Listen up!

Consumers are notoriously fickle, and they tend to want what they want exactly when they want it. Whatever it is they're looking for — whether it's a garden hose, a jellyfilled doughnut, a windshield wiper or a bag of dog food — if they don't find what they want, they'll take their business elsewhere.

Having the right products on store shelves and in restaurants' freezers is a responsibility that distribution centers (DCs) take seriously, but as the pace of business has quickened, getting the right orders delivered 95 times out of 100 just isn't good enough any more. With margins in the grocery and retail industries razor-thin, having 5% of your customers leaving empty-handed is an unacceptably high percentage.

"We have restaurant customers who are ordering today for products on their menu tonight, so there's a sense of urgency to make sure the orders are picked, delivered and received properly," explains Steve Fasulka, warehouse manager of U.S. Foodservice (www.usfoodservice.com), Pittston division. The company is a $19.8 billion wholesale food distributor for such restaurant chains as Chili's, Damon's and Pizzeria Uno, with 82 DCs nationwide.

As one of the country's largest food distributors, U.S. Foodservice offers 43,000 products, so mis-picks and shorts were a problem the company needed to solve efficiently. It found that solution by implementing voice recognition in its DCs.

To date, U.S. Foodservice has installed voice technology from Voxware Inc. (www.voxware.com) in 28 of its DCs, with plans to roll it out to 25 more DCs this year, and to the rest in 2006. And the impact of the voice systems has been significant — a 75% reduction in mis-picks, according to Chuck Ernst, director, warehouse systems for U.S. Foodservice.

The actual selection process has not changed at all, except that the selectors now wear wireless voice-powered computers that let them hear their directions instead of having to read them, Fasulka says. "The voice system directs you to the location. When you arrive at the location, you're required to voice input the proper check code. If you don't, you can't proceed from there. You have to be at the correct physical location to move on with the system," he states.

Previously, selectors occasionally might pick from a top level instead a bottom level, or would pick to the left or to the right of the location, and sometimes even pick the same bay number in a different aisle, Fasulka remembers. "Because the voice system is focusing them on one specific location which has a random three-digit check code, they're being directed exactly to the slot."

Like U.S. Foodservice, Roundy's Inc. has seen an improvement in selection accuracy — from 95% up to 98%-99%, says Jeff Burkhardt, project manager, warehouse systems for the $4.3 billion grocery wholesaler. What's more, thanks to a new paperless pick system, which eliminates the use of case labels, the company is enjoying a 5-10% increase in performance as well.

Roundy's is using voice recognition technology from Vocollect (www.vocollect.com) at all five of its DCs, located in the Midwest. At the Milwaukee DC, where Burkhardt is located, the company employs 125 selectors that use voice to pick an average of 1,750 orders per day.

"Voice technology has improved our accuracy drastically," Burkhardt says. "We no longer have to spend time going to the stores and investigating whether they received the order or not. That's one of the benefits of the voice system — it can tell you if something has been picked or not."

At Dunkin' Donuts' Mid-Atlantic Distribution Center (www.dunkindonuts.com), the company has been able to achieve 99.94% accuracy on dry goods — and that's on 285,000 pieces, notes Craig Setter, executive vice president and COO of the DC. Thanks to its use of Voxware technology and the layout of a new facility, the Dunkin' Donuts DC has gone from 21 hours of picking down to nine to 10 hours. The company has also seen an 80% reduction in damaged goods.

Perhaps the ultimate endorsement of voice recognition comes from the selectors themselves. After initial resistance to the voice systems, selectors at U.S. Foodservice found the systems have improved their productivity. Since 30% of their pay is incentive-based, that means the voice recognition technology is putting more money into their pockets, notes Fasulka. "Today, they wouldn't pick without it."

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