Topics Don't Vanish When They Cool Off

Posted On: 9/28/2017

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We have observed that any industry that's growing and changing engages in an ongoing conversation. The subjects of greatest current interest are summarized in trade magazines and at conferences conducted by trade associations. Over time, these reports can be collected into something resembling a "time-lapse" movie, providing useful historical insights.

Over the decades, some topics recur, often in response to a new technology or operating method. The ones that don't usually fade away because the subject has become obsolete -- few operators today need to know more about improved methods of bagging collections by route or by location -- or has become so commonplace that there's little left to discuss, like the pluses and minuses of the glassfront multiproduct machine.

Others, however, seem to get lost in the sheer volume of information available today. As the industry has diversified into related service areas -- event catering, coffee service, micromarkets -- and has worked to develop different kinds of location, the number of subjects for the ongoing conversation continues to increase. A few of them occur to me as worth a brief review.

For one, we have not heard much discussion about warehouse design and layout. In a very traditional (usually small) operation, the driver is responsible for predicting the items that will be required for the locations on the route that's to be serviced, and for picking the necessary stock from the warehouse. As a refinement, the operator might provide shopping-carts and something like a supermarket checkout line, to record the transfer of merchandise from warehouse to truck inventory. In today's world, ptting the driver in charge of  menuing the machine and pulling the necessary items is a system that works best in business run by an individual or a family.

Some operators were prepackaging route orders long before forecasting software (and now remote monitoring) made "pre-kitting" fully practical. Making up orders in advance made sense in locations where relatively few items were offered and daily demand was predictable, like secondary schools.

I once encountered a noteworthy variation on this approach. The drivers made up their route orders two days in advance, and the warehouse staff made up those orders on the following day. The warehouse was separated from the drivers' meeting-room by a wall perforated by a number of large lockers, one for each route, with doors on either end. The warehouse staff placed drivers' orders in the appropriate locker and then locked the door on the warehouse side. Each driver began the  day's service by unlocking the appropriate door at the other end, picking up the order and transferring it to the truck. This saved a good deal of time and improved control of warehouse inventory.

It seems to us that this is a good way to organize a warehouse in which route orders were controlled by the warehouse manager by means of forecasting and telemetry. And it seems to complement warehouse automation systems very well.

The advent of micromarkets has increased the variety of SKUs that an operator can offer, and the short shelf-life of some of theses products creates additional complexity. This is the sort of problem that well-thought-out procedures implemented with the aid of well-designed software can help solve, but the layout of the warehouse surely can play a role.

Speaking at this spring's National Automatic Merchandising Association annual convention, former NAMA chairman Jim Brinton touched on warehouse organization during an in-depth seminar on micromarket operators. Brinton, a veteran operator who runs Evergreen Vending (Seattle), also heads Avanti Markets, and has pioneered the deployment of micromarkets by vendors. He sketched a warehouse plan in which the vending merchandise is arranged on racks in a central island, and micromarket items occupy racks running along the side walls. Beverages are stored in their own area.

Brinton also advised vending operators who plan to move strongly into micromarkets to implement pre-kitting in their warehouses, if they have not done so already. With 200 or more SKUs common in a micromarket operation, it's important that trucks go out carrying only the merchandise they need for the day's deliveries.

The increasingly widespread placement of micromarkets also might revive discussion of routes specialized for certain product categories -- refrigerated and frozen products, for example, or large volumes of  packaged beverages -- which might well be different for vending and for micromarket routes. A lot of variations are possible here, and a conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of each would be.

I also think that some of the concepts that the automotive industry is pursuing vigorously are worth a look, and some imaginative discussion. We can see no real advantage to a fully autonomous route truck, unless it's accompanied by a fully anthropomorphic robot like Captain Video's opponent "Tobor." But electric vehicles (which never went of out of style in some European cities) certainly are worth some imaginative exchange of ideas.