Working it out at HTF: Retailers and suppliers collaborate on technology initiatives

IN SYNCH From left, moderator John Stelzer of Sterling Commerce is joined by Kay Williams of Do it Best, Brett Hammers of Orgill, Michelle Adams of Lowe’s and Greg Linder of True Value.

MEMPHIS, TENN. —Stephen Hainey and Jim Rohde from Design House were first-time attendees at the Hardlines Technology Forum (HTF) this year. Since they do different jobs—Hainey runs distribution and Rohde is head of IT for the decorative plumbing and outdoor living manufacturer—they followed different seminar tracks at the annual technology conference. Their company is already synchronizing its data with Lowe’s, and both men say they’re fully behind the effort.

“We need to move towards global trade numbers,” said Rohde. “That’s what it takes to do business with the big boys. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

When data synchronization was formally introduced to the vendor community in 1998, many saw it as a curve ball, and an expensive one at that. Attendees at previous HTF conferences wrung their hands over data synch mandates by Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Wal-Mart. But suppliers are now reconciled to exchanging product data with their retail partners. There have been lots of hitches, however, and the conference provided a format for trading partners to air their grievances and work on solutions to streamline data exchange.

There was also plenty of time for networking at the four-day conference, held at the Peabody Hotel from April 21 to 24. The event organizer, the American Hardware Manufacturers Association, stationed a retailer at separate “networking tables” on opening night, and vendors took full advantage of the opportunity. Howard White, manager of sourcing and vendor management for Home Depot, seemed astonished by his constant stream of visitors. “I’m not used to being this popular,” he said.

Home Depot made no formal presentations this year, and Ace Hardware did not send anyone to the conference. But Lowe’s, Do it Best and True Value each led separate “How to” sessions for their existing and prospective vendors, sharing information on current initiatives, future plans and pet peeves. They were joined by a representative from Orgill for the Retail Panel, one of the high-lights of the annual conference.

Unlike previous years, there were no major announcements of new IT mandates from the retail panelists. RFID is not on anyone’s near horizon, and neither Do it Best nor True Value is ready to start synchronizing their data with vendors. But Do it Best will launch a new vendor portal next month, and this will enable its suppliers to register for its markets and market bulletins, check on contracts, freight terms, warehouse and drop ship logistics, and other functions. Vendor scorecards will soon follow.

The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based co-op is implementing a supply chain solution that gives it real time visibility, from purchase order to warehouse receiving. Do it Best is also trying out collaborative purchasing and forecasting replenishment with some of its vendors, said Kay Williams, vp-information technology. “I think there’s opportunity for more vendors to get involved,” Williams said.

Both Do it Best and True Value are putting in a visible supply chain solution, through Sterling Commerce.

According to True Value’s Greg Linder, director of supply chain operations., the Chicago-based co-op now does collaborating on purchasing with approximately 100 of its key vendors. When asked about his plans for data synch, Linder said he’d rather have his suppliers focus on the basics right now. “We have a lot of receiving people crawling over boxes, trying to find out where the barcode is,” he said. “You can synch all the data in the world, but it’s [data] accuracy that keeps us up at night.”

Brett Hammers, vp-marketing from Orgill, deflected a question about vendor score-cards with, “We just don’t put [the information] out there. It’s in our best interest to handle [feed back] strategically rather than globally.” Hammers scored even more popularity points when asked about RFID. “I don’t think, in this climate, we can add to the cost of goods,” he answered.

Lowe’s seems to have its hands full with its current IT initiatives and has no new plans for the next 12 to 18 months. The industry’s second largest retail chain has implemented data synchronization with most of its and has moved on to a marketing data pool initiative. Last year the Mooresville, N.C.-based retailer began collecting product images and data for and in-store use through Big Hammer, a division of Edge Net. (Home Depot has embarked on a similar initiative using the same data pool provider.) Lowe’s is doing the project in phases, with the last three categories, lumber, rough electrical, and rough plumbing, set to be completed by the end of 2008.

A session called “How to do Business with Lowe’s” was conducted by an all-female Lowe’s team, clad in red shirts and blacks pants, representing the EDI/vendor support, electronic commerce, product information, accounting and PCM initiative departments. They responded to specific inquiries and dispensed advice on the basics of setting up new items, sending advanced shipping notices and ironing out the kinks in invoices and purchase orders.

Accounting manager Krystal Clonch also advised against making informal agreements with store managers or other personnel. “If there’s anything you’ve negotiated with anyone, it needs to be documented,” she said. Clonch also suggested contesting chargebacks in a timely fashion, advice that was later echoed in a session devoted entirely to “Understanding Compliance Issues to Eliminate Chargebacks.”

Other sessions dealt with future EDI applications, mining point-of sale data and case studies in data synchronization. Technology vendors peddled everything from EDI out sourcing to data encryption to help with U.S. Customs requirements.

David Williams, general manager of Hardware Suppliers of America, a nationwide distributor of security hardware that does business with Lowe’s, Ace and Do it Best, said he came to Memphis for “the opportunity to talk to the technical people [because] the marketing group doesn’t always know about data synch initiatives.” Other attendees arrived with lists of questions from their warehouse manager or customer service department. In one open session, a vendor asked if he could find out how well his product test was doing at Lowe’s. A company representative said she’d find out and get back to him.

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