Iowa Operator Gives Drivers More Flexibility Replacing Handhelds With Smart Phones

rod-nester-smith-vendingSmith Vending, a Canteen franchise in Clarinda, Iowa, does not hesitate to consider new technology, having reaped great benefits from investing in cashless, pre-kitting and pick-to-light in recent years. The company is currently testing iPods and smart phones to replace DEX handhelds in partnership with Crane Streamware.

The company recently completed its fifth week of a pilot test, with a third of its nine drivers participating.

“Throughout the day, it’s automatically sending the data back to the warehouse so the pre-kitters aren’t having to wait to sync the data,” said Rod Nester, company owner. “That’s kind of cool.”

The company has been using Motorola handhelds since it introduced DEX handhelds in 2009. A year later, the company was pre-kitting all of its machines, and was able to reduce its cost of goods and eliminate one route.

The company recovered its $100,000 investment in Streamware in nine months.

One reason the company is now interested in using smart phones and iPods is that they are easily available. “The convenience factor is so much easier,” Nester said.

Drivers Appreciate Smart Phones

Another reason is that drivers have expressed a wish to use a device that can fit in their pockets.

“We would like to pay our route drivers a higher monthly subsidy for using their cell phone,” Nester said. This would motivate the driver to use their phone rather than the handheld.

“Route drivers take care of their cell phones like they would their own child,” he said. “The handheld is a piece of company equipment; they don’t give them the TLC they really deserve.”

It will be necessary for vending management software providers to develop apps for smart phones for vending operators in general to switch to smart phones, he said.

“I think once they get it developed, everybody in the industry will probably go that way,” he noted.

Nester said there are pros and cons to participating in a pilot test for new technology. “You get the joy of getting to use it, but you also get the headaches when you find it doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to,” he said.

“The glitches we’ve had have been minor,” Nester added. “Part of being part of this is you anticipate there are going to be glitches.”

Smart Phones Bring Flexibility

One benefit Smith Vending has already witnessed is the flexibility drivers have in sending their DEX data to the warehouse. They can do this anyplace that Wi-Fi is available. This is important for route pre-kitting, which relies on accurate, timely data.

Not having to wait until the routes are completed to pre-kit is a benefit. “They actually pre-kit during the day for the next day,” Nester said.

“We struggle finding people who want to come in at night and pre-kit,” he said.

“The app seems to upload much faster than a handheld does,” he added. “It’s more efficient and more streamlined when it sends data.”

The drivers participating are using smart phones while one is also using their iPod. One reason they are testing the iPod is that it is much less expensive than a smart phone.

Some of the drivers find it convenient having their Streamware app part of their personal phone. The drivers can also use their handhelds if they wish.

Among the drivers participating in the test, one driver who is older than the others has been switching to the handheld more than the others, Nester observed.

Telemetry Expands

Nester believes the field service devices will continue to be needed even as the company expands its use of telemetry.

More than half of the company’s machines have telemeters and are sending the DEX files automatically twice a day to the warehouse. However, it is still necessary to have the service visit recorded by the driver, making the handhelds or smart phone apps necessary.

“If you don’t have a vend visit (report) so that you know what was added, you have to have both pieces of the equation so that the pre-kit is accurate so that the right items are pulled in the right quantities,” Nester said.

Telemetry is most beneficial for accounts that are not serviced daily, and for dynamic scheduling. Smith Vending is not yet doing dynamic scheduling.

“It (telemetry) does create more efficiencies when you get into dynamic scheduling; you run stops when they need to be run,” he said. Being largely a rural operation, Nester doesn’t see dynamic scheduling as critical for the company.

“There will be a time when we will be looking at it (dynamic scheduling) again,” he said.

Prior to deploying telemetry, Smith Vending was servicing some big accounts on a scheduled basis and was over servicing these accounts. After deploying telemetry, the company is servicing two colleges once a week now instead of twice a week. “We have hard sales data telling us what sold in the machine so the pre-kits are much more accurate, which allows us to go once a week instead of twice a week,” Nester said.

Cashless And Telemetry: Hand In Hand

“Anytime you add cashless to a machine, you basically have the ability to do telemetry,” he said. “And I just can’t see putting telemetry on a machine and not offering cashless. If you do one, you can do both.”

Nester said it has been a great benefit to have the Crane Navigator machines, which automatically integrate the cashless reader with the Streamware software. This has been an important advantage as cashless as a percent of total sales has increased to 20 percent.

“Streamware gives us that ability to know that we are getting those dollars paid to us,” he said. When the company used a different cashless device, reconciling the sales with the vending management system was more difficult. “It was too time consuming to do that,” he said.

Nester thinks eventually 75 percent of the company’s machines will be Navigators. The exceptions will be some machines – a minority – where cashless is not a worthwhile investment.

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by Elliot Maras

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