Outside of food distribution companies, smartphones are already the most widely used mobile device in supply chain and logistics operations. What accounts for their popularity? Increasing capabilities, lower price points, and greater user acceptance are just a few of the reasons why these devices are becoming as accepted in many distribution environments as ruggedized handheld barcode scanning devices have traditionally been.

The smartphone revolution is also beginning to catch on among food distribution companies. While old-school “brick on a stick” barcode scanners have been the standard in the food distribution industry for many years, changes in the business environment––from the drive toward online grocery shopping to ever increasing competition––are leading food distribution companies to seek news ways to save time and money. Consumer mobile devices like iPads and iPhones are giving food distribution companies the flexibility to innovate in ways that allow them to add value and increase margins.

Whether it’s a warehouse worker who needs to shave seconds off the time it takes to pick, pack and ship items, to a direct store delivery driver who needs to scan out stock from his delivery truck, to grocery store employees scanning inventory, replacing legacy systems for barcode scanning with consumer mobile apps is one way food distribution companies can meet the demands of a changing market.

Why Food Distribution Companies Are Replacing Barcode Scanners with Consumer Mobile Devices

Consumer mobile devices and apps provide multiple benefits for food distribution companies that have historically relied on legacy systems for barcode scanning. Some of these benefits include:

  1. Worker engagement: Consumer mobile devices offer an intuitive interface that the majority of people know how to use. As of 2015, more than 64% of US consumers owned a smartphone, with that number rising even higher among younger generations. Familiarity with consumer mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, as well as the apps that run on them, is a major advantage of consumer mobile versus legacy barcode scanners. One key reason is that training costs are lower. They’re also smaller, lighter, and typically designed to be easier and more fun to use.
  1. Working with native mobile apps: Many store employees and sales reps use a combination of handheld scanners and desktop computers to manage their inventory and sales order tasks. This setup is rather cumbersome and prone to connectivity. Native mobile apps on smartphones and tablets, on the other hand, allow employees to access data more quickly and reliably.
  1. Cheaper replacement costs: Switching to consumer mobile devices has the ability to lower costs significantly depending on the types of devices that are purchased, and the setup that is being replaced. In general, as mobile devices become more and more inexpensive, they’re also becoming much more cost-effective than legacy hardware.
  1. Additional functionality: One disadvantage of a handheld barcode scanner is that it is just that – a scanner and not much else. With a consumer mobile device, sales order management and barcode scanning are only two of the many functions that can be run on the device. It can also provide directions with GPS applications, make and receive calls from customers or supervisors, and even contains a camera that allows merchandisers and reps to take pictures of displays and products––an excellent way to maintain a record of damaged items or to report on in-store promotions.
  1. Speech Recognition Capable: Because of the proliferation of voice recognition, more and more people are turning to voice to handle their interactions with their mobile devices––think Siri, the iOS assistant that can perform an internet search, provide directions, book a flight and much more. In the food and beverage distribution space, speech and voice applications are already playing a role in the warehouse pick-and-pack process, allowing employees to focus on their work while the speech application provides direction and verification. Speech recognition allows workers to perform their tasks “hands free” while continuing to provide or receive instructions. This function is already available in warehouse management applications, and is also being adopted by other application providers throughout the supply chain, either by making speech recognition native to the app, or integrating it with a speech recognition application like Dragon Dictation.
  1. What About Wearables? But wait! You may be wondering…if people are using their mobile phones, how are they working hands free? This is where wearables come in. If the idea of using wearables in food distribution and delivery sounds too futuristic, be aware this technology is already here. SAP and a wearable glass manufacturer are working together to market an augmented reality offering designed for distribution warehouses. The glass would allow warehouse workers to see and hear picking instructions, directing them to specific aisles and rows. When the worker nears the item, a green rectangle highlights the destination and a scanner built in to the glass verifies it as correct before sending him or her on to the next item.
  1. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): Cost savings and ease of acquisition are two great reasons to choose consumer mobile devices over a traditional handheld scanner. Food distribution companies have choices between whether to provide devices or to allow employees to use their own devices (BYOD). Either option requires companies to have a mobile device management policy in place to ensure applications are secure, but the BYOD option offers flexibility for companies to cut their equipment and device costs.

The food distribution business is changing in ways that make the use of consumer mobile ever more attractive. Low margins are forcing many food distribution companies to look beyond traditional models for ways to increase profits, and many are harnessing the power and ubiquity of the smartphones and tablets that we all use every single day.