As convenience store customer expectations change, so, too, must the approach of distributors like Harbor Wholesale Foods.

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Technology and the elevation of customer expectations

The fundamentals of customer service stand the test of time, but the methods to deliver it do not. Essential principles like “putting the customer first” never go out of style, but the strategies to achieve it do, influenced by available tools, the same tools that influence the expectations of the customer.

Like technology.

“For a retailer in the 1920’s, good service might have meant spending time with a customer in the store, walking the shelves, and getting, along the way, a sense for that consumer’s desires, present and future,” says SSCS Vice President of Sales, Shawn Herrick. “It took a little while, but it met the consumer’s expectations for customer service. It was a more leisurely time, but with the advent of technology, customer expectations have elevated significantly, especially in terms of speed and accuracy.”

For Harbor Wholesale Foods and most businesses that fall under the umbrella of the convenience store industry, the urgency to adapt technology reached a tipping point at the turn of the 1980’s. This is when customer expectations for service rose rapidly fueled by computers—and eventually, devices—that were easier for the inexperienced to understand and use. It’s an era when many technology companies addressing vertical markets, like SSCS, were born.

Technology and the modern wholesaler

For distributors like Harbor Wholesale Foods, whose continued growth over the decades resulted from an “all-in” obsession with providing superior customer service, adapting to the technology paradigm shift of the 80’s was challenging, but ultimately proved transformative in a positive way.

“It seemed like a lot of things, not just technology, were changing at this time,” states Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Harbor Wholesale, Ryan Peters. “Everyone was on the go; people wanted access to products faster; the popularity of c- stores was on the rise, as a result. The consumer wanted convenience, and stores saw technology as a way to deliver it. They maybe didn’t exactly know details, but it didn’t matter. That was their expectation; it was our mission to meet it.”

Though much foresight derived from decades of wholesaling experience obviously contributed to the decision, Harbor also tested focus groups and gathered information from convenience store customers to understand how to best meet their needs in the emerging digital age. Trends soon began to emerge, one of the most convincing being that efficient c-stores generated repeat business and, in the right markets, could become kind of a center of their community. This was good news not only for the store, but for Harbor. “Healthy, profitable convenience stores are good wholesaling customers for the long haul,” says Peters. “That’s a win-win and motivated us to make it happen.”

Over time, Harbor made prudent, informed investments in technology and materials handling systems—not as their own means, but as a means to provide the best, most accurate order and supply process, in a non-disruptive way. “You’re trying to enhance the customer’s established work processes with speed and accuracy, not replace procedures completely,” notes Peters. “You’re trying to simplify things, not make them more complicated.”

Technology and the right level of service

Today Harbor provides inventory out of two regional distribution centers—one in Lacey, Washington, and one in Roseburg, Oregon. In these warehouses, Vocollect picking technology streamlines workflow and accuracy and the Integrated Trailer Builder System simplifies load and route planning for its fleet of nearly 70 temperature controlled trucks and vans, each GPS managed and routed.

Other high tech tools at Harbor’s disposal include an Advanced Ordering System (AOS) that includes an ordering guide, a built-in scanning solution, and electronic order transmission. Using Harbor’s Web-based customer portals, customers can—among other things—review and modify open orders, view history, and print invoices.

Combined with the expertise of its category managers, sales representatives, customer service staff, and delivery drivers, Harbor’s use of technology in support of its customers has helped position it as a premier wholesaler in the Pacific Northwest, serving a mix of small to medium-sized operators, some of them “mom-and-pop” stores, many of whom rely on distributor partners for the right level of service support. When a Harbor integration team visits a convenience store, part of their job is determining what their needs are. It varies.

“Some sites may not have the systems or the infrastructure in place to handle and review pricing and product mix, so they rely on us to do some of the heavy lifting,” says Peters.

Technology and the right back office system

Optimally, however, the convenience store will have a back office system in place, like SSCS’s Computerized Daily Book. This allows the store to be the master of their own domain when it comes to inventory management, reviewing product mixes, EDI invoicing, computer assisted ordering, determining what to purchase based on history, and managing margins. This is in addition to streamlining the daily work that the store does, which isn’t a primary focus of Harbor’s support and service.

Actually, Harbor Wholesale consultants are more than happy when they find an operation that is running a robust back office that handles inventory and pricing information at the item level.

“When we find out a customer has a back office that provides item level inventory detail in an electronic invoicing format compatible with our own systems, it’s ideal,” states Peters. “It makes our job so much easier—not only because it helps guarantee a seamless order and receiving process through integrated data transfer, but it usually indicates a familiarity with the role of technology on the part of the operator, which means the basics are already covered, and we can move faster moving their business forward.”

These efficiencies impact the convenience store on a daily, if not minute by minute basis, but the data collected, curated, and organized during this process also provides long term benefits to the site, a good way to project future profitability and more. Harbor Wholesale’s knowledge of the industry and comfort with data industry-related sales data also positions it to offer a number of services that don’t quite fall under the umbrella of the daily convenience store procedures. We’ll look a little more deeply into these services, in the third and final part of this profile.

To continue reading Part 3, click here.