February 9, 2021

Human machines and elbow grease

Chad Bradford will be the first to admit that the computerization of his family-run Colleyville vitamin and supplement store, Sunflower Shoppe, hasn’t gone as smoothly as he would have liked. But it wasn’t because his store, like many older family businesses, didn’t embrace the new network. In fact, in some ways, Bradford believes he and his three siblings were leaning on the technology a bit too much.

“It was largely ignorance on our part,” says Bradford. “You can implement the technical component, but if you can’t integrate it with the human element, it’s not going to work.”

A generational legacy built into one store

Bradford’s grandmother opened Sunflower Shoppe back in 1970. At the time, she and her employees simply hand-stamped prices on everything from natural foods to vitamins to beauty products and rang them all up manually on the cash register up front. Inventory and ordering were likewise done by hand. And that was the way for nearly 30 years, through Bradford’s buying the business in 1984 to him and his brothers and sister coming aboard in the 1990s. Finally in 1999, on the eve of the 21st Century, they decided to buy and implement their first computer-based point-of-sale (POS) program.

“It was time to know how much inventory we had at any given time and to expedite ordering,” says Bradford. “When you look at it on paper, it looks like you’re going to save money on labor. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes what seems practical doesn’t turn out to be quite so practical.”

While Bradford and his family never expected the technology to do everything, they did believe that it would be largely self-sustaining. But with that first POS system and two subsequent implementations, the staff found itself spending a lot of time working to fix glitches, update software, and troubleshoot problems. They paid the company who sold them their third system to continue to maintain it, but that just meant that the owners and workers alike were less familiar with the interface and therefore more in the dark when problems arose. Meanwhile, productivity began to lag because employees were distracted with the system.

Adding the human element back into the process

So last year, when it was once again time for Sunflower Shoppe to upgrade the POS in their three locations, Bradford and his family decided to shift focus. Still spending on a tight budget, they paid a little bit more for a more intuitive system. They bought the technical support as a safety net for anything that was over their heads. But they also wanted to invest the time to get to know the software and equipment themselves and to add some of the human element back into their processes.

For instance, rather than leaving inventory completely to the automated system, Bradford put people back in charge of double-checking what was coming into the store. This included looking for wrong orders, short orders, damaged goods, shrinkage, and even theft. Managing inventory was already their top expense next to payroll and rent and now they were going to pay someone to literally stand at the backdoor and watch every package and parcel that rolled in off the truck?

“When you look at it on paper, it looks like you’d be spending more on that labor than you’d be saving,” says Bradford. “But in doing that, we caught all kinds of things and realized that 80 percent of our problems were happening at the receiving door. In some instances, we were paying hard cash for things we weren’t getting. And it turns out that it only took an extra hour of labor for one or two employees.”

In addition, having a better grasp on inventory and knowing precisely what was actually selling allowed staff to better automate their orders. This gave them more free time to spend purchasing exciting new products and promoting online videos, educational webinars, and digital nutritional counseling.

“Your time is valuable, but sometimes you just have to commit to putting in the elbow grease and figure things out,” says Bradford. “We made a commitment this time to know our systems inside and out and to making sure we weren’t wasting any time. Within a year of having this system, we had all three stores online and going. And it only took us 20 years to get there.”

Photo credit: Sunflower Shoppe

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