Best Practices: Building an Empire through Visibility

Empire Distributors Inc. is a wholesale distributor of wine, spirits, beer and bar beverages in the Southeastern United States. Founded in 1940, Empire distributes its products through eight distribution centers located across Georgia and North Carolina.

Empire's Atlanta-based warehouse is its largest, with as many as 40 trucks making up to 700 stops per day to support the needs of 6,000 customers. In monitoring delivery operations at this location, Empire very quickly realized that it required real-time visibility into activities on the road to continue providing optimum levels of service. "If a driver was held up in the morning at the first stop for an hour, we had no way of knowing if we were going to miss time windows ahead," says Dyrc McLeod, director of operations for Empire Distributors. "We couldn't collect information on exceptions as they happened. Instead, drivers would provide us with an update either later in the day or at the end of their shift. If our drivers decided to park for a couple of hours, we also had no way of knowing it."

The only communication that Empire's dispatch staff had with drivers throughout the day was through two-way radio phones, and these provided only limited access to information during the course of the day. Since details on route changes and delays were not received in a timely manner, Empire could not be proactive in managing its delivery processes.

According to McLeod, maintaining the high standards it had set for customer service meant finding a way to achieve a real-time view of delivery activities. "We wanted to see where our trucks were at any given time, understand the remaining portions of the route, and what time windows would be met — or not," he says. "With real-time access to information, we knew we could be much more proactive with our customers and be able to manage our business throughout the day instead of ‘running blind.' We needed some type of visibility into our transportation processes and a way to collect information."

Creating Visibility

After evaluating a number of technology solutions, Empire selected and deployed the Visibility Solution from Cube Route, a Toronto-based solution provider recently purchased by Descartes. Visibility Solution is an on-demand, subscription-based logistics management solution that enables Empire to track and monitor its delivery fleets in real time.

"The one thing I really liked is the Web portal and the universal access it provides to real-time delivery information," says McLeod of Empire's choice to go with Cube Route. "We were up and running within two weeks with a solution that was customized to suit our needs — including reporting — without having to pay upfront for software and hardware. Once we got the drivers trained on using the phones, it was all pretty seamless."

Using GPS-enabled mobile phones, Cube Route initiates visibility the moment an Empire driver departs for the first stop. This automatically updates the planned route and all its associated metrics. Drivers simply push two buttons on the phone on completion of deliveries to report back to the head office. GPS pings are also sent from the phone, automatically updating the location, speed and direction on maps that can be accessed anywhere through a standard Web browser.

"Before Cube Route, we weren't using any type of tracking software," says McLeod. "Now we use GPS and advanced reporting capabilities to achieve real-time visibility into our routes and re-calculate estimated times of arrival (ETA) for customers on the fly." Cube Route provides Empire with such information as the typical amount of time to deliver to a certain customer and the average delivery time, as well as data on customers that fall outside of those delivery times.

At the start of each day, delivery information is automatically downloaded to each driver's phone. Additional data are then collected throughout the day to track elements such as the number of cases per stop, length of each stop and product returns. "This information is a great resource for our sales force and customer service people," says McLeod. "Anyone can log onto the Internet for updates on deliveries and call the customer before they have to call into dispatch. Anywhere from 10 to 15 people log on and access information throughout the day."

Real-time Results

Since Empire began working with Cube Route, McLeod reports that his company has achieved a significant return on investment. With access to real-time information, Empire has realized productivity gains and costs savings through fewer product returns, improved process management, reduction in the number of trucks used and better tracking of customer deliveries.

"Deliveries run a lot smoother now," says McLeod. "We feel we know a lot more about what we're doing. In the past, if a truck left full and came back empty, we didn't really know how much that was costing. We couldn't tell if redistributing routes over different days would make a difference."

Another benefit is improved accountability. "Now that we have access to more information on the road, I can set delivery standards in terms of per-hour service time and enforce driver accountability," he explains. "If a driver falls below the standard we can work on the problem, determine the issue and provide training if necessary."

Empire has also reduced its call center needs and improved customer responsiveness. Whereas a sales or customer service representative used to have to call the transportation department and leave a message to call the driver, delivery information is now accessible online. "No one has to wait for answers," McLeod says.

He adds that the detailed information provided by the system also enables Empire to look beyond day-to-day activities to examine all transportation processes and related costs down to a per-stop level. "We can accumulate information to examine patterns for each route by area, or look at all deliveries, over all days and all regions. This enables us to change our routing structure to better serve the areas needing greater support or to handle expanding needs.

"With Cube Route, I can now compare the profitability of each route," he continues. "I can find more profitable ways to manage smaller orders. The best part is that everything we are doing is invisible to the customer. All they're seeing is better service."

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