Founded in 1996, UNFI is the leading national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods in the United States and Canada, making more than 60,000 products available to more than 49,000 customers – grocery stores, organic specialty foods markets and restaurants – including national brands Whole Foods and Safeway. The company prides itself on providing innovative, value-added services.

The Challenge

Unfortunately, UNFI faced a business challenge common among decades-old industries who have followed the same processes for years. Its archaic ordering system was cumbersome and inefficient, frustrating UNFI’s customers. The process involved customers first consulting a web-based catalog containing UNFI’s extensive product list on a mobile browser, locating a product code and manually entering it along with a customer ID and product quantity on a touch-tone phone. You can imagine an employee rushing to complete orders, typing in the wrong customer ID number and starting over numerous times, wasting valuable time and money. With so many customers unhappy with the inefficient ordering process, UNFI knew they needed a modern technology-based solution to overcome this barrier.

UNFI partnered with Buyer’s Best Friend, a consumer packaged goods company with a proprietary hardware/software product that solved a component of UNFI’s challenge. Through the partnership, UNFI would have access to Buyer’s Best Friend’s scan gun ordering solution. UNFI determined a mobile app experience that integrated with the scan gun hardware was the answer to its challenge.

The Solution

UNFI reached out to stable|kernel in March 2014 to improve their initial proof-of-concept product. We iterated on the existing code base to create iUNFI, a direct vendor support iOS mobile application that integrated with Buyer’s Best Friend’s scan gun hardware. We also integrated with a camera-based barcode scanner to make scanning codes more efficient which solved marked problems for smaller shops. Customers used the app to scan barcodes of different products they need restocked and then conveniently enter the desired quantity. This information funneled into an existing cloud-based order management solution. The app also allowed users to:

  • track orders, promotions and pricing totals in real time
  • process product returns
  • schedule future orders
  • access suggested retail pricing across chains
  • track purchase histories across chains
  • help warehouses determine appropriate retail carriers for each product

All of the app’s functions can be used without wireless Internet access and are applicable to many types of retail environments including restaurant stock rooms, convenience stores, specialty markets and more. It was paramount for the app to be used without connectivity as stores often had connectivity ‘dead-zones’ that the user may not be aware of. We accomplished this by using a sophisticated local caching mechanism that synchronizes data with catalogs as they were updated and as the orders were being processed.

UNFI mobile app

Working on the project offered our development team the opportunity to address several unique challenges. Due to the nature of UNFI’s products, we managed different states for each product: on-sale pricing, location availability and some regulatory mandates. The data for this information was stored across multiple databases and at times managed by different teams. The mobile application would tie this data together at a lower level, allowing the rest of the mobile application’s higher-level features a simple, intuitive interface for accessing data. This allowed developers to contribute to the application without having to understand the complexity accrued by a large business’ operations over many years. Because of the volume of products, managing this aspect was no small task.

“This project was exciting because it presented a varied set of challenges and required me to iterate on a legacy code base. Many times, you’d prefer to rewrite the code entirely, but this exercise gave me a deep respect for the work already done. I built upon the existing codebase using the existing design and made the improvements as needed while continuing to add value, instead of starting from scratch.” – software engineer Jesse Black

stable|kernel worked on this project for nine months before deploying a beta version of iUNFI to UNFI’s smaller retail chain customers. Soon iUNFI was released to its sales reps and finally to its bigger chain customers in summer 2014. Customers embraced the app and immediately integrated iUNFI into their ordering process.

The Results

Over the next nine months, our team updated a number of features. We integrated new catalog information, made adjustments for product promotions and discounts and improved the process for updating those catalogs, reducing the time by 95% from 10 minutes to 30 seconds. We set up new tiers of information, enhanced search and sorting filters and perfected the architecture of the original system by redesigning the backend architecture to allow for better mobile experience and a better experience across all products. We also configured the app so that it could update while in use without affecting data integrity.

During the development of this second phase, we integrated planogram tools to provide customers with research-based suggestions for placing products on shelves in different aisles. The planogram tools allow customers to input the shape of the aisle and submit this information through the app. We built an algorithm that translates the submitted information into product placement instructions. Lastly, we integrated a Canadian division of products to the app.

iUNFI is now available on three platforms and has reached 100 percent adoption by UNFI’s customers, and more than $1 billion passes through the app each year. We are excited to see users enjoy the app experience; to know our work helped a global company solve one of its most critical business challenges is extremely rewarding.

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