In today's fast-paced marketing climate, a merchandising department needs to be able to gather intelligence from the field, put it to immediate use, and then turn the results of that information into action virtually on the spot.
"Manufacturers are demanding more information, and they want to see it summarized quickly so they can react," says Gene Alvarez, program director, retail and distribution information services, META Group, Inc.
David Ginsberg is the national merchandising manager for Casio Inc. a $500 million Dover, N.J.-based subsidiary of Casio Computer Co., Ltd. He is responsible for merchandising Casio's wide variety of consumer electronics products, including palm-sized computers, watches, calculators, and musical keyboards.
Just two years ago, Casio's merchandising department was completely paper-driven. Ginsberg says that it typically took two weeks each month to receive all the reports from the field. "Then we had to spend almost as long reviewing the information and summarizing it into management reports. This was not only time-consuming but was also an expensive process. As we expanded our merchandising efforts Casio's administrative costs went through the roof."
Ginsberg knew that he needed a way to move information from the field to the home office--a problem that could be solved with hardware. He also wanted to develop a system that was easy to use, but powerful enough to collect and provide fast access to data at both ends of the pipeline--the merchandisers and the merchandising department.
"Merchandising should be the eyes and ears of manufacturers and retailers at the store level. We have to ensure that business plans are being properly administered, and we also have to be able to respond quickly to consumer wants and requirements from a processing perspective," notes Ginsberg.
In addition, Ginsberg needed to find a way to reduce costs while increasing his department's access to crucial data.
His team spent almost two years evaluating a variety of hardware and software solutions. They settled on the Windows CE platform early on, because Ginsberg was confident in Microsoft's commitment to CE. Since Casio manufactures CE devices, he has an inside window into the process, and said he was satisfied with the attention and development efforts that Microsoft continues to invest into CE.
Ginsberg also was looking for hardware powered by an operating system that was customizable to some degree by Casio's in-house IT staff--he didn't want a closed, proprietary system which would involve ongoing development costs. CE fit the bill, as any programmer who works with Visual Basic can program CE systems and applications.
For the hardware side of the solution, Ginsberg initially selected the Casio PA 2400, a handheld CE device. He is now in the process of transitioning his team over to the E105, a palm-sized PC with a built in compact flash camera card, which has a smaller footprint and allows his merchandisers to add images to the data they collect.
"For example, a merchandiser can take a picture of a display unit and drop that directly into his report. This lets me virtually look over the shoulders of our merchandisers, and see what is going on in the stores with my own eyes."
The software solution that Ginsberg picked is CSI MobileLink merchandising software from Casio Soft. When this application first came under consideration, it was not owned by Casio, but was developed by another company that has since gone out of business. Casio Soft purchased the product and, under Ginsberg's guidance, reengineered it so significantly that it bears little resemblance to the original application.
The electronic data-collection system was rolled out in October 1998. Ginsberg says it paid for itself within the first year.
"This past fall, for example, CSI MobileLink helped us prove that a major retail chain had not kept its part of a price compliance agreement, saving Casio $125,000 in price adjustments on the spot. In addition, the system saves approximately $50 per merchandiser per month in postal and fax fees, and has allowed us to function with fewer administrative personnel," says Ginsberg.
The biggest plus of the CSI MobileLink system, Ginsberg feels, is its Web reporting capability, which gives him real-time access to detailed reports from the field that he and his staff can make immediate sense of. He can also easily drill down to look at performance within a specific region, chain, store, time period, or product.
Another definite benefit, says Ginsberg, is being able to manage his merchandisers remotely. Ginsberg's department sends out highly detailed deployment assignments every 30 days. Previously, working up these assignments required Ginsberg to write a three- to four-page memo, addressed to the entire force of merchandisers, detailing what each person's assignment and focus would be that month.
Now Ginsberg can also tell who is on or behind schedule, how much time each merchandiser spent in each store--even who did not show up for work that day. This level of insight into field activities and individual merchandisers' performance was simply impossible to measure before CSI MobileLink was implemented, says Ginsberg.
And, believe it or not, the merchandisers are happy too--gathering information is now a less time-consuming chore. Ginsberg says there was virtually no learning curve, and estimates it took a maximum of two days for each merchandiser to be fully comfortable with the new system.
Ginsberg also gives targeted access to the data to Casio's Regional Sales Managers; so that they can review store-level inventory counts, pricing compliance, and other competitive information, and develop their merchandising plans accordingly.
"Prior to development of this kind of marketing device, our response to consumer interest, competition, hot sellers, was--in comparison--so slow and cumbersome. Electronic data collection has sped up this process enormously," says Ginsberg.
In fact the operation has become so fast that there's a bit of a bottleneck on putting all that information to good use.
"We now have to figure out how marketing can respond to the data as quickly as we can collect it," says Ginsberg. "We are all just beginning to learn how to really utilize this technology--what the information we gather actually means and how to properly and rapidly put it to use."
When merchandising is integrated into product planning, and sales and marketing processes, the very essence of what companies can offer becomes more apparent: value for customers.