Mobility Services Case Study
Acosta Stacks the Shelves for Success (Cont'd)
The CPG company clients benefit because now with our technology we can more quickly identify out-of-stock problems at the shelf and take rapid action to make those corrections."
Erick Kritsky, Director of Application Development, Acosta
Enhanced data exchange between field workforce and office locations to respond to changing retail environment conditions
Near real-time information exchange enabled through smartphones and the AT&T wireless network in support of customer proprietary retail application
Improved productivity and responsiveness, enhanced customer service and reduced costs
Sales and marketing agency serving consumer packaged goods companies and retailers across the United States and Canada
30,000 employees serve a client base of more than 1,000 manufacturers
Acosta Sales & Marketing is a leading full-service sales and marketing agency in North America, providing outsourced sales, merchandising, marketing and promotional services to manufacturers in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, Acosta has more than 30,000.
Since 1974, Acosta has expanded through acquisitions and assembled a large field workforce responsible for managing thousands of products in retail locations. After an in-depth search for an off-the-shelf solution to integrate new technology into its operations, Acosta developed the proprietary North American Retail System (NARS). This platform uses digital technology to streamline the daily tasks involved in merchandising products at the shelf and introduced mobile devices to Acosta’s field workforce. However, the devices weren’t connected to a single network and lacked real-time connectivity to the office.
Acosta chose to upgrade to HTC Tilt™ 2 Windows® phones and connect its field workforce through the AT&T wireless network. Now the information is fed by the field representatives into Acosta’s NARS application, integrating GPS positioning data and photographs directly into pre-formatted reports and data analysis systems. Wireless connectivity allows for real-time information exchange between field representatives and operational managers throughout the workday. Business-critical product data is shared and analyzed with unprecedented speed and accuracy. Daily tasks are streamlined, productivity is up and mileage reimbursement costs are down.
Leaders in the Aisle
Founded in 1927, Acosta has grown from a local food broker to become the leading outsourced sales and marketing agency serving consumer packaged goods companies and retailers across the United States and Canada.
In a superstore, if we fix a void at the beginning of the month, one single SKU in oral care translates to about $360,000 in sales at the end of the month."
Erick Kritsky, Director of Application Development, Acosta
You have probably seen Acosta representatives on the job without realizing it. Acosta’s services are an integral part of the consumer goods sales process. “It’s an industry that most shoppers don’t know exists,” said Erick Kritsky, Acosta Director of Application Development. When a shopper walks into a neat, well-organized store with precisely placed, up-to-date stock and corresponding promotions, most likely Acosta was there earlier. “We fill the shelves, make sure the correct tag is there, and that clip-ons, end caps or island-style floating displays are all built and properly displayed with the current advertising campaign,” Kritsky explained.
Acosta’s 4,700 field representatives travel daily to the aisles of mass superstores like Walmart, Target and Costco, to grocery chains, drug stores and smaller convenience stores. Acosta’s services depend on the skills of its field representatives and the company hires the best. “They’re all seasoned experts in the retail field,” said Kritsky. Field representatives work to maximize profitability of their clients’ products, ensuring goods are continuously stocked, displayed and promoted.
Updating and Integrating
Today, Acosta represents 66 percent of the number one and number two brands across all measured categories and handles tens of thousands of products. In any given store, the number of different products can reach into the thousands. The challenges of managing an extended field workforce are multiplied not just by the number of products, but also by the number of workers and worksites. As technology advanced so did Acosta’s solution capability, but its growing field workforce still continued to conduct business-critical operations with pencil, paper and fax. Acosta field reps drive their own vehicles from store to store, and mileage reporting alone generated nearly 20,000 manual reports each month. In this highly competitive and cost-sensitive industry, better solutions were essential.
Acosta found there was no off-the-shelf technology solution to serve its field workforce. “We experimented with third-party systems,” said Kritsky, “and the corporate decision was made that Acosta needed to develop its own retail platform.” The company began designing its North American Retail System (NARS), a proprietary enterprise platform developed to support Acosta’s field workforce — and its customers — with new mobile technology.
The first NARS roll-out used a mobile PDA device without a wireless network. Workers could track their activities throughout the day, but then had to use wired connections in the evening to report their results and download new data. The device worked much like a digital pen and paper, unable to leverage technology the way Acosta envisioned.The company needed to exchange information with its field workforce in real-time throughout the workday. “We want our folks in the field to be connected,” Kritsky said.
A Streamlined Process
Acosta chose to upgrade to HTC Tilt™ 2 Windows® phones and connect its field workforce through the AT&T wireless network. This Windows® phone is a powerful device that features a Windows Mobile® 6.5 operating system, a camera and a GPS receiver, and packs double the memory and more processing power than its competition.
Now the NARS platform, connected through the Windows® phone, facilitates the field representative’s workday, from clocking in and mapping locations to receiving specific job instructions, reporting on project completions and maintaining critical inventory status. Tasks once slowed by manual office operations and disconnected information systems are now automated. “It fits us perfectly,” Kritsky said.
Improved efficiency begins the moment field reps log in to work. Acosta worked with AT&T so the GPS receiver records their location and automatically logs mileage driven throughout the day. Before, field teams logged their mileage manually. “We’ve streamlined the process,” said Kritsky. “We take the data coming back from the field and crunch that each night; then at the end of the week we have a report available for the operational managers.” With greater accuracy has come a reduction in mileage reimbursements of 23 percent.
The efficiency extends to every aspect of the field workforce’s services. Once the representative arrives at a store location, they receive what’s called a ‘scripted store call.’ Field reps perform a range of tasks, all supported by the new system. The Windows® phone stores the field representative’s complete and detailed Authorized Product List (APL). Accessible information makes it possible to efficiently place new items, address out-of-stock products and answer business analysis questions.
‘They’re on the Network’
The AT&T wireless network provides near real-time connectivity between representative, manager and client. “There’s a whole operational framework behind what a person does in the stores,” said Kritsky. Information exchange throughout the workday is critical, as Acosta’s in-office operations teams work with clients to evaluate changing data and determine strategies for sales growth. The conclusions from this analysis are then shared with the field representatives as job tasks. “As long as their phone is charged, and they’re on the NARS network,” said Kritsky, “they’re available for any updates or messaging that we want to send them.”
Field representatives also gather valuable information regarding job progress and product status and report back to the office. Again, the process is streamlined. “As soon as they synchronize data with the NARS system, there’s a report that’s pre-formatted for the manager to look at,” Kritsky explained. “So, for example, if we have a new item initiative and part of it is to construct a promotional display, they can build it, take a picture and do a data synchronization. Their manager can retrieve the information, identify the product, pull the report and send it immediately to the client.” The system provides transparency that unifies efforts so the job gets done right.
The field workforce is no longer isolated from the rest of the Acosta team. “Everyone in the field has access to corporate email, so if our CEO sends out a message to the entire Acosta world, they’re going to receive the email,” Kritsky said. “Before they had to wait until they got home at night.” This access to information and communication also extends between Acosta and AT&T. “We needed AT&T to help us with proactive monitoring,” he added. “Throughout the day AT&T issues emails if there’s an outage.”
No Stock, No Sale: Solving the Problem of Voids
CPG companies focus on keeping their stock in stores. “One of their first questions when meeting with a marketing agency like Acosta is ‘how can you address our voids or out-of-stocks,’” said Kritsky. A CPG company can track its product from production to shipment, but it’s out of their hands once it’s delivered to the retail stores.
Acosta’s operations are key to its clients’ success. “The CPG companies benefit,” said Kritsky, “because now with our technology we can more quickly identify out-of-stock problems at the shelf and take rapid action to make those corrections.”
The benefits are considerable. “In a superstore, if we fix a void at the beginning of the month, one single SKU in oral care translates to about $360,000 in sales at the end of the month,” Kritsky said. Acosta can inform a client about a product’s in-store status, and there are further supply chain improvements in the offing with implementation of the next NARS release.
At present, out-of-stock reports are created monthly after compiling data from Acosta field teams, the CPG company and sometimes the retailer. The enhanced NARS application will process a wider range of data nightly, helping field representatives more rapidly assess, predict and respond to out-of-stock products. “Instead of getting monthly data, now the reps will sync up in the morning and will receive a daily update of voids,” Kritsky explained.
With the NARS platform supported by the AT&T wireless network, Acosta’s business has become more efficient. Productivity gains in test markets have reached six percent. In the narrow-margin industry of retail, that qualifies as top-shelf performance.