By Bob Zink

In 1998, over 4 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in the United States, representing approximately a 74 percent increase since 1971. The average American drinks approximately 14 gallons of bottled water a year, so it’s no surprise that bottled water is the sixth largest category among beverages in the United States and will eventually rank second only to soft drinks in the next 10 years—if not sooner.

For bottled water distributors, managing their diverse operations and meeting the supply and demand of their customers are challenges. Their drivers deliver directly to home and office customers as well as retailers. They may also deliver to other distributors who, in turn, deliver to their home and office customers. Their territories may cross over into several states and require drivers to operate out of multiple locations.

Automated route systems
In order to meet the challenge, many distributors either have—or are planning to install—an automated route accounting system. This allows their route drivers to manage accounts in real time with improved account accuracy, route profitability and company cash flow. It also saves on fuel used and wear and tear on vehicles from inefficient routes that add unnecessary mileage.

The combination of technologies, both hardware and software, is the key to success. Mobile workers are dramatically different from their desk counterparts. Hardware weight and size, rugged design, battery life and backup of data are essential. The software must provide data for customer relations management and other enterprise applications. The most successful route automation projects are developed as a single integrated solution of hardware and software rather than an assembly of separate, off-the-shelf parts.

Many hardware companies design rugged, palm digital assistant-size computers with a full scope of technology and communications specifically for the beverage market for pre-sales/delivery, route sales, merchandising, tracking products and assisting with category management issues.

“Automated route accounting systems must also be able to provide the controls, features and flexibility to fit the varying ways companies operate,” said Jennifer Hamilton, CEO for Ram Systems, a provider of route accounting management systems. “Add this to the customer’s options of high-speed broadband and network communication, Virtual Private Networking and application servers, and you have a total solution.”

Better accuracy, information
Hamilton further explains, “Route accounting is the backbone of accountability, the means of achieving balance. Distributors need accurate customer service information, accounts receivable, cooler tracking and price controls. Managing routes manually can’t deliver the speed or accuracy of information necessary to balance inventories, routes, truckloads, drivers and receivables. Each route filters to a company-wide balance.

“Imagine the thousands of bits of information handled in numerous areas within a company on a daily basis. Therein lay vast areas of possible mistakes that, without the proper equipment and route accounting, can add up to lost revenue. The numbers may seem trivial at times—a dollar here, a cooler there, until they are multiplied over a short period of time and then multiplied again by occurrence. Next, this misinformation can filter directly to the customer—and servicing the customer is the No. 1 criteria for a successful business.”

Covering large territories without an automated route accounting system poses two problems. When a distributor has multiple locations, the time delay between getting physical tickets keyed into the computer on-site and transferred back to the host location at headquarters creates a major delay in determining sales figures and inventory levels. In addition, because of the large geographic area covered, some drivers return to the plant only a couple of times each week. By using the mobile computers, drivers can transmit data from any location.

The key to long-term route automation success is delivering a complete system that seamlessly links field data from the sales reps and drivers to enterprise information systems.

An Ohio example
Magnetic Springs, a bottled water distributor based in Columbus, Ohio, recently installed an automated route accounting system that interfaces directly to its existing host computer system.

To track field information across their operation, all route drivers use handheld computers. Using handhelds on routes makes it easier to expand customer bases and makes route tasks easier and faster.
Customer account information is downloaded from Magnetic’s host system to the handhelds and appears automatically in route stop order. The driver knows immediately what products to deliver. Special delivery instructions or messages about customers also appear on the screen.

In the driver’s seat
Drivers can make changes to the order at the stop as well. When the delivery is completed, an infrared-enabled, belt-clip printer produces the invoice in a matter of seconds. If a customer wants to pay the driver directly, account balance information is easily accessed on the computer and a receipt is printed.

Opening accounts is easier too. Drivers have all the information at their fingertips without calling the office and they enter the new account information directly into the mobile computers while they’re on their route. And they don’t lose the sale by making the customer call the corporate office. Management can instantly retrieve data from any location on its host system. There’s no wait for someone in another state to complete a report and fax it; management has its finger on what’s happening throughout the company in real-time.

Technology options
The demand for handheld technology is increasing as more companies realize the benefits of automation. Today’s advances in handheld devices offer more options than ever before. Companies can choose WAN, LAN and Web-to-cell—or any combination—as their communications of choice. As technologies progress and costs decrease, rugged, handheld devices with dedicated route management software are the option of choice to handle the demands of route accounting. And like many things as technology advances, they’re less bulky, weigh less and function in a more user-friendly way.

The results and savings of route automation are significant. “Companies are seeing instant results with the elimination of invoice errors and elimination of customer complaints because of missed stops,” said Hamilton. “Management now has accurate and up-to-date sales analysis and accounting information. And routes are more productive resulting in increased sales and inventory control.”

Efficiencies gained through using an automated mobile computing system are helping bottled water and cooler rental companies grow their businesses by increasing their market share in existing markets and expanding their reach into other regions. Wireless technology is one of the most effective tools in managing the explosive growth of the bottled water industry.

About the author
Bob Zink is vice president of solution sales for handheld routing systems maker Intermec Technologies Corp., of Everett, Wash., with responsibility for sales and systems support for the direct store distribution, retail, field service and logistics market segments in North America. Zink is based in Kennesaw, Ga. He can be reached at (770) 218-5431, (770) 218-5453 (fax), email: [email protected] or website:


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