CHICAGO -- Behind the most accurate data, the hottest hardware and the smartest software lies a major human challenge for brand marketers, said Victor Del Regno.
He advocates standardized formats for organizing and communicating information that he believes would go a long way toward reducing stress and improving effectiveness among both brokers and manufacturers.
The president of Morris Alper & Sons, the Boston-based brokerage, Del Regno described how his firm and other progressive brokers are investing beyond the technologies into staff training and methodologies that can help draw maximum value from computerized systems on an everyday basis.
"It certainly is clear to me we have to turn data into usable information and make that usable information actionable," said Del Regno in a talk to a GMA Category Management Seminar here.
He outlined how progressive brokers have already adopted market data systems such as Neilsen and IRI, demographic systems such as Market Metrics, and order processing and communications systems that use uniform communication standard protocols.
"Many of us have space management systems, retail reporting systems, order management systems. We are now moving into market development fund tracking, promotion analysis and sales forecasting. But we are developing these templates and a lot of these spreadsheets on our own, and it is creating a lot of stress," he added.
"Certainly there is a need to standardize these forms." To encourage regular use, brokers and manufacturers have to start building information "templates" that make it easy for people to use their computers every day in support of routine decision-making, Del Regno said.
"People resources underscore all this. Someone has to format all these templates -- and we have a lot of them because there are a lot of proprietary formats out there -- and train people how to use them."
Morris Alper, for instance, represents more than 80 manufacturers, said Del Regno. "We see so many different proprietary systems that it is driving us crazy. Yet a broker will adjust to that. What we are trying to do is get these standardized formats into our business, so that we can spend less time trying to reinvent the wheel, and all this time on developing templates, and just download it and go to work."
Paradoxically, some electronic systems now being adopted in the spirit of Efficient Consumer Response may be having the opposite of the intended effect on productivity -- at least at first.
"All this information has added complexity to our business, and complexity breeds overhead, not just in systems that we are putting in, but the skill levels required to analyze this data and execute against it," he said.
Not surprisingly, Del Regno said, his firm encourages manufacturers to provide support for their category management systems. Pillsbury, for instance, recently gave Morris Alper a portable computer and helped with the necessary training.
"The area where it gets sensitive is that we want to use that laptop in other areas of our business. The concern is there could be damage done to their proprietary information," he said. But from the broker's perspective, the alternative of a separate category management system for each manufacturer borders on the absurd. "How many laptops can one salesman carry?" he questioned.
Del Regno cited the UCS I and UCS II transaction sets, and the Project Info pilot just under way, in which Pet Inc. and several brokers are exploring a standardized way to communicate trade promotion information, as examples worth emulating in other information-based activities, such as category management.
"I believe that progressive food brokers are uniquely positioned as category experts. Many of us represent several lines in different segments of a category, to address the category management piece. We can bring out those efficiencies and effectiveness that we are all looking for from ECR."
To the current alphabet soup of ECR, EDI, CRP, UCS, ABC and JIT, Morris Alper has added one more acronym -- EAP. "That's an employee assistance program to deal with the stress caused by all this information technology," he said.