Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.
Simplicity is a major selling point as mobility, automation advance supply chain.
Produce software is advancing across all facets of the supply chain. Offering solutions for almost every step of the growing, shipping and procurement stages, software provides almost everything a grower, shipper, packer, distributor and retailer needs. That software is also becoming easier to use. Transactions are moving toward online or via smartphones.
Mobility and access to data from anywhere continues to revolutionize the industry. Produce software helps with inventory management. Mobile applications allow customers throughout the supply chain to meet specific needs, including quality control, transportation and warehouse management, from anywhere. Technology, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, helps better manage assets and by reducing costs, helps increase profitability, which allows suppliers to send retailers product at the requested price points.
“Within the next five years, the most important advancements in technology deployment within the fresh produce supply chain will come from automation, smart algorithms and artificial intelligence,” says Mick Heatherington, vice president of sales for Prophet North America, based in Westlake Village, CA. “In order to get to automation and artificial intelligence and the benefits, fresh produce companies will need to implement the right ERP — one capable of a deep implementation and focused on the visibility, control and reporting of the inventory and all tasks in the fresh produce business process through an integrated set of ERP applications in one real-time, multi-user database. Right now, the prevalence of disconnected, and, in effect, closed databases, is holding produce companies back in a major way.”
About 85 percent of the clients of dProduce Man Software’s customers use online ordering. “The reason it’s becoming more prevalent and why more people like to use it is because of the time savings,” says Charles Shafae, president of the Half Moon Bay, CA-based company. “It increases the sales, profitability increases and efficiencies increase.”
Ease of use is important, he says. “The business-to-business transaction is getting much easier and much faster,” explains Shafae. In the past, systems were required for use in the office. Because the system is cloud-based, workers can use any device, including smartphones, notebooks or laptops. “The key is users can use any device to place orders,” he says. “That really makes it much easier for them to use. They are not bound by any particular device.”
Produce software is becoming less complex. The new customer additions at Woodridge, IL-based Produce Pro Software have allowed the software and technology company to add additional product functionality. “The market is complex, and our solutions have been tailored and designed to handle just that,” says Marc Hatfield, national sales manager. “Our software makes the complex simple, with an all-in-one software solution. We’ve seen that our customers want speed and ease of use when looking for an ERP system to help run their business. It is imperative to have a system that allows them to buy and sell product at a rapid pace while maintaining visibility of product at any given point in time.”
Overly intricate feature sets can hamper productivity if they are non-intuitive and don’t provide users the information they need at the right time, says Alex Swart, product marketing manager for iTradeNetwork, in Dublin, CA. “As timing becomes more of a factor and participants increase their purchase order volumes, the number of trading partners and commodity inspections, simplicity has become a major selling point for food technology,” he says. “Simpler interfaces and faster technological infrastructure help the produce supply chain maximize commodity shelf life and margins for all parties involved.”
Although produce software is becoming simpler, in many cases, the complexity remains. “With more holistic end-to-end systems come more capabilities and potential for complexity, but also the opportunity to improve and unify the user experience,” says Todd Berg, director of product management and customer success at HarvestMark-Trimble, headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA. “Successful software solutions implementers are hiring trained, user-experience designers and implementing web and mobile software that is more intuitive and role-based, targeted for the specific jobs of the user.”
Produce software is helping create more visibility in the supply chain, starting at the field through the retail shelf and helping with compliance and inventory. “The more transparent a supply chain becomes, the more cost-effective it will become,” says Randy Fields, chairman and chief executive of Park City Group/ReposiTrak, in Park City, UT. “There is a greater degree of problem-solving around too much inventory, which is costly, but equally important is too little inventory. The only way to get there is with visibility. We are working like crazy on that. The technology is there, but we have to get people to say they really want to solve the problems.”
Produce software allows users to easily and accurately track product from field to warehouse to purchase. Users can easily locate products in any warehouse or storage facility, monitor and manage products in multiple trucks, docks, coolers and warehouses all in real-time, giving users enterprise wide visibility to one of the most important areas of their operations, according to Heather Hammack, president of Famous Software LLC, based in Fresno, CA. “Fewer clerical errors, improved order tracking, faster communication, less paperwork with corresponding cost savings and invoices that get sent sooner and paid sooner are just a few highlights,” she says.
HELP IN A CHANGING WORLD
Technology can help the global produce industry, which is facing seismic changes. In the United Kingdom, a shortage of European laborers left strawberry fields unpicked. Buyers were turning to China, where labor costs are lower, to supply the fruit, says Andy Makeham, chief executive of Linkfresh, Inc., headquartered in Ventura, CA. Makeham notes how produce software can help the produce industry during some of its most challenging times. “All sorts of tectonic shifts are happening in the marketplace now, all of which leads to the need for better information and better technology, which is the driving force,” he says. “We are almost at the perfect storm in the fresh produce marketplace.”
Software can change instantly and is advancing by offering more functionality at less-expensive implementation costs, says Tina Reminger, vice president and general manager of the Boise, ID-based Silver Creek Software. This past year, a lot of work has gone into automation on the hardware and software sides. “There is a big emphasis on Warehouse Management Systems, using technology to help with receiving, order fulfillment and inventory management operations,” she says.
“Companies are realizing there are opportunities to both increase efficiencies and save costs by adapting this technology.”
“The produce industry is eager to harness the power of data not only to streamline buyer-seller communications, but also to integrate information from other activities along the supply chain to help influence procurement decisions such as traceability, inspection data and more.”
— Alex Swart, iTrade Network
Technology is always advancing and helping the produce industry, says Swart, who cites blockchain as an example. “When innovations that originated in other industries come to the forefront in ours, you can tell the industry is exploring important shifts from traditional ways of doing business,” says Swart. “Another domain that’s rapidly advancing is analytics. The produce industry is eager to harness the power of data not only to streamline buyer-seller communications, but also to integrate information from other activities along the supply chain to help influence procurement decisions such as traceability, inspection data and more.”
Although scanners and propriety hardware are still widely used, the industry is seeing more solutions to transition to mobile applications on standard smartphone platforms that support scanning and many other capabilities, says Minos Athanassiadis, a HarvestMark-Trimble director.
“We are seeing technology being adopted by distributors beyond just the classic warehouse management and inventory systems they have used for decades,” he says. “This includes the utilization of software platforms such as HarvestMark Insights to digitize, standardize and increase efficiency of their [quality-control] processes and utilization of the aggregated data for improved sourcing and partner management. The same is true in other areas such as food safety and compliance, where technology and software services are replacing what has traditionally been managed manually with paper-based processes.”
Proper warehouse management is crucial, says Produce Pro Software’s Hatfield. “Warehouse management system adoptions are on the rise,” he notes. “Warehouse management is the key to good inventory. Distributors are realizing that this is the key to their success. Many of our customers are adopting this technology, not only for traceability purposes, but also to have visibility into real-time inventory.”
Park City’s scan-based or vendor-managed inventory allows each level’s inventory to be managed by the level below. “We are seeing more interest from retailers in having produce vendors manage the inventory in their stores or distribution centers,” says Fields. “They’re seeing some interest at the distribution-center level, so why not have our produce vendors manage that for them?”
Such systems are critical as home delivery changes shipping and shoppers become more disappointed when products they seek aren’t available. “We are seeing an increasing shift,” says Fields. “The shift is people increasingly sensitive to out-of-stocks more than they use to be. There use to be more concern about shrink.”
As Amazon doesn’t hide inventory, supermarkets should also list inventories. People going on Instacart would want to know if a store is out of a particular item, like organic celery. “If it helps customers, they will put pressure on retailers, who in turn will put pressure on their suppliers all the way down the chain,” says Fields. “It will take time, but eventually, we will be able to see deeper into the supply chain. The technology exists to do it. It’s really the will to do it [that’s needed].”
The need for quality control is increasing, notes Hatfield. Distributors use Produce Pro’s mobile app to inspect product as it is received and shipped. Produce Pro generates quality-control reports that can be sent to vendors or buyers. “Transportation is another challenge for our distributors,” he says. “We have developed and continue to enhance our driver solution that eliminates paper and provides real-time updates, confirmation of delivery, and tracking of drivers and deliveries.”
No area of the produce industry is exempt from needing software improvements, says iTradeNetwork’s Swart. “Probably every sector of the industry needs an upgrade in some way or another,” he says. Swart cites quality assurance and inspection activities once the ordering process is complete. “Even though traceability tools can help track commodities back to their origin and logistics tools can expedite their transport, tracking the quality of produce as it moves through different points of the supply chain is also important, especially in light of recent food-safety events,” he says, referring to the late 2018 Romaine lettuce scare.
Produce software allows for increased retail transparency. “It comes back to the block chain, which is all about visibility,” says Linkfresh’s Makeham. “What the retail buyers want to make sure of is they’re actually buying what they’re paying for.”
By tracking trends, produce software can help produce executives react more quickly to changing demand and supply. Instantly, software would show retailers they need more large blueberries. The manager could tweak the model and order more. “Technology provides better information and the agility to react,” says Makeham. “They [retailers] will be assured of receiving the best product at the right time at the right price for the consumer.”
The produce industry has no problem in embracing new technology, as long as the technology can demonstrate a return on investment, says HarvestMark-Trimble’s Athanassiadis. “Unfortunately, there are still too many technologies and ‘solutions’ that are solutions searching for a problem rather than solutions that solve an existing problem,” he says.
Large retailers are almost all using EDI. Medium retailers are beginning to acquire it, says Famous Software’s Hammack. Areas the industry needs to concentrate on the most include making the software easily accessible to the users, hence the development of mobile apps supported by both iPhone and Android. “Data analytics is the new driver for business growth,” she says.
Makeham recommends retailers look beyond the shiny packinghouse equipment and deeper into their supply chain. Grower-packer-shippers using effective enterprise resource software would be in stronger positions to meet retailers’ changing requirements, which often change weekly, he says.
The most pressing needs are addressing the smartphone revolution and enabling those technologies, says Silver Creek’s Reminger. Trends include automation, user-friendly applications, data warehouses and “more and more links between suppliers and distributors and between distributors and their customers,” she says. “Everybody wants data faster to respond to the needs of the supply chain.”
As Millennials move into the decision-making pool, the industry is seeing new technology become more of a factor. “The key is simplicity and functionality,” Reminger says. “If those requirements are met, companies will adapt, and so will the consumer.”
Among the latest trends in produce software for distributors is directed work in the warehouse, building mixed pallets for orders, directing loaders to fill the right product on the pallet for the right order in the most efficient way possible, says Heather Hammack, president of Famous Software LLC, based in Fresno, CA. “Today, we have thousands of ruggedized handheld devices in hundreds of warehouses,” she says. “Mobile device technology is an excellent tool that we can offer our customers to help them create efficiency, accuracy, and improved traceability with their inventory management programs.”
Increasing automated data exchange between retailer and supplier is a major advancement, explains Mick Hetherington, vice president of sales for Prophet North America, Westlake Village, CA. “There is a clear need for richer, more accurate and faster data exchange between systems through the supply chain,” he says. “Crop availability, the growing conditions relevant to a specific consignment, the measured condition of the product as it is harvested and packed for shipment and the conditions the product experienced during shipment, as well as the progress that any consignment is making through the supply chain, all of this data can drive the key decision-making in any fresh produce business and provide the retailer with more confidence in the security of the supply chain.”
Randy Fields, chairman and chief executive of Park City/ReposiTrak, in Park City, UT, describes the “Amazon effect” as galvanizing the industry in a new way. As the retail produce industry cannot compete against Amazon through lower prices (which require lower costs) or increased variety (which adds more complexity to a store’s business), the answer is to fight Amazon with the same technology Amazon uses. “Attempt to bring more technology cost-effectively to your business to better compete with Amazon,” says Fields. “Delivery is driving the need to improve inventories. We are seeing a lot of interest in that. We are providing technology to help with that problem.”
Produce software improvements allow customers to order from suppliers similar to how they order products via Amazon. By default, past orders and standing orders appear in the customers’ profiles, which make for efficiencies and offer the same prices no matter whom the customer speaks with on the telephone, says dProduce Man’s president Charles Shafae.
Inventory management is critical and is becoming easier, says Shafae. dProduce Man’s software is cloud-based, which eliminates the need for expensive in-house systems and makes use easy, he says. “Management of inventory is the most important thing,” says Shafae. “The produce industry really is 99 percent inventory.” When there’s spoilage of an avocado, for example, that box costs $40. “Not a week goes by that we don’t get a request from an existing customer that one of their customers wants EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) or wants to order online,” he says.