MINNEAPOLIS -- Wireless technologies will become commonplace in the next few years, especially in systems used for supermarket operations, said Robert Borlick, chief information officer, Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn., speaking at the recent Productivity Convention and Exposition of Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va.
"Most of your ordering devices and the forklift terminals are wireless today. Most of our warehouses are in a wireless mode. A lot of our grocery stores are going into a wireless mode. The ability to conduct transactions anywhere you go is going to be the norm in the next few years," Borlick said.
Supervalu is improving the wireless systems in its operations and trying to extend the technology to retailers, he said. Among the applications for stores are to use handheld devices to check prices, to give store managers information about how their store is performing, to use wireless point-of-sale terminals to help when lines are long, and for kiosks for consumers. "So I believe the whole area of wireless technology is just going to explode in the next few years," Borlick said.
One technology Supervalu is testing is voice-directed picking. "A number of companies have had good success with it. We are going to measure our program and roll that out," Borlick said.
The voice-directed system is a subsystem to the company's supply chain system. "Our system is interfaced with a third-party system that tapes the orders that come in and translates them to an audio file. It directs the picker to a specific spot in the warehouse, and the picker confirms by audio what they've picked," he said. The pickers also can let the inventory system know when stock is running low, which eliminates out-of-stocks.
"We see it as an improvement in our picking process and also an improvement of our inventory re-stocking levels. That's a couple of good business drivers for Supervalu."
In a world of business-to-business exchanges, the warehouse and store wireless devices will increasingly be linked to networks that extend beyond the walls of individual facilities. This will require standards and synchronized data, he said.
"As we move in that direction, the criticality of information is going to be even more acute. Because if you have people with mobile devices at the store level or warehouse level, you can't have local databases out of sync with the whole chain that you are trying to use. So the synchronization from store level to wholesaler or distributor to the supplier is becoming more and more intense, and that's why you'll see more tightening of our information," Borlick said.
The industry needs to embrace standards for radio frequency and information exchange, which will require action by broad-based groups, he said. However, "that will really depend on how quickly they can get up to speed. In this world, companies won't wait if they see a need. They may have to go out and start their own solutions, and then evolve them later," he said.
Supervalu is a member of the WorldWide Retail Exchange, Arlington, Va., one of the three major grocery industry B2B trading exchanges, and has been an early supporter of UCCnet, Lawrenceville, N.J., which describes itself as "an open, standards-based, scaleable, distributed Internet trading community that is industry supported and sponsored."
Addressing a question of why Supervalu is actively supporting both UCCnet and WWRE, Borlick said, "You can't look at the exchanges by themselves. You have to look at the entire Internet e-commerce transaction. So at Supervalu, we are looking how we want to use the toolset, which is what we need to keep in mind when we talk about e-commerce," he said.
"The Internet is really just a better tool for doing business more cost effectively, and its chief advantage is that it reaches everyone."