Route Optimization: How Merchandising Teams Can Solve These 5 Challenges

How efficient are your field teams on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? If you’re like most brands, the answer is “not very.” And that’s OK—we’re not here to judge. But we are here to help you get more confident in your field team efficiency.

During our time working with brands, we’ve seen some poor percentages around field team management. For example, only about 8 percent of stores are worth the expense of sending a rep. That means 92 percent of store visits could be wasted costs! Furthermore, more than half of your reps’ time is likely spent on activities not related to ROI. They could be traveling from store to store, visiting a location that isn’t worth their time, busy jotting down notes, or reporting back to headquarters.

What’s the fix here? Improved route optimization. More efficient, effective route planning for your merchandising teams is a win for everyone. Check out these five common challenges and our solutions to help you spend more time fixing and selling and less time-wasting.

What is Route Optimization? A Field Team Definition

For starters, what do we mean when we say “route optimization”? We’re specifically talking about merchandising and retail execution, not outside sales or delivery.

Route optimization is the process of planning the most direct route for your field teams to visit stores that align closest with your corporate objectives and deliver the best return on your investment. Route optimization means more than finding the fastest path between two stores—it’s about building a strategy for each rep to get the most out of their day. That could be the most stores visited, or it could mean stopping by the locations with the biggest campaigns, the ones with frequent compliance issues, or the ones that you just started selling in.

Therefore, an optimized route depends a bit on your brand. In fact, that leads us to our first challenge.

Route optimization means more than finding the fastest path between two stores—it’s about building a strategy for each rep to get the most out of their day.

Field Team Management Is Not Tied to Goals

You have a list of goals: they could involve specific campaigns and promotions, or they’re larger corporate objectives and key results. Either way, you need to hit your numbers in order to have a successful quarter.

However, most brands don’t have great alignment between these goals and their field team activity. Reps are more focused on checking off a number of tasks. Get to these stores on Monday, these stores on Tuesday, and so on. It’s a checklist. It needs to be goal-focused instead. When it’s not, there’s too much time wasted in the field and an increased likelihood that you miss your goals.

Our Goal Solution

What can you do? First, you must communicate your goals to your field reps. They need to be looped in on what the executives want to see out of the field teams. It could be a financial goal, a campaign goal, a territory goal, or something else. But field teams can’t be in the dark about what their success is measured against.

Then, you need to plan routes against those goals. Don’t assign reps to stores based solely on location or the fastest way to check off the most visits. Send them to the locations that matter for your goals. Most importantly, have all this communicated before they go out in the field so you have a chance to course-correct. Get a tool that helps you monitor field team activity so you can spot any routing that isn’t aligned. This gives you a chance to re-optimize and stay on target.

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Communication Is Lacking Between the Office and the Field

On a related note, another common merchandising challenge is just a general lack of communication. Typically, management is not in the field. They’re back at the office. The reps have their plan, their experience, and they go out and do what they need to do. Often, what activities occurred are reported after the fact and there’s never an opportunity to be proactive.

This keeps everything reactive. Plans can go out the window, time can be wasted, and stores can be visited that don’t tie back to those ever-important goals. And that’s a problem for everyone. The big reason why is that routes can’t be adjusted in real-time. Having that strong communication helps everyone adjust on the fly and reduces the likelihood that time is wasted on less important activities.

Our Communication Solution

Instead, focus on communicating directly with reps at every step of the way. This may sound easier said than done, but it is possible with the right balance of team-building and technology. For team-building, work on your culture to emphasize communication between reps and management. Set the expectation that you’re working together, and ask reps to share information back to the office whenever they have time.

For technology, there are plenty of mobile apps and other software to help you communicate. Wiser’s Retail Execution app is built around giving field teams data first, so they’re empowered and informed, not forcing them into a one-way conversation where they’re only collecting and sharing data back to the office. Generally, you want to set your field teams up for success by giving them the most accurate data possible and trusting their expertise.

Route planning and optimization need to be long-term strategies. They can’t be things set quickly and then never adjusted.

Route Optimization Isn’t All About ROI

Can you say with confidence that the stores visited are the ones that are most likely to increase ROI? That they’re the ones with the most important campaigns? The best chance to drive sales?

If not, then you’re not alone—brands often deal with the fact that their field teams’ routes aren’t built around ROI. There’s uncertainty about the best stores to visit or there’s a lack of data to support a strategy. Then, reps are left to hit the locations that they think are best, based more on guesswork than concrete information. That might work out, but you don’t want to leave your merchandising to chance.

Our ROI Solution

The fix here is all about data. Start analyzing your in-store data for vulnerabilities and opportunities. Where are you weak (and where are your competitors strongest)? Where can you grow your presence? Which stores do your ideal customers spend most of their time?

With answers to questions like these, you can route plan multiple stops that have the best chance of ROI. Set daily and weekly plans around these vulnerabilities and opportunities. Importantly, show that data to your field teams. Explain what’s going on inside stores, so they can be more informed about the reasons behind a specific route. It might be a little bit longer drive, or maybe include fewer stores, but there’s a method behind the madness. This will help get buy-in. It also ties back to our other challenges around communication and goal orientation.

The Right People Aren’t Hitting the Right Stores

There’s also a people management aspect to merchandising. Not all reps are created equal, and some might have better relationships, different skills, or certain experiences that make them better (or worse) for certain retailers.

This is a fact of life for any business, and it’s a challenge for field team management because it can hurt every aspect of your planning. The wrong rep might not communicate well or they might lose motivation. Perhaps they’re not familiar with a store or retailer or they don’t have the best relationships with store employees.

Our People Solution

Thankfully, there are a few different solutions to this challenge. One option is to focus on communication, like we discussed above. Except this time, emphasize accountability and transparency. Have reps report back frequently so you’re always aware of what they’re doing and can adjust plans in real-time.

Second, lean again on good data. Measure field team performance over time to identify the best reps for each situation. Then, plan your routes to get the right people into the right stores. It might sound easy, but it’s always a challenge managing people. Emotions get involved, and some may question why their stores change up or their tasks get moved around. Centering those conversations around data can remove the human aspect a little bit.

Snack food on outdoor shelf next to an Open sign

An Eye Isn’t Given to the Future

Most of these challenges and tips so far have been about living in the present or using historical data to inform today’s activities. That’s important, of course—and a lot of field team management is planned on a daily or weekly basis—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a little long-term vision.

In fact, not planning for the future can be problematic. It makes your team more reactive again, instead of proactive. You’re not thinking about that next campaign, that new territory, or a new rep. There needs to be a balance between living in the moment and thinking about the future. That way, you’re proactive and you can be ready for anything.

Our Future Solution

So then, how can you give an eye to the future? It starts with tracking team performance over time. Measure what each rep is doing. Track metrics like time spent in each store, number of stores visited, sales numbers, and more. Look for opportunities to optimize based on this data.

Specifically, keep a mindset of “testing.” Everything can change—maybe you want to expand a territory. Focus on finding more retailers to get your brand in. Dedicate more resources to a specific promotion. If nothing is set in stone, and everything is about finding room for improvement, you can be more nimble when moving teams and plans around.

Route Optimization is a Long Game

All in all, route planning and optimization need to be long-term strategies. They can’t be things set quickly and then never adjusted. Effective merchandising teams are proactive and data-centric. They use the information from the field to influence future activities and they don’t let emotions and preconceived notions get in the way of success.

Most importantly, route optimization must be aligned with company objectives. It has to be part of a larger whole, so every department is bought into the strategy. Not only will this help you achieve your goals, but it will make your daily life managing people, personalities, workloads, and those pesky reviews with the executive team all a bit easier.

Matt Ellsworth

Matt is the Director of Marketing at Wiser Solutions, a retail analytics provider with an emphasis on data quality, data accuracy, and holistic in-store and online solutions.

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