Most people travel to New Orleans for the fun of nightlife, but sometimes you can learn a thing or two -- and in some cases you can learn a lot.

Software and business service mogul Mincron Software Systems held its 2003 Users Conference in New Orleans to display and discuss new technologies that can make wholesalers' lives easier.About 35 companies brought a total of 90 employees to the 5-day conference in January held at the Astor Plaza Hotel, located on the infamous Bourbon Street. Walter Ulrich, president of Mincron, opened up the learning festivities with a welcome speech, giving a basic overview of the changes in software over the past year. These changes and new technologies were covered more

extensively in 38 different user sessions.

"Technology is a means to an end to get the maximum benefit," said Ulrich. "We hold these conferences to present our new services to our customers, to get feedback on what to change or improve, to understand their needs as times change and, hopefully, it gives us all a chance to have a little fun."

Here are a few things I picked up and learned while attending many of the sessions at the Users Conference:

Value In e-Business

The fallout of the dot-coms left a sour taste in many mouths, but it wasn't that the dot-coms were a bad idea, said Mark Chellis, Mincron's director of channel marketing. He stated that many companies failed to realize the key to e-Business success as they rushed to produce their e-commerce.

"The only way for e-Business to survive is if two sides gain value," said Chellis. "The distributor must find value in e-Business through cost savings, greater sales numbers, easier access or another way, otherwise he won't do it. The customer needs value in timeliness, efficiency and accuracy, among other things, otherwise he won't do it. The value gained can be tremendous; it's just a matter of

understanding where the value is."

Let Them Do The Work

It's impossible to be a wholesaler, worry about your warehouse management and keep up with a rapidly advancing technology all at the same time. That is where a company like Mincron comes into play.

"That's why they partner with us," said Ulrich. "As a technology company we can do the work for them. If the client wins, then we have a customer forever."

Personalized Bar Coding

In the past, bar coding was fairly standard from warehouse to warehouse, but most companies store products differently, use different systems to "pick" and have unequal amounts of checkpoints throughout the process. New bar coding software allows

companies to build their own coding system to fit their specific warehouse, with the ability to update the software as the company's preferences change.

A Wireless Warehouse

Most warehouse computer systems are based in a language called RGB, better known to most supply house employees as "Green Screen" because the computer monitor only shows a green screen with simple line text. In almost every learning session at the conference, Mincron speakers emphasized the importance of changing warehouse "green screens" to a Web-based technology to allow for better images, graphics and, more importantly, a chance for customers to view inventory in real-time so they can place orders via the Internet.

Making The Transition

Once a move is made to give your staff and customers Internet

access to your inventory, sales can only grow. With the Web capabilities at hand, any contractor needing parts on a job can check the availability at the job site on a pocket PC. The contractor can place an order on the spot and track the product until it arrives.

Accessing The Information

A Web-based warehouse computer system won't only benefit the sales department. Managers and employees can also better access all information about inventory from anywhere in the warehouse via pocket PC. If a contractor calls in about a problem with an order -- let's say the order was short one valve -- the supply house manager can go into the system and find out exactly when the item was picked, who picked it and, more importantly, who checked and approved the order. And, with the right bar code system in place, the manager can check to see if the scanned products match up with the actual order.

Vender Expo

A small expo was held in between sessions at the conference, featuring demonstrations from Mincron specialists and its business partners. The expo also gave customers a chance to sit down one-on-one and discuss the company's software, including Warehouse Manager, Warehouse Assistant and JENASYS[TM].

Users Only Meeting

A fairly unique aspect of the conference was a "Users Only" meeting, where customers of Mincron got together without any Mincron employees to debate any topics of their choice. They discussed changes and enhancements they would like to see in software, formatting it better for them, the customers. "This gives Mincron real feedback, real ways to improve our product to help improve theirs," said Ulrich.

I asked a few Mincron employees who had been with the company for more than 10 years what results transpired from the meetings. In past years, the Users Only Meeting produced suggested changes Mincron could make on its programs. When the two-hour session of the 2003 group finished in less than 45 minutes, they met Mincron officials with a lighter tone than in years past. The users thanked the company for implementing and working with them on improving warehouse technology, noting that the suggestions were fewer this year.

Use Half A Warehouse?

"Distribution hasn't tapped fully into technology and it's important for our clients and potential clients to understand the benefits of utilizing technological advances," said Ulrich. "Would you buy a 200,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and only use half of it? Not using the technology available is like not using half the space available in your warehouse.

"Wholesalers want to know, 'How can I get inventory to turn faster?' You can't improve customer service without technology. It should be applied when it can make a difference. Without keeping up with technology and using what is out there, a distributor can't grow. And if a supplier doesn't use what is available to turn inventory faster, reduce error and create new sales, the supplier may have a hard time surviving in the future.

"As a wholesaler, you either get bigger or you get smaller. If you don't evolve, everyone else moves ahead of you."