March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 03.04

A Hollywood Ending

Merchandising service company finds happiness on the yellow brick road.
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By Eric M. Zeman




Just about everyone likes a good movie. And more than a good movie, everyone likes a happy ending. Luckily for National Marketing Services (NMS), a happy ending was in the script for its recent mobile deployment.

NMS is a merchandising service company that works with manufacturing and retail organizations to ensure that products are properly displayed and inventories are carefully monitored at retail outlets. A big focus of its business is helping improve in-store presence and sales of VHS and DVD movies at large toy retailers for their clients: major movie studios.

Traditionally, NMS reps relied on a combination of paper-based and interactive voice response systems to record and transmit information gathered during store visits, such as inventory levels, volume of returns and unsold units, and the status of merchandising displays. This legacy system was time-consuming and inefficient. The inability to respond quickly to retailer needs jeopardized product sales and strained relationships, while multiple points of data entry raised the potential for reporting errors.

Approximately two years ago, NMS started fielding requests from the studios and retailers for faster reporting. This was designed to improve video sales during the relatively short window of opportunity when new titles first appear.

Fast Forward

Partnering with UniquE Solutions, an electronic call-reporting software provider, NMS deployed Intermec 700c Pocket PCs to its field representatives. The software and handheld devices allow NMS associates to quickly and digitally record each retailer visit, including inventory status, returns and credits, point-of-purchase displays, merchandising placement and specific store requirements. After each retailer visit, field reps synchronize data and post reports to a central server via the Internet, thanks to mobile data sync and management capabilities from Extended Systems.

Steve Workman, senior VP, sales and marketing, for NMS, notes: “We’ve shown this solution to every studio we represent, and they are all very excited about its potential. And it will allow us to grow our business.”
During the first months of the pilot phase with several hundred NMS field reps serving 680 toy retailers nationwide, the company reported significant time and cost efficiencies using this mobile solution. Retailer needs for products were addressed within the same day (as opposed to a 36-hour lag time), while shipments for inventory replenishment were reduced from four days to next-day service. NMS field reps now have more time to conduct revenue-producing activities at each retailer they visit. And while the project is a substantial capital investment, long-term results will give NMS a distinctive market advantage among its competitors.

Rewind

Success didn’t come overnight. As with any good movie, the plot took some time to unfold.

“We started looking at options about two years ago,” says Workman, “and we were searching for a service solution provider to help us change our basic gathering of data, which had been through paper, interactive voice response and fax.” When the studios let it be known that they wanted information faster, NMS sought to automate its information-gathering abilities. “We send information to the studios for replenishment purposes and help them get the product out to the street. There’s a small window of time with sales, just a two- to three-week span to really sell the product.”

NMS looked at a number of hardware and software vendors, but had a tough time settling on something that fit its business, was affordable and could not be damaged or stolen. They eventually settled on Intermec devices and software from UniquE and Extended Systems.

The roll out took place gradually, starting with only 30 users. In order to train all its reps, NMS, “brought in the managers to train the trainers. We moved district by district across the country. After the first 30 were done, then another 70, then whenever they could be trained. We faced a lot of pressure to get the solution going,” says Workman.

“Training has been the biggest challenge,” he adds. “We’re feeling some pain there, as it was hard to get through to everyone. First we thought to have the old system available as a back-up so it could be used if the handheld didn’t work, which gave the reps an out. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been as smooth as hoped, but the reps are getting a grasp on it now. In a few months we’ll know who isn’t complying and why they’re not complying. We also use internal tracking to manage handheld compliance.” So far 325 of 680 reps are using the handhelds.

Typically the reps make about two service calls per day, and they work in a two-week cycle. For their purposes, scanning inventory and transferring information is the solution’s key use. The information is compiled and reports are generated with UniquE’s FieldTrac software. They sync in the evening with their dial-up modems and upload all information to an SQL server for the next cycle of service visits for their region. Downloading timely information prior to going into stores helps speed up each service visit. “The reps have noticed some time savings and can do more within each call, using the device for reporting instead of paper,” says Workman. “The reporting time is being shrunk so that more time can be spent on actual activities that are driving revenue.”

The corporate office can also download timely information from the field to generate its own reports. “The solution has taught managers to see information more quickly. The information can come up daily to show where the reps are and what they’re doing; it’s in a database and can be accessed on the Web. Our clients can get inventory data by 9 a.m. on the next business day—a significant improvement over the 36- to 48-hour time span it used to take using the old system,” says Workman.

Pause

Although the system isn’t wireless just yet, NMS plans to make that a part of the solution. “We’d like to see more instructions flowing through the handhelds,” Workman adds, “and eliminate paper on all ends.”

Even more importantly, continuing to improve on its mobile strategy will differentiate NMS in its hyper-competitive industry, one in which you’re only as good as your last picture. “As a sales and marketing guy, I see that we can use the benefits as a competitive distinction with other companies in our market. Having the handheld has added a competitive advantage in the eyes of potential customers—and that will help us spread this to other pieces of our business.” •
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