Wolff Bros. makes the distribution function more efficient through technology.

At Wolff Bros. Supply, using technology for technology's sake is not the best way to run a business. Technology must provide a tangible benefit to the company that uses it, says Wolff Bros. President Howard Wolff.

The wholesaler's systems are connected through the company's AS-400 mainframe computer, which is also home to Wolff Bros.' error-tracking program. The company is currently tracking 10 types of errors in sales/customer communication, vendor communication and the warehouse, says John Von Kamp, Wolff's quality administrator.

"We've been trying to track errors for a long time on paper, but that takes too much time and effort," he explains. "The computer system makes it easy to monitor errors."

Error information is entered into the branches' computers and transmitted to the corporate office in Medina, where Von Kamp analyzes the information. Monthly reports are sent to the branch operations managers and sales managers, Von Kamp says. While corporate management reviews all solutions, Wolff Bros. believes that the branch employees are in the best position to determine the solutions for their locations.

"In manufacturing, when you talk about quality, you're talking about quality of product," he says. "In distribution, you're talking about quality of process. Here at Wolff Bros. we work on keeping things flowing right and doing them most efficiently."

Prioritizing the benefits

When Wolff Bros. began experimenting with EDI a few years ago, some of its vendors told the company that it must engage in EDI to continue doing business with them.

"We prioritized companies that would give us some kind of incentive," Howard Wolff explains. "Some offered discounted pricing while others offered weekly deliveries. We looked at the buying we were doing with a certain manufacturer, considered what type of incentive they were offering to do EDI with them and then decided if it was worthwhile for the firm.

"In fact, some of the EDI relationships that we pursued on our own didn't involve financial incentives at all; they involved significant error reduction in order placement."

Some vendors that don't have integrated computer systems were printing out Wolff's POs and rekeying them into their own systems. "That system doesn't really have any benefit to me or them," he says. "It's just an expensive fax. Going system to system is where EDI has its true value."

The inconsistency of information returned to Wolff Bros. via EDI was also a problem, Wolff says.

"If the industry would require the use of UPC codes for ordering product, there would be much more consistency in electronic transactions," he explains. "With one UPC code for each product, everyone -- manufacturer, distributor and contractor -- would be reading and writing the code the same way. However, these codes must be prominently displayed on all sales literature and price sheets for the system to work."

As easy as a phone call

Online order entry at Wolff Bros.' Web site,www.wolffbros.com, is not available -- yet. The company is one of many distributors and manufacturers working withsupplyFORCE.comto assemble an electronic catalog. Once completed, the e-catalog will become part of the Wolff Bros. Internet site, Wolff says.

While the Internet has not yet galvanized many of Wolff Bros.' customers into action, the wholesaler is offering them the next best thing -- direct access to Wolff's inventory availability, pricing and order entry through a modem dial-up.

A customer with a PC can dial an 800 number to hook up to Wolff Bros.' mainframe computer, enter his customer number and password, and look up inventory availability, customized pricing and order history, as well as place an order, Wolff says. The system even has a cross-referencing function that allows a contractor to put his part number on an order.

However, only a few customers actually use the direct-access system to order product, Wolff admits. Many customers dial up for information purposes only.

"Customers are going to conduct business in ways that are easier and faster for them," he notes. "In order to motivate contractors to conduct business-to-business transactions online, distributors must make sure that such transactions are as easy to make as placing an order over the phone -- for customers and themselves. Until that happens, electronic commerce won't be that magic wand that everyone was hoping it would be."