VoiteQ’s revolutionary technology has come of age as grocers, big and small, strive to improve their productivity. Elaine Watson reports

Meet Kevin, says VoiteQ chairman Frank Heald when visitors arrive at the company’s Blackpool HQ. “It’s always easier to see technology in action.” Kevin - a grimly focused plastic mannequin sporting a headset and a belt, is demonstrating the benefits of Talkman voice recognition technology - for which VoiteQ is the UK’s leading distributor.

By freeing a warehouse picker’s eyes and hands and eliminating the need for trips back to the pick assignment desk, Talkman typically delivers a 10-20% boost in productivity over a paper-based, hand-held or wearable system. And with a client list to die for just three years after launch, Heald can afford to look as serenely content as his plastic assistant.

Better known in his earlier incarnation as boss of c-store chain Day & Nite, Heald admits he did not grow up nursing a burning ambition to get into grocery retailing or IT. Instead, he found himself working in the family c-store business after graduating from Manchester University with a degree in metallurgy under his belt and no idea what to do with it.

As it turned out, Heald proved rather adept at neighbourhood retailing, and when the Day & Nite chain was eventually taken over by T&S Stores three decades later, the business had grown from a three-store outfit in Fleetwood to a 99-store multiple with IT systems on a par with those at companies 10 times the size.

VoiteQ was only set up when it became clear that T&S would not be using the systems Heald had spent 10 years developing at Day & Nite, and 11 staff who had worked to develop the IT were facing redundancy, he says. “It was obvious that T&S’s systems would replace ours. So I negotiated that my team would come with me in January 2001 to join VoiteQ.”

Financial backing for VoiteQ came from Heald, three other Day & Nite directors and support from Vocollect - the US company that developed the Talkman solution in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.

At the time, Bells Stores, Filco Foods and David Sands were also using Day & Nite’s systems and were wondering what would happen following the T&S deal, says Heald. “Aside from the fact that we’d sweated blood and tears on this for the past decade, we also felt a responsibility to our customers.”

More significantly, Heald’s team had also developed the world’s first fully voice-controlled paperless warehouse, using voice recognition for receiving goods, replenishment, put-away and picking customer orders, at a time when the biggest retailers in the world were just dipping their toes in the water.

With voice recognition still a relatively unknown quantity in the UK in the late 1990s, the multiples were instead pumping investment into hand-held or wrist-mounted terminals and scanners that linked directly into warehouse management systems, says Heald.

“This was a major improvement on paper-based systems because staff can update back office systems in real time. But it has proved not as efficient as voice-picking because it does not deliver any productivity improvements.”

Indeed, the big boys are only now beginning to realise what this technology can do, says VoiteQ CEO David Stanhope. “All the major multiples are looking at voice recognition solutions, with two of them already in the process of rolling it out across their depots.”

VoiteQ has been building up an impressive client list for its applications, which include an EPoS system, a business management and merchandising system that controls the product file for the EPoS application and a warehouse management system.“We are working with lots of smaller players like Leathleys Quality Fare, Plymco and David Sands as well as larger companies like Nisa. However, we are also working with companies in different sectors like Office World, WH Smith and Brakes Foodservice.”

After a difficult couple of years, VoiteQ is profitable and debt-free with 29 staff and a healthy order book for 2004, adds Heald.

But how does he feel when he sees the multiples eating up potential clients and watching the company he built up over three decades swallowed up first by T&S, and then by Tesco?

In the first instance, he is unsentimental. T&S put a good offer on the table for Day & Nite, he points out, and everyone has a price. However, for those companies that want to hold on to their independence, things are becoming tougher and competition is not always healthy if the playing field isn’t level.

There is still room for small companies that attempt to differentiate themselves, says Heald. But they are under increasing pressure. “The excessive buying power of the multiples is the major concern in that it affects the ability of other good retailers to compete and survive at all.”

Wholesaler Aberness, which was snapped up by Somerfield in March, supplies 36 company-owned stores, five franchised stores and 130 independent retailers trading under the Mace brand. Ambient stock is supplied from a 55,000 sq ft depot in Aberdeen picking more than 900 orders a week. It also handles more than 120 purchase orders a week from suppliers delivering into the depot. By using VoiteQ’s EPoS system, central product file system, warehouse management systems and Talkman terminals, Aberness has been able to boost service levels from 94% to 98%, increase pick productivity from 90-140 items an hour to 160-220, and reduce inventory by 20%. Incorrect picks have been almost eliminated, with three errors in 55,000 cases picked every week.
Case study: aberness