Modern systems automate and manage productivity — letting business function at optimal speed
Computer power has largely replaced pencil and paper as the tool-of-choice for recording the journey of produce throughout the supplychain. These new ways of recording transactions leave behind a reliable written record that all interested parties can quickly and easily retrieve.
“The largest benefit is the accuracy,” says Charles Butler III, executive vice president of Edible Software, Houston. “At the end of the day that is what everyone wants. Also, it keeps the communication between companies as transparent as possible. There is no more wondering: ‘Did John really fax that?’ It is recorded electronically in black and white.”
Since the American National Standards Institute first established a uniform computer language for electronic data interchange (EDI) in the 1980s, companies have been able to automatically share information about their transactions. The language works because the computers at one firm in a transaction can easily read information entered into the computers at another firm. Small and mid-sized shippers/retailers would need to have their own IT staff, because EDI specifies one complex set of numbers for the invoice, another set for the product, yet another for the amount, and even more prescribed numbers for other information.
It was not long after the uniform EDI standards were adopted that software companies began offering services that let you use this universally accepted computer language in tracking and recording produce transactions.
When EDI started, they needed to set a standard, and ANSI became that governing body, says Charles Shafae, president of dProduce Man Software, Half Moon Bay, CA. “Many small businesses want to increase efficiency and reduce costs. The method of ‘lite’ EDI accomplishes that. It automates flow of information between you and your customers. In our Privet cloud, you can send needed electronic documents from any device to your customer with one click. It makes your company less expensive to buy from and easier to do business with.” Produce software continues to evolve as firms offer better ways to record transactions, track inventory, including inventory rolling down the highway, and in the case of food safety issues, where it has been.
The Price Is Right
EDI should more than pay for itself in the time saved communicating with trading partners in the produce business. “The automation of transactions achieved through EDI greatly reduces man-hours required to conduct business, which translates to a better bottomline for all our clients who must do business in this electronic age and stay competitive,” says Tina Reminger, general manager of Silver Creek Software, Boise, ID.
With growers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers of such different sizes and budgets using EDI, one of the main ways software companies compete these days is in quantitiy of service you buy and how you pay for it.
“If you’re Safeway, you use iTradeNetwork [a global provider of supply chain management solutions for the food and beverage industry],” says Kirk Parrish, managing partner of Famous Software, Fresno, CA. “The order is sent to iTrade, and from there it moves to us. We’re a one-stop-shop; we’re a hub. Our customers don’t have to set up any infrastructure.” Famous Software has a system that lets smaller shippers communicate with giant retailers like Safeway or Costco. “I-Trade charges by the document by the trading partner,” says Parrish. “Our customers purchase a module and a message manager. Then you purchase trading partners. Each trading partner costs $5,000, with no document fee, but there is an annual maintenance fee of 19 percent.”
One supplier is coming out with a product that lets you decide how much information, or how little, you really need to record. “We have modules,” says Adrian Down, marketing director at Redline, Santa Clara, CA. “It’s like cable TV: you sign up for the part of the package you want. We’re going to be releasing something that is cloud-based, with subscriber-based pricing. We’re looking at smaller grower-shippers. You don’t need an IT department.”
This service is flexible in terms of both how much information you want to record, and in terms of how many people in your operation need to be able to enter and retrieve that information.
“You get full traceability forward and backward, compliance and inventory control,” says Down. “It’s a subscription-based model. If you have 20 people who need to use it, you subscribe for 20 people. If only two people need to use it, you just subscribe for two.”
One standard by which these packages can be judged is whether they make it economically feasible for modest sized firms to do business with the giants of produce.
“Even though we have written interface coding with Target, Safeway, Sysco, Foodbuy, Golden Corral, P.F. Chang’s, Kroger, Fred Meyer, Hannaford, Panera Bread, Brinker International Restaurants, Applebee’s, MessageXpress, Simplot, Shaws, Avendra, Chili’s, Produce Alliance, eFreshPoint, Albertsons, Darden Restaurants, and Pro*Act, to name a few,” says Reminger, “we found that the smaller client may need a little help competing with the ‘big guys.’ ”
The Palm of Your Hand
The software keeps evolving to meet new needs, and one very important requirement these days is the ability to use the information system in the field with a smartphone or scanner.
“Everything is becoming mobile,” says Shafae of dProduce Man Software. “Mobility is the key. Whether you’re using a PC, laptop, netbook or smartphone, you can send and monitor the information. From snail mail, telephone and answering machines to fax, email, texting and EDI, this just another advancement in communicating when it comes to business transactions.”
A hand-held system makes information from the warehouse or truck immediately available to managers and professionals throughout the operation.
“Mobile apps are one great way to include EDI solutions to our mix of system offerings,” says Reminger. “With the increasing need for food safety and traceability, to name a few, in our combined businesses, electronic solutions that Silver Creek
Software can provide have made our current and future clients competitive in the markets they serve.”
One question worth asking is whether the software services you purchase pay off in the amount of time you save.
“For most retailers, this is the epitome of flexibility,” says Butler of Edible Software. “We all hate wasting time. Retailers can often put the PO into their
system and then it is pushed to the supplier. Many times in the past, retailers would have to input an order into their system and then go and submit the
same order separately to the supplier. Just as for the suppliers, the retailers are now able to spend less labor hours doing data entry and more time selling.”
Some of these systems have small bells and whistles that can add to the amount of time saved. “If you do it through the mobile, as soon as you send it everyone gets an email confirmation,” says Shafae. “The beauty of ordering online is when you put in an order, as many people as you decide can recieve an email confirmation.”
There are even products that make it easy to change a purchase order after you have sent it in. “In some cases, we’re able to process changes in the purchase order,” says Parrish of Famous Software. “In the past, it would show up in the in box, and changes would have to be made manually.”
EDI software products are also constantly evolving to record more and different information as it is required.
“The method itself hasn’t changed, but the documents that are being required are changing,” says Butler. “Today, more documents are being required via EDI. This is a result of the fact that people want more information and they want it automated.”
Today traceability and food safety information is also included in systems first developed for inventory management, billing, ordering and receiving.
“As changes are being required, they are integrated into the service,” says Parrish. “For example, we’re able to send all of the produce traceability initiative data. It gives you increased efficiency and accuracy.”
Access to this universal language of transactions can be necessary in order to do business with many of the more sophisticated players.
“Most companies are not going to make sizeable growth without the acquisition of large anchor clients,” says Butler. “These anchor clients are often going to require a high level of automation, because in today’s marketplace, EDI is less error-prone and it takes less bodies to manage it. Obviously there is a cost, but most business owners in a growth mode would rather spend a few thousand dollars a year on EDI and integration than hire another employee.”
One way to think about purchasing an EDI service is whether it allows you to stop thinking about EDI services, and get back to thinking about your business.
“Silver Creek handles the IT side of things when our clients must focus on their core advantages,” says Reminger.”