Last month, I attended a new conference, the Hardlines Technology Forum sponsored by the American Hardware Manufacturer’s Association, who used to sponsor the National Hardware Show and now has its own show. And despite having little familiarity with the technologies being discussed, I quickly recognized the possibilities, and limitations, for our industry.
I know everyone is probably groaning under the weight of their current conference/trade show schedule, and April is certainly not good timing for us. So don’t worry, no one in our industry is at the point where we actually need to attend the conference yet, but smart companies will start investigating and preparing for adoption of such things as UCCNet and data synchronization.
I am by no means an expert on this, but basically, the conference discussed how to synchronize data — such as product descriptions, price, promotion start date, possible delivery dates, UPC, etc. — between suppliers and vendors via computer-based programs that, when implemented to the fullest, allow computers to handle all product ordering, invoicing, payment, etc. The idea is for more accurate ordering and processing to handle the pressures of just-in-time inventory, making sure the supplier receives the order when needed for processing and delivery and the vendor receives only the amount of product needed.
Adopting a UCCNet platform is a fairly long and detailed process that many hardgood suppliers for large chain stores are currently undergoing. It can either be done in-house by purchasing software and hiring employees or through companies dedicated to UCCNet implementation. Either way, it mandates a substantial shift in business practices.
Using a UCCNet platform sounds pretty complicated and does require a fairly substantial amount of time and money to implement. After all, you have to develop product descriptions for all of your products, feed those into the program, have them approved by the vendor and then maintain their accuracy. This is not something you can jump up and do tomorrow. Plus, there are some real challenges specific to our industry, such as independents not barcoding plants, everyone using one SKU per pot size and variable numbers of product per package (e.g., 16-20 baskets per cart depending on size). Additionally, most greenhouses would have to develop some way, probably RFID-based, to count the product as it exits the greenhouse.
I’m not denying the fact that total UCCNet implementation will be a challenge for growers. But those producing for the largest chain retailers are quickly approaching a time when they won’t be given an option. According to recent press releases (see Headlines, page 14), Lowes and Home Depot have mandated UCCNet implementation for all suppliers by 2005, stating that products will not be accepted otherwise.
And lest you think the news is all bad, there are some real benefits to technologies such as UCCNet. The first and most obvious being quick, accurate product ordering. You wouldn’t have to wait for a buyer-generated order or PO; the vendor’s computer would automatically generate an order once inventory fell below a set level. Payment, likewise, would come swiftly. Once your order has been sent, your computer would automatically generate an invoice and send it via the UCCNet program to the vendor who could automatically verify product receipt and issue a request for payment, even automatically depositing the money into your account.
With all these benefits, implementation would be a no-brainer, except that independents are not now and may never be ready for technology such as this. As their partner, the responsibility of helping them will probably fall on your shoulders. Luckily, by then, you’ll have lots of implementation models from larger growers thanks to the big boxes. As for the large growers, my advice is look to fruit and vegetable suppliers for models. They will face many of the same challenges our industry will face, only they will likely be caught up in the first round of implementation.