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Managing stock levels is of paramount importance for retail businesses. This was the dilemma that Russell & Bromley faced when it...

Managing stock levels is of paramount importance for retail businesses. This was the dilemma that Russell & Bromley faced when it implemented a new supply chain management system, with the help of software specialist ECsoft and the AS/400. James Rogers explains.

From its headquarters in Bromley, Kent, Russell & Bromley has around 50 branches in the UK, and employs over 1,000 people. The family owned company sources much of its footwear from specialist factories around the world, which are then sold under the Russell & Bromley brand.

Originally, Russell & Bromley used a packaged product that had been modified over time to meet its business needs. However, the company still had to adapt its own way of working to fit the application design, as opposed to the other way round. It felt that a more up-to-date system was needed to meet its logistical challenges, with the AS/400 providing the perfect basis for the project. Russell & Bromley had been committed to the mid range workhorse server for quite some time, as the company's IT manager Peter Webber explains: 'We already had the AS/400 in place, and we have used AS/400s for over a decade. We wanted to stay on that platform because it is something that we understand and are comfortable with.'

Eventually, systems specialist ECsoft was chosen to provide a cost-effective, bespoke supply chain product to replace the company's current software. Like thousands of users around the world, ECsoft is reaping the benefits of Big Blue's midrange flagship. Paul Thurland, senior account manager at ECsoft says: 'We do a lot of work in the AS/400 arena, we have a large number of AS/400 clients and we do a wide range of work, which includes full outsourcing, bespoke development and AS/400 technical services.' He adds: 'We have a long history of working with the server and have skilled people who have worked with it since its inception.'

Under the original system used by Russell & Bromley, daily sales were relayed overnight from branches to the head office so that stock levels could be worked out and shoes despatched accordingly. The packaged system that was originally used required two days to produce the required stocks so ECsoft was given the task of developing a Stock Control and Merchandising System (SCMS) that would achieve this by the start of work on the following day. The system went live early last year, and is used to record and maintain stock both at a central warehouse, and at the company's branches. According to Webber, the concept was originally thought about in November 1997, and was up and running in February 1999.

The AS/400 is already renowned for its scaleability and reliability, and a joint team from both companies was able to harness these strengths to create the speedy system that is now in use. All Russell & Bromley sales are recorded electronically on IBM point of sales equipment, and this data is transferred to an AS/400 at the company's HQ. Peter Webber says: 'We poll the data back to our head office every night, and we then transfer the sales onto the AS/400. We run a replenishment program and that calculates the stock requirements for each UK branch.' The replenishment program also generates a 'picking note' for items at the warehouse, which is available at about 2 a.m. ECsoft also implemented a checking method at the warehouse, which uses a bar code scanner attached directly to the AS/400. This means that any shortages can be noted, and any items not on the picking list can be removed before the process is completed. According to Webber, SCMS has already delivered a number of benefits to Russell & Bromley. He says: 'In terms of control of stock, the system is virtually 100 per cent accurate and we have improved our delivery cycle by a day which in turn, has enhanced our sales as well.' He adds: 'We now have a system that is totally reliable and can be maintained by ourselves.'

Moreover, the fact that the system is euro-compliant is particularly important for Russell & Bromley, given that the company sources a lot of its merchandise from abroad, so is likely to be invoiced in Euros. Thurland says: 'It was a prerequisite for us to be able to cover any Euro angles.'

Ultimately, Russell & Bromley feels that the system implemented by ECsoft has achieved the supply chain goals it set itself back in 1997. John Croton, the company's associate director comments: 'This project was extremely detailed, extended over a number of months and not only covered our immediate needs, but also our longer term planning. All our requirements and recommendations were understood and met in a most professional manner.' He adds: 'The transfer from old to new programming was total. We encountered no problems whatsoever. The system has operated perfectly ever since.'

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