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Mobile devices drove beverage distributor to drink

Sometimes mobile devices aren't all they're cracked up to be.

That was pretty much the sentiment of the sales force at Alaska Distributors Co., a Seattle-based wholesaler of alcoholic beverages that has annual sales of $190 million. When Bob Chester took over as information services manager five years ago, the company lacked a comprehensive mobile strategy. Instead, each salesperson was saddled with several different wireless devices, some of which were a pain to use.

When a customer placed a new order, the salesperson had to use a bulky bar-code reader to scan each product code. Because the company deals with more than 4,000 products, each represented by a separate bar code (all of which are stored in a foot-thick binder), scanning for each order was a time-consuming endeavor that cut into selling time.

What's more, product orders needed to be transmitted to the company's mainframe over analog modems. That often meant spending time driving around searching for pay phones, which have become harder to find as cell phones have become more prevalent.

"It got to the point where our salespeople would place big orange stickers on a map whenever they found an analog pay phone, just so they wouldn't waste time driving around looking for one," Chester says.

The beverage-distribution industry is highly fragmented, giving a regional company like Alaska Distributors few ways to differentiate itself from larger competitors. The

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company serves about 6,000 retailers in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, selling beverages like Robert Mondavi wine and Coors beer. In some states, like Washington, prices and selling practices are strictly regulated by state government.

"Because of that, the difference between us and the competition is never price. The only thing that gets us market share is out-serving our competitors," Chester says.

To do that, salespeople need to spend more time selling and less time fiddling with wireless gadgets. Aside from the unwieldy scanners, most salespeople also were in the habit of carrying pagers and cell phones. Monthly billing costs were spiraling out of control, prompting Chester to search for a way to consolidate mobile devices and reduce expenses. The company eventually settled on the Handspring Treo 300 phones from Sprint. Alaska Distributors began using the Treo 18 months ago.

The company equipped about 200 sales reps and merchandisers with the Treo, which acts as a pager, cell phone and e-mail client all in one, as part of its participation in Sprint's beta test of the product. The device is built around the Palm operating system. Coupled with Sprint's PCS Business Connections Enterprise Edition software, the Treo enables users to access corporate intranets, download graphics of in-store displays, and reply to e-mail. Alaska Distributors users have real-time mobile access to inventory levels, sales goals, point-of-sale materials and other resources on the company's intranet.

Most important, new-order information can be sent immediately. Many of the salespeople use PCS Wireless Web modems, in conjunction with a Windows CE handheld device, to send data across Sprint's 3G network. That has eliminated the need to search for pay phones.

Chester says Alaska Distributors is rolling out the latest iteration of the phone, the Handspring Treo 600, in 2004. The Treo 600 includes an improved Web browser, supports Java applications, and enables querying of Active Server Pages. Individual Web pages are being developed for each sales rep and merchandiser. These pages are stocked with information about customer accounts, product lines and time-sensitive data. Alaska Distributors plans to develop specialized applications, including one for merchandising schedules and another that enables the device to double as a wand for scanning merchandise in coolers.

Prior to switching to the Treo, the company outfitted some members of the sales team with clamshell pocket PCs by NEC. Known as the NEC MobilePro 900, the device was equipped with a Sprint 3G wireless air card, enabling the sales force to transmit orders wirelessly and send confirmations directly to customers.

"It was a lot better than hunting for pay phones," Chester says.

The NEC device also let users synchronize e-mail, share data and share files. Still, the device failed to live up to Chester's expectations.

"You really can't do e-mail with the NEC because the pocket Outlook is pretty weak. Plus, it's a metered cost, so it could be expensive" for high-volume users, Chester says.

More and more enterprises are expected to rely on mobile technology to assist their sales teams this year. AMR Research predicts that 33% of mobile enterprises will roll out sales force automation software in 2004. Sprint expects to have plenty of competition, too. AT&T Wireless plans to roll out a similar product this year. Nextel Communications Inc. began offering high-end data applications on a handset in 1996, and the company completed the national rollout of its Direct Connect service last year.

About the author: Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer in Richmond, Va.

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Read a review of the Treo 600 and four other mobile devices.

This was first published in January 2004

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