July 19, 2004
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
A free newsletter to all IT Wireless subscribers.


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FEATURE STORY
Wholesaler Speeds Orders, Improves Sell-Through with Wireless

CBK, a Union City, Tenn.-based wholesaler of gift and home décor merchandise, struggled to handle high traffic at its showrooms during the trade shows that brought hundreds of buyers into town for a few days. Sales staff had difficulty doing more than writing down order numbers as clients went from aisle to aisle, reducing salespeople's time to promote related products, and those handwritten order slips often were hard to read or mistranscribed, resulting in delayed or inaccurate orders. Because much of the company's business is done during trade fairs — held anywhere from two times a year at its Highpoint, N.C., facility to as often as five time a year at its Dallas facility — the company had huge overtime bills to process the sudden rush of orders. The crush of customers also caused customers to wait for salespeople to complete a previous customer's order, resulting in some potential customers moving on to the next showroom. Wholesalers like CBK have their showrooms in centers that host their competitors' showrooms as well (essentially an industry-specific mall), and the centers put on the trade fairs that attract store buyers en masse. CBK has showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, in addition to Highpoint and Dallas; it also attends the New York trade fair held at the Jacob Javits convention center.

To address these business challenges, CBK decided to get rid of the paper-based ordering system and instead use portable terminals to enter orders. The company contemplated using laptops or tablets on rolling carts (laptops and tablets were too heavy for salespeople to carry around all day), but decided against this approach because during the trade fairs the showrooms are just too crowded to push carts through, says Todd Little, CBK's network administrator. Instead, CBK turned to PSC's Falcon 335 wireless bar-code terminal, a handheld device that can also be holstered on a belt. Little says using the terminal is no more stressful than carrying a clipboard all day, thanks to the relief provided by the holster. The Falcon 335 lets salespeople scan product bar codes, so there are no transcription errors. Completed orders are transmitted via 802.11b access points to a nearby printer, so the customer gets a printed receipt for confirmation. The CBK-developed order-processing software also verifies order amounts, catching problems such as ordering too few or too many items, and transmits the completed order to the company's warehouses so products often arrive at the buyer's address on or before the date the buyer has returned from the trade fair. This also helps reduce lost orders due to customers changing their mind on their way home, Little notes.

One issue that sales staff had with the concept of electronic order entry was loss of customer orders in progress due to hardware or battery failure. Little decided to have all transaction data transmitted immediately to the company's order-processing system, rather than be stored on the handheld and then transmitted upon completion. This posed a particular challenge for CBK, which runs its operations on IBM AS/400 midframes. The AS/400 automatically kills a communication session if there is an interruption in the connection. Thus, if a salesperson lost connection due to a hardware failure — or more commonly, when he followed a customer outside the showroom and out of the wireless LAN's range — the salesperson would have to reconnect, reopen the partially completed order, and often get IT's help to resume the order. To address this, CBK used eBusiness Solutions Pros' Stay-Linked software, which keeps the IBM 5250 terminal-emulation session live between the access point and the AS/400 even when the handheld device loses contact with the access point.

CBK salespeople were still nervous about the new system's reliability after the company deployed it. But they soon had proof of its resilience, Little recalls: At the first trade fair in which the system was used, the IT staff had forgotten to enable one of the three access points in the showroom (that third one had been isolated for use in a training area), and the remaining two access points were quickly overloaded. The first access point to get overloaded redirected new traffic to the remaining access point, which also became overloaded, and both failed. The IT staff quickly brought the three access points back on line, and the salespeople discovered that their orders remained available and current in the AS/400 system. When their handhelds reconnected, the AS/400 transmitted the current order back to the handhelds, so they could continue where they left off. "It was a godsend that this happened because it showed that you could have a disaster and that it didn't matter. It increased their confidence," Little says.

Although most of the data transmitted over the 802.11b LAN is just product ID data, Little was still concerned about security, since competitors might be able to figure out CBK's pricing information from those wirelessly transmitted transactions. He found that simple changes to the default settings in most 802.11b devices go a long way to improving security. For example, he uses a different radio channel than the default, reducing the chance an outsider will see his network at all. Devices are authenticated via their unique MAC address. In addition to using 128-bit Wireless Equivalency Protocol (WEP) encryption, Little made sure the devices didn't use the default WEP key location (key 1). The company also gave its access points purely numerical SSIDs, rather than the usual practice of the company's name, so snoopers wouldn't know whose network they had found if they did discover it. And the use of the AS/400's 5250 emulation also helped: "The data looks like gobbledygook" to most Windows and Unix systems, he says. At the router level, Little blocked most traffic, so no HTTP or SNMP ports are enabled (these permit Internet and email traffic, respectively). Because the sales staff don't access Web pages or email from their terminals, shutting these off ensures the bandwidth is dedicated to them, not hijacked by someone outside looking for convenient Internet access. "We changed every default setting," Little notes.

The results of these efforts were exactly what CBK had wanted:

  • Salespeople could devote all their time to servicing the customer, using suggestion-selling techniques to increase the average order by 12%.
  • Order-entry overtime labor hours were reduced by 80%.
  • Accuracy improved to nearly 100%.
  • Data-entry costs were virtually eliminated.
  • Shipments could be prepared the day of the order, rather than 24 to 48 hours later.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

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