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3 ways distributors can innovate with smarter data and software

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Survival of the fittest is the best way to describe today’s wholesale distribution industry. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sped up the technology evolution in the business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) e-commerce spaces, forcing distributors to reinvent themselves to remain relevant.

As a wholesale distributor, you have a unique advantage over the manufacturers and retailers that are marginalising the playing field by integrating your supply chains and building your own direct-to-consumer (DTC) channels.

You have the in-house deep product knowledge, service capabilities and technical expertise that manufacturers need to outsource to go DTC.

By moving quickly, it’s possible to increase market share and increase tight margins, create deeper customer relationships, and retain and seek new competitive advantages by adopting smart technology solutions.

This means you must rethink processes and models, making use of data to maintain market share and beat the competition.

This article shares three ways you can innovate with smarter data and software technology.

Here’s what we cover:

1. Innovate with value-added services

2. Become a real-time distributor

3. Innovate with inventory

Servitisation is how you can incorporate value-added services to your usual offering. You may already incorporate simple services such as product selection, picking, packing, and shipping.

Technology can help you to identify new service opportunities that could increase profitability and differentiation from the market.

To start, your approach must be data-driven to define and create new services. A business management solution that can manage, date and deliver data as one view of all actions that are happening throughout the customer lifecycle serves as a solid foundation.

From there, advanced services can be explored, such as:

  • Product assembly and installation
  • Product customisation
  • Maintenance and quality inspection
  • In-house repair
  • Consulting
  • Training and education

Technology can also help to execute these services with tight operational margins. For example, virtual training can happen through connected mobile phones, tablets or laptops.

Maintenance and repair opportunities can be monitored through embedded sensors in products that alert to possible downtime.

And functions such as 3D printing allow you to offer tightly customised products at rapid speed.

Today’s customers demand real-time service delivery, and this is something you need to be able to offer.

Digital transformation makes it possible for greater operational flexibility and insight into customer need. You can be online 24/7, offering your customers a self-service experience where they can place orders, update quantities and schedule at their convenience.

Real-time analytics are essential for handling logistics in this all-hours agile manner.

Historical data doesn’t provide the accuracy and deep insight needed to meet current productivity and efficiency demands.

With easy-to-use data, in conjunction with analytical capabilities, you could better plan and forecast demand – improving customer service, reducing costs and informing changes in workflows.

To make the best use of data to drive informed and timely decisions, you should say goodbye to legacy siloed systems, which could prevent information and insight from being used across the business.

They should be replaced by a robust business management solution.

The built-in automation therein can power always-on operations and inform actions based on changes in demand or other factors.

In addition, connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT) allow you to use connected devices, products and tools equipped with sensors that can talk to each other, collect and store data.

You can then partner with manufacturers and retailers to access data in real time.

Real-time connectivity with manufacturers and retailers can open a new window of inventory management for you.

Connectivity and the ability to use data in new ways has ushered in a new era of supply chain visibility.

The digital world allows you to dynamically connect with your partners. With in-transit visibility, you can track shipments as they move, with any delay triggering an immediate alert.

Business management solutions can track items in real-time through RFID tags or barcodes that can be scanned or identified.

This provides visibility into information such as inventory levels, expiration dates and location, which can support demand planning and forecast management.

You can also use analytics to analyse historic sale patterns to predict with accuracy patterns that can help plan when you need to build up inventory or scale down and run on less inventory, depending on demand.

This allows businesses to make commitments or allocations based on your supply since they know where and when inventory will be available.

With advances in IoT, information such as inventory temperature, weather and GPS location could answer questions such as where exactly a product or material is located, which areas are causing delays in the supply chain, and whether certain processes are working better than others.

Technology can also support you in reducing costs through transformative processes such as 3D printing. This could allow you to carry an unlimited number of customisable products, whether printed in-house or via a 3D printer provided to the customer or buyer.

As part of the increasingly digital supply chain, the business strategy must be realigned with retailers and manufacturers, and look towards ecommerce.

So far, many wholesalers and distributors have been slow to build digital storefronts or B2B ecommerce capabilities because the corporate buyers they have dealt with have been phoning, faxing or using other old-school ways of making orders.

This is quickly changing as manufacturers and retailers become more tech-savvy and demanding.

B2B e-commerce can improve communication with retailers and manufacturers, making it easier to order from each other.

As a result, your business could strengthen itself against the competition with more effective and efficient ecommerce operations.

In summary

The effort required to refashion day-to-day operations to survive the present circumstance is of course important. But the most forward-thinking businesses see disruption as an opportunity to restructure for the future.

There are several ways that you can win in an ever-changing landscape – and they all start with employing smarter data.

Data without context is just noise.

Companies can generate huge amounts of data and if employees are bogged down in it without context, it all becomes meaningless.

There needs to be concerted efforts in making sure there are trained people using and interpreting the data.

If legacy technology is used for the day-to-day business, aim to build new digital transformational systems in parallel with legacy systems, taking advantage of historic data that could be extremely valuable going forward.

Ways can be found to plot organisational maturity for guidance on where to elevate digital capabilities. This will mean analysis on how to drive a digital culture, organise and resource, and how to invest and take advantage of customer-driven insight.

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