Every advance in technology starts out life as an exciting innovation, but having been widely adopted, eventually achieves a kind of ho-hum status. Electronic data interchange is no exception to the rule. But RC Willey Home Furnishings was determined to restore EDI’s luster.
Based in St. Louis, Missouri and owned by Berkshire Hathaway, RC Willey operates 13 retail stores and three distribution centers in Utah, Nevada, Idaho and California. Its roster of products extends beyond furniture and mattresses to include appliances, consumer electronics and flooring.
RC Willey had been relying on a legacy version of EDI for some time — “like it was a commodity,” as Stuart Peterson, vice president of supply chain, describes it. Or to put it another way: like just one more basic utility, akin to the power and water needed to run an operation.
Such an approach makes sense, if all you want EDI to do is transmit certain documents in a standardized message format. But RC Willey, aware of rising customer expectations and the growing complexity of its sales channels, saw the opportunity to wield the venerable technology as a strategic tool.
To view it that way means striving to achieve a competitive edge “with access to product, by tracking the flow of merchandise and automating computer work so that personnel can spend more time on key decisions, instead of on the basics of transferring data,” Peterson says. “Implementing EDI more broadly gives us greater speed and accuracy, and that’s increasingly important.”
The retailer’s challenges are many. It maintains more than 30,000 active SKUs, promising wide selection and fast availability of product. Such an ambitious commitment needs to be backed up by inventory, which can be a drag on the balance sheet if not managed properly. For RC Willey, EDI offered a means of speeding delivery of orders to vendors, which in turn would optimize its investment in inventory.
To take EDI to another level of effectiveness, RC Willey turned to a new partner: TrueCommerce-ecUtopia. TrueCommerce, a veteran provider of tools for supply-chain and trading-partner connectivity, acquired ecUtopia, which specializes in service to medium-sized businesses, in 2019. The division enabled RC Willey to exchange two key documents with vendors: purchase orders (EDI message format 850) and P.O. acknowledgements (EDI 855). The company is currently implementing a third transaction set, advance ship notice, or ASN (EDI 856).
TrueCommerce is no stranger to RC Willey’s business. Ron Sellers, senior vice president of the ecUtopia division, boasts a deep history in home furnishings. He began selling point-of-sale systems to furniture retailers in 1994, launched EDI provider FurnishNet in 1998, and started ecUtopia in 2011. He came over to TrueCommerce with the acquisition.
Initially, says Sellers, EDI was embraced by the home furnishings industry in a limited fashion, for transmitting messages without capturing any data en route. With ecUtopia, he created what he calls “more of a data warehouse and mini-ERP [enterprise resource planning] system for the entire P.O. supply-chain process.” The tool features a portal with dynamic dashboards accessible by multiple merchandisers, providing detailed information about orders sorted by vendor, order type and buyer. Users can quickly see whether information has been acknowledged by a vendor, a ship date has been changed, or an ASN has been sent.
Peterson says the technology provides RC Willey with much-needed transparency into a complex supply chain. “It’s easy for us to handle any kind of merchandise because it runs through our system the same way. It’s a SKU, it’s a vendor, and TrueCommerce-ecUtopia handles it all identically.”
Without automation of those transactions, “we’d have bottlenecks in our order-entry process, and we’d send P.O.s to vendors more slowly,” Peterson adds. “Those seconds and minutes add up when you’re talking about 10,000 orders.”
EDI has been criticized for latency of transmission, with documents usually sent in batches rather than in real time, and passing through an intermediary known as a value-added network (VAN). In fact, RC Willey does batch messages four times a day, although “we could do more,” Peterson says. Nevertheless, the system is far more efficient and time-saving than faxing or e-mailing PDFs, which have to be manually rekeyed at point of receipt.
“EDI allows us to get the message directly into the system,” Peterson says. “We can get an acknowledgment within 24 hours. It's certainly faster for us.” Adds Sellers: “We connect as often as the retailer needs to connect.”
Transferring over to the new system wasn’t a major issue for RC Willey, Sellers says, especially since the retailer was already using some form of EDI. Following a series of tests with vendors and confirmation of the integrity of the data, the switch can be made in the middle of the night. For a typical retailer with existing EDI capabilities, it usually takes about six weeks from signature to go-live, he says.
RC Willey is busy expanding its use of the technology. Upon implementation of the EDI 856 message set for ASNs, the retailer will be able to automatically reset expected arrival dates based on actual ship dates. When production orders get delayed, Peterson says, “it’s better business to rely on the most predictable event.”
Peterson says the TrueCommerce-ecUtopia setup “meets every need that we’ve envisioned so far. The biggest thing for us is the partnership with TrueCommerce. It’s a group of specialists who can help us to onboard vendors and oversee the transmissions that allow us to maintain problem solving, and any matters that come up. That’s very important to me.”
RC Willey: https://www.rcwilley.com/
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.