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Retailers Move Mobility Focus to the Warehouse

“Jack be nimble, jack be quick…” You may say it’s one of the most memorable nursery rhymes of all time. I say it could be a mantra symbolic of the retail industry today. Never before have we seen consumer habits necessitate such a rapid reset of retail’s operating structure. Even with the right go-forward strategy in place, some long-established brands are struggling to execute quickly enough.

Nimble is the name of the retail game these days and that requires an increased reliance on real-time data and tools that can capture, analyze, and deliver actionable data anytime, anywhere.

Retailers have done an impressive job of putting innovative business information systems in place. They have leveraged automation solutions to create cost savings. They recognize the value of mobile technologies in watching store sales in real-time, conducting A/B testing, leveraging multiple promotion channels, and scheduling deliveries – and they’ve taken fast action to gain a competitive edge. But unlike the use of sleek mobile devices in the front-of-store, warehouse and distribution centers are moving to more durable and capable tablets.

Front-of-store automation, real-time business analytics, and a dynamic distribution system are hallmarks of the new retail world. To maintain this velocity, it is important to increase investments in mobility-based picking, packing, and shipping solutions back at the warehouse. Distribution centers are critical to every aspect of retailers’ operations, even promotions. The success of promotional programs, for example, hinges on the ability to deliver enough of the featured inventory to fulfill every online order or in-store purchase within the given timeframe – and restock/deliver in a timely manner if needed.

Consider Black Friday. Many retailers are directing buyers to complete their purchases online versus in-store. It is more convenient for consumers and reduces the level of in-store conflict long associated with the shopping “holiday.” However, it has also reset consumer expectations: online shopping is presumed to be “easier,” “faster,” and more likely to ensure that you secure the items you want. Retailers don’t have the space restrictions in the warehouse that they have online, so more inventory should be available longer, consumers assume. But that’s not necessarily true, and one of the reasons why real-time visibility into inventory levels is so critical in fulfilling online orders during campaigns that drive high purchase volumes every minute. It is the reason why leveraging cohesive, data-driven mobility solutions are imperative in the distribution center and essential to retailers’ ability to create value in their expanding automation investments – not just save money.

Retail Mobility for Warehouse Inventory Management

But it’s not enough to hand distribution center managers or floor workers a mobile device with order information instead of paper printouts. Nor is it as simple as picking the least expensive device, even if cost savings is still an important goal. Distribution centers need their workers to be connected all the time with these business systems. These connections are two-way, directing activity and reporting back on inventory levels, shipment times, etc. However, the tools needed to capture, analyze and act on these insights in real-time require a certain level of resiliency against the vibrations on a forklift, the extreme temperature variances between inventory aisles and the loading dock, and the potential for mobile device bumps and drops as workers hustle to pick and pack orders accurately at an unprecedented pace.

Sleek consumer-grade devices may suffice in the front of the store and help you keep a pulse on operations. But in the warehouse/DC environment, where consistent systems performance is the key to operational vitality, rugged reliability trumps aesthetics. So does the ability to find a very specific – but indispensable – set of computing capabilities in a single, high quality mobile PC platform:

  • Large screen display that allows for easy, full-screen viewing of the minute order details essential to accurate picking, packing, routing, and shipping
  • Built-in barcode scanners and RFID readers that allow for thorough quality control inspections and resolution, fast inventory location, inventory level monitoring, and order tracking
  • Capacitive with glove touch capabilities for easy in-hand data input inside and on the loading dock
  • Mobile docks for use in forklifts
  • MIL-STD-810G and IP54 at a minimum
  • Proven wireless performance to stay connected to Wi-Fi even in the near-dead zones that most DCs seem to have.

The only mobile PC form factor that fits the bill is a rugged tablet PC . But as I always remind customers, no two rugged tablets are the same.  Those built with specific workflows in mind – versus those geared towards entire industries – are better suited to deliver the standard features and customizable services you require at pick stations, on forklifts, for truck optimization and even loading .

Rugged tablets can also satisfy retailers’ need to balance cost savings with new value creation for their “company jewels” – the business information systems I mentioned previously. While it’s hard to quantify the ROI of rugged tablets upfront with regards to their impact on value creation – and even more difficult to estimate mobile technologies’ contribution to the bottom line – calculating the cost savings of paper reduction in the data-driven warehouse/DC is straightforward. One of our customers knew that paper-savings alone would account for $850k reduced in the first year.

Mobility-driven automation has real impact on retailers’ response capabilities across the entire operation. Don’t let vague estimates of bottom-line impact dilute your confidence in rugged tablets – or delay a move towards total warehouse/DC mobility.  Rugged tablets are nimble, they support frequent expansion of intense data applications, and their features/software can be adapted as much as you need to adapt your business processes to accommodate shifting trends in retail .