by Michael E. Kanell

Chuck Latham Associaties Turns to PDAs, Custom Software to Keep Tabs on Retail Displays

Nov 15, 20036 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

Ask about technology, and Chuck Latham will describe the places he stumbled, the time and the money he wasted finding out what wouldn’t work, and how he learned to take a good thing today while keeping a lookout for something great tomorrow.

At the moment, Chuck Latham Associates, a retail merchandising company, depends on handheld computers. And while the PDAs are far more advanced than the clipboards and pencils with which the company started, Latham has made conscious choices to stay slightly behind the tech curve by avoiding costly wireless and high-end hardware options.

The company gives its customers information they need but are unlikely to have the time or resources to discover for themselves. It gives manufacturers daily reports from the stores that sell their products. Using the data, Latham’s customers can find out how well different offerings are selling, whether the store has put the cans or packages on the shelves the manufacturer paid for, and whether promotional displays are set up correctly.

The service fills a critical function for companies both large and small. A vendor may spend beaucoup bucks designing an eye-catching display. It may pay a tidy sum for great placement in the store. But it all goes to naught if some poorly paid, badly motivated or inadequately supervised stocking clerk doesn’t put everything where it should be.

For years, Latham says, the task of tracking displays was strictly low-tech. Now Latham employees roll into a store and head for the customers’ products?PDAs in hand. In an average four-hour session, they count cans and packages, they monitor placement, they check displays. And they note it all in the handhelds. Later, they insert a modem into the handheld, plug in the phone line and?with a couple more taps?download the data. In moments, the information is in a server and on a website that is accessible to the manufacturer.

Early Miscues

But getting to this point required numerous decisions about what technology to use and how to implement it. In his first foray into the post-clipboard era (about four years ago), Latham started with laptops and Lotus Notes software. But the laptops were expensive, their battery life was short, and they were cumbersome for employees to use in the stores.

Next Latham tried a Palm OS-based Handspring PDA with 16MB of memory running custom software to synchronize with Notes, but found that the solution was too rigid. Latham’s customers needed more than just checks in boxes. They needed descriptions and details of what was going on in the stores, on the shelves, in the stockrooms. The Handspring could hold data from just three stores before the reps would need to run off and download the information.

For a third attempt a little more than two years ago, Latham switched to 200 leased PDAs running Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system and using Microsoft’s SQL Server database in conjunction with tools from Unique Solutions and Extended Systems. Unfortunately, the PDAs proved defective, and it took the vendor three months to repair them. Before the end of that trial, Latham says, he “had everybody writing down the data and faxing it in. I had to hire temps to keypunch it into the database. It was ugly.”

Fixing Flaws

But while the hardware had problems, the software was doing the job. Unique Solutions provides applications for collecting the data, and Extended Systems provides the software that transfers the data between handheld and server. The first round of software from his new partners still had a few flaws, however. Sometimes the data transfer from handheld to server would go slowly. Sometimes data would disappear. But such hiccups are par for the course with new systems. The question always is: How fast do the vendors remove the bugs? In this case, Latham says, his partners answered with the necessary fixes.

Beyond choosing partners, Latham needed to address other choices before the project took off. One of the first was what kind of device to use. Skipping high-end, ruggedized PDAs in favor of $300 Dell PDAs would allow him to save hundreds of dollars per unit (at the acceptable risk of a few broken units). Insurance on the PDAs was another issue. Getting coverage that would replace any malfunctioning device among his 180 handhelds would run the company about $12,000 a year. So Latham decided that PDAs such as these don’t break that often.

Then there was wireless. While a hot technology, Latham couldn’t make the business case for it?at least not yet. Cost was a big factor. The added money for wireless might make sense if his customers needed real-time updates?and were willing to pay a premium. But they aren’t?at least for now. Manufacturers do want up-to-the-minute data, but they don’t necessarily need it updated all day, every day.

“We could go in every day, but you could spend your whole day in front of a computer monitor. That’s ridiculous,” says Willie Wallace, vice president of sales and marketing at Radio Systems, a manufacturer of pet training and containment devices and one of Latham’s largest customers. “I’d have to hire a team of people just to watch the data.”

Wallace also notes that with real-time data, you could become so flooded with information that you can’t move at all. The opposite might also apply: With real-time updates, there is the danger of becoming like an out-of-control day trader?instantly reacting to each shard of information without waiting to get enough of the picture to make a sensible decision.

Still, Latham is looking up the wireless path. He wants eventually to communicate with his field reps through a wireless version of the handhelds. And if the technology does get sufficiently cheap and mature, it could help Latham solve some challenges particular to his business. For example, 70 percent of his employees are part-time. Many are soccer moms?women whose childcare responsibilities limit them to working when school or camp is in session. And because they are covering stores in 42 states and parts of Canada, they pose a special management challenge. The issue is how to get those employees to hit the right places at the right times and get the information back to a central server when the manufacturer is expecting it to arrive. Latham believes that, eventually, the handheld itself will be the tool that lets the company makes those arrangements.

But not yet.