John Askin Jr. compares the benefits of the warehouse management software his company installed to the Lewis and Clark expedition's reports of geysers and hot springs at what's now Yellowstone Park.

"I describe fanciful things that are beyond anyone's belief and they either think I'm crazy or lying," says Askin, vice president of finance for The Standard Group, a Tinton Falls, N.J.-based dealer that specializes in roofing products.

Indeed, the judges for ProSales' Excellence Awards were so cautious about getting overexcited by The Standard Group's claims that they ordered us to visit Tinton Falls to verify the system deserved this year's award for Best Use of Technology. We found it not only performed as claimed, it also was a platform for plenty of added benefits, including loss prevention, warehouse productivity, and customer satisfaction.

Standard Group president John Askin Sr. (left) and John Askin Jr., VP of Finance
Standard Group president John Askin Sr. (left) and John Askin Jr., VP of Finance

"It's definitely a case where you have to see the system on site to believe the benefits," Askin explains.

Created by Majure Data, the RF Navigator Warehouse Management System (WMS) is the centerpiece of the package. The WMS automates the warehouse process, from picking and receiving materials to performing cycle counts and helping locate what's in stock. Activant Systems developed an interface between the WMS system and its ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, which the Standard Group was already using. The interface allows all transactions recorded by the WMS–particularly receiving, invoicing, and cycle counts–to be automatically uploaded to the ERP system.

Tracking Device. Askin sought a program that could better track inventory cycle turns while keeping a closer eye on the inventory in stock.

Meeting with staff from Majure Data, Askin's father, John Askin Sr., president of The Standard Group, was skeptical the system would actually live up to its billing. He was so skeptical that a day-long meeting held at Tinton Falls saw the Majure Data reps miss their flight back home.

Once the system was in place, it actually functioned, quickly settling any doubts. "I'm a believer in software and hardware," Askin Sr. says. "And this is the best thing I've purchased in my life."

Warehouse crews tap into the WMS via handheld devices that read bar codes and deliver messages. Through the gunlike Motorola MC9090 devices, the workers receive instructions on when and where to retrieve orders. The gun also tells employees whether or how many of an item is in stock.

All items receive a bar code and designated location. When an order is placed, the RF Navigator tells the employee where to retrieve the item. A parent bar code at each dock of materials, when read by the RF gun, tells how much of that material is in stock.

The result is a vast improvement over past years. The Standard Group used to spend a day or two annually counting $40 million worth of inventory and discovering it had fewer goods on hand than expected. In past years, Askin Jr. says, that difference at the Tinton Falls site could run between $15,000 and $20,000.

After a full year of using the system, when The Standard Group did its annual inventory review of the Tinton Falls location at the end of 2008, it found just a one-penny difference.

Along with the more accurate counts, Tinton Falls has seen the time required to pull orders drop by 50% to 70%, from 20-25 minutes down to seven to 10 minutes, according to Askin Jr. And the system has helped give Tinton Falls a much neater warehouse, too.

New Go-To Source. "Where the RF Navigator system shines is that it enforces discipline within your warehouse," the younger Askin notes. Essentially, the system takes the place of a "go-to" warehouse employee who usually knows where everything is, including special orders.

Michael Hannah, inventory coordinator at The Standard Group, was that "go-to" guy and often spent days helping employees in the warehouse find misplaced materials. When it came to special orders, Hannah began to just keep them in his office so they wouldn't become lost. It wasn't unusual for The Standard Group to order a specialty item all over again once it disappeared in the warehouse.

"I would spend 10 to 15 minutes trying to find something and would get called constantly," Hannah says. "Now I don't get called anymore."

All employees using the system can find anything and pull all types of orders. The system tells an employee where to go to find the item in the warehouse, how much to take, and where to stage the materials picked.

Since installing the system, The Standard Group has increased the accuracy of SKU quantity at its Tinton Falls location to 99% from 50%. The dealer also boasts that it is now 93% accurate when it comes to a SKU and quantity being in the correct location within the warehouse.

The Standard Group has since installed the system at its Morristown, N.J., location this past April, with its Trenton and Tom's River locations to follow. Altogether, the company's four "large" locations–it has six total–will have the system in place by early 2010, the company predicts.

The system should help improve other branches: Last year, Morristown was 42% accurate, and Tom's River–the cleanest of the branches–was 55% accurate on SKU quantity.

Askin Sr. points out that the system has cut down on "mystery shortages," whether it be contractors claiming they never received an item on a delivery or employees helping out a contractor buddy with under-the-table materials in exchange for quick cash.

Although it doesn't sell sticks, The Standard Group finds itself battling good independents and heavyweights such as ProBuild, 84 Lumber, and Bradco, while emphasizing roofing materials. (It used to call itself Standard Roofing.) The dealer covers most of New Jersey while spilling into parts of New York and Pennsylvania.

Efficiency Tracker. Prior to installing the system, it was difficult to measure the efficiency of each employee and the time it took to complete an order. Not anymore. The system records how long it takes warehouse employees to complete their tasks and their averages over an hour, day, or week.

"With the system in place, we have seen tremendous gain in our efficiency in processing customer pick up orders," Askin Jr. says.

Walk-in customers waiting for an order can view the status of their order on a monitor located just outside of the warehouse desk. The monitor displays the customer's name, the items ordered, which employee is actually picking the load, and what the overall status of the order is. The Standard Group also modified the display to include daily weather reports and up-to-date sports headlines.

Since the system has been installed, the Askins have found themselves personally congratulated by customers who have found their wait time–now usually a matter of a few minutes–much to their liking.

"Customers appear to like what they've seen, especially when it comes to service," Askin Sr. says. Adds the son: "We are selling accuracy."