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Taking It To The Web
For some time now, jan/san distributors of all sizes have used computer-based warehouse management systems (WMS) and software to track their inventory and effectively allocate customer orders.
These systems, which vary from simple to complex, use different technology and tracking software to effectively organize a distributor’s warehouse organization in an effort to streamline the ordering and shipping procedures, as well as produce reports on their customers’ past purchases and future needs.
While WMS has helped many jan/san distributors better organize their product stock and grow their businesses through accurate, up-to-date accounting, there are still ways for distributors to improve upon their management systems, however.
And one of those improvements may be to change to a Web-based WMS — an emerging technology that has caught on in other distribution industries but has yet to capture the interest of jan/san distributors.
Simply put, Web-based WMS differ from non-Web-based applications in that distribution houses can perform all of their warehousing management needs and more through the Internet. That means distributors are now able to pay an affordable monthly fee and pick from a handful of Web-based software developers to help run their operations. The vendor hosts and maintains the application and delivers the software as a service.
And because most Web-based WMS use only a simple Internet browser, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, this means jan/san distributors can manage their warehouses from any computer, at any time, anywhere.
The advantages to switching over from an internal, non-Web-based WMS to a Web-based one are plentiful, says Lee Boylan, director of marketing for BScaler, a Milpitas, Calif.-based company that specializes in enterprise resource planning software packages, which include Web-based WMS.
“First, users can be anywhere there’s a computer on the Internet and do business day or night,” Boylan explains. “Second, warehouse personnel can do their job with a very simple PC that has no specialized software.”
And when improvements need to be made to a Web-based WMS, companies that host Web-based WMS simply schedule a time when the system is not in heavy use — such as at night or on the weekend — to make the changes.
And as an added bonus, these improvements and upgrades are covered by the distributor’s subscription, meaning a jan/san distributor would incur no extra costs for added functionality and a more effective program.
Still, there are more advantages to Web-based WMS — such as a fail-safe backup program built into the system.
In many cases, Web-based WMS are bundled together with other software and technology that aids distributors in their overall business, instead of having different programs and systems that run separately and may not communicate with each other — or worse, require additional equipment and servers.
Reluctance To Change
As with any new technology, some reluctance from jan/san distributors is to be expected.
Sanford Leavy, president of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.-based City Supply Co., Inc., questions the reliability of a system based solely through the Internet.
“I have the same concerns with it that I would with any Web-based service,” he explains. “I would not be comfortable with the daily operations of my business dependent on the reliability of our Internet connection. Added to this vulnerability would be the financial strength of the remote provider along with the usual dangers of dishonesty, physical safety of the data, infrastructure at their end. All in all, it would not be the basket that I would like to place all of my eggs.”
But for those willing to make the change to a Web-based management system, there are a number of things to look for, says Steve Epner, president of St. Louis-based Brown Smith Wallace Consulting Group.
“First, make sure the company you are considering has had a satisfactory SAS-70 audit done,” he says.
SAS-70, which stands for Statement on Auditing, are thorough audits that measure the effectiveness of a service organization’s internal controls and data security safeguards.
“And while many may think that security is important, it is actually the least critical element,” Epner says, adding that the companies that provide services like a Web-based software system, usually have stellar security safeguards in place. “The most important element is making sure they have solid backup recovery.”
Because a distributor’s information is kept with the service provider, Epner says a distributor must have two sources of power and two ways of getting to the Internet in case power or one of the company’s Internet connections go out.
Most service companies achieve these goals by having two identical hubs in geographically different locations, each handling half of the workload but capable of shouldering all of the work in case one hub goes down for whatever reason, Epner says.
Once a distributor overcomes the reluctance of going to the new technology, the benefits can be abounding. In most cases, the most significant change is simply swapping out old WMS for simple, Internet-ready PCs, says Boylan.
“The main change in the warehouse is to move out the old computer and bring in a rugged PC (or several) hooked up to the Internet,” he says.
“Reluctance can be a good thing, if it means being careful,” says Boylan.
Web-based WMS helps streamline a company’s operation, letting them grow without hiring more people and reducing unnecessary inventory and stock-outs. Those, in the world of distribution are considered competitive advantages.
Steven Potter is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.
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