‘Which rep has completed what so far and who needs help,’” said Kerler.
GPS is also opening new windows. Kerler and Lecznar are working toward having the system automatically sequence a rep's work orders for the week based on proximity. “A rep may have 80 venues assigned to them all over New York and say, ‘Wait a minute, I need to organize this,’” Kerler said.
NI WorkTrak Android App is changing the way field reps submit mileage. “It used to be that you had a logbook in the car and you'd tell the company, ‘I traveled 55 miles today,’” said Midford. “With WorkTrak you hit a button that says ‘start travel’ and when you get to the store you hit ‘end travel.’”
The feature is designed to gauge more accurate mileage at a time when 15% of submissions are overstated.
While such tools may seem a bit “big brother,” mobile devices are in fact helping boost morale.
Such is the case at JOH-SellEthics LLC, which equips agents with laptops and iPads running a proprietary system for real-time reporting on new item cut-ins, out-of-stocks, schematic adherence and other tasks.
“When we first rolled it out, those who didn't use laptop computers on a daily basis were concerned but after a few weeks we saw a psychological change that we quite frankly didn't expect. It makes them feel so professional and gives them confidence,” said Joel Barham, president and CEO of SellEthics Marking Group, part of a legal entity formed with Billerica, Mass.-based JOH.