Magazine Article | July 31, 2006

Handheld Scanners Simplify Inventory

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

A furniture store gains control of inventory and eliminates out-of-stock sales with a Bluetooth-enabled wireless device.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, August 2006

Emerson Furniture, Vermont’s oldest furniture store, sells furniture in a downtown setting on several floors of an old building. The building’s architecture, including its 4-inch-thick wooden floors, creates challenges for company President Peter Johnson as he implements wireless technologies.

Five years ago, Emerson Furniture used handwritten sales slips and employed one full-time person to enter details from the sales slips into a spreadsheet, which was used for tracking sales and inventory. Also, the store’s yearly inventory process included manual counting and reconciliation with the sales spreadsheets. Employees grew apprehensive as inventory time neared, due to the cumbersome and time-consuming process.

The furniture store’s employees frequently encountered discrepancies between the products on the inventory list and those sold. A few times a month, an item was sold (and believed to be in stock) that did not exist in inventory. In this case, the retailer would either find a comparable item to replace the out-of-stock item (which was usually more expensive), or it ordered a replacement item, requiring the customer to wait for the product’s arrival. Neither contingency serviced customers in a manner that would ensure their return for future purchases. Besides, the store’s profit margin was often reduced due to the expense of delivering replacement items with higher price tags.

Johnson sought an open-source inventory management solution, so he could manipulate the software to meet his specific business needs. “I chose Furniture Wizard software with bar code scanners from Palm, which we used to track merchandise from inventory arrival to the showroom and again at the POS,” says Johnson. “While the Palm scanners improved the store’s processing, they did not provide real-time information.” The company didn’t previously track the time taken to complete the inventory process; however, after deployment the duration was reduced to approximately 8 hours for 3 or 4 employees.

To synchronize in-stock items with those sold via the Palm scanner through Furniture Wizard, cradling was necessary; therefore, the sales staff still did not have access to current inventory information while on the sales floor. For example, if one salesperson sold the last item, other associates would not know this item was no longer available until every handheld was synchronized. Furthermore, the scanners were used to check prices and availability of merchandise while accompanying customers to other floors of the building, and the range on the scanners was not consistent through the thick floors in the building. Consequently, four wireless boosters were used to maintain a consistent signal connecting the scanners to Furniture Wizard, which provided inventory and POS information.

Improve Inventory Accuracy
Knowing that Johnson sought more from his current handhelds, representatives from Furniture Wizard suggested that Johnson test the CipherLab CPT-8061 Bluetooth wireless handheld, which he later implemented. Bluetooth technology allows the CPT-8061s to stay connected on all floors of the store. “This handheld provides confidence for employees,” says Johnson. “If the handheld says an item is in stock, they know that the item really is in stock. We were reluctant to sell an item that was listed as the last one in stock, because another employee could have already sold it. We now have greater control of inventory.”

Employees use the CPT-8061 to track the receipt of purchase orders and the delivery of goods, and at the POS. Emerson generates an internal bar code for all merchandise received, but it can cross-reference the store code and the manufacturer’s code on merchandise containing both. In these cases, the salesperson can scan either bar code at the POS to complete the transaction. The cross-referencing enables greater inventory control.

As items are scanned on the sales floor and a sale takes place, sales invoices are awaiting sales representatives at their desks for completion of the sale. “The handheld eliminates the need for the salesperson to leave the customer’s side five or six times throughout the sale, as in the past,” states Johnson. “We now perform inventory four times as often, and it still takes less time than before. One employee completes inventory in 4 hours, enabling the process to be completed four times per year now. We can also complete the process in chunks – we can inventory lamps one day and chairs the next.”