Wednesday 22nd Nov 2017 - Logistics Manager

Get ready to rummage

Back in the early 1990s that august body the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions Association (VICS) gathered its first working party and produced its first standards for floor ready merchandise (FRM). It was a simple idea – instead of fashion lines arriving folded in boxes to be ironed, hung and tagged instore, the goods would be ready to slide straight from the delivery truck to the display rail.

Numerous working party hours and many standards later the concept is pretty firmly established. Standardised hangars and plastic bags ensure that garments from any part of the world can whizz through the automatic sortation systems at cross-docking facilities and wing their way to the shop floor in the least possible time. Staff no longer have to spend hours in unpacking, sorting, rehanging or debagging, they simply lift garments from A to B and carry on selling.

Packed to stack
In the grocery world, ECR, the efficient consumer response organization, is applying similar standards to create a world of retailready packaging (RRP) whereby goods can be moved directly from distribution centre to supermarket shelf without the need for staff to unpack and stack merchandise in between. The Institute for Grocery Distribution, working with ECR, has produced similar tomes to VICS from equally learned working parties seeking to streamline and standardise such operations.

It should all be slick and simple but, having recently thumbed through the Institute of Grocery Distribution report on RRP produced last year and noted its warnings about the need for good housekeeping instore, I took rather more note of the state of my local supermarket shelves than usual on my next visit. And I can confirm that the two dozen or so worthy members of the ECR UK RRP working party are quite right – all those nicely designed outer cases which make it so easy for staff to fill the shelves are not removed when they’re empty and make it difficult for customers to access product on shelves, especially if they are juggling a shopping basket and hand-held scanner.

The neat RRP boxes are also not always quite the same size as the available space so adjacent merchandise gets squeezed into a narrower slice and matching product to price tag can be challenging, as can reaching the last remaining item from the adjacent facing which has worked its way to the back of the RRP box.

But I’m probably nitpicking. RRP is clearly good for business, according to the ECR UK figures, Sainsbury found sales increased by 7.7 per cent when it introduced display ready merchandise units for carbonated drinks, while Asda’s RRP project for chilled products saw sales of cooked meats increase by 4.8 per cent. The main reason for these uplifts is improved stock availability as staff can quickly find products in the back room and even more quickly put them on the shelf.

With unready retail packaging, outer cartons are likely to be plain brown anonymous cardboard and certain to be ignored by staff looking to fill as many gaps on the shelves as quickly as they can – hence the likelihood of them being left in the stockroom and the shelf remaining empty. This is where RFID has scored in the Wal-Mart scheme – helping to make the unready boxes more visible to hardpressed or poorly-motivated shelf-fillers.

Carried to its logical conclusion RRP could see many more display-ready racks stacked full of products simply wheeled into place, as already happens with crates of milk in numerous supermarkets. These reusable assets are obvious candidates for RFID ensuring that goods are displayed in the right date order or wheeled to the correct location regardless of shelf-filler training or apathy.

One could imagine similar RRP racks in future – complete fish counters with elegant centrally-created and standard displays, mouth-watering soft fruit offerings or wickedly indulgent cake racks. All perfectly arranged on reusable display frame, presenting new challenges for the logistics sector with delivery timed to hit peak traffic flows and quantities matched to precise consumer demand to minimise wastage.

But then I can’t help wondering when the last two or three cartons of milk are left in the display ready cage and it is time to wheel in the new one, what happens to the stragglers? And what’s more, shoppers like fresh produce and have an irritating tendency to rummage for the latest best-before dates.

Perhaps shelf-fillers have a future after all. Time saved in quickly filling, will be spent in tidying products disarranged by those inconvenient customers.