There is More Than One Way to Track Trailers (and Inventory) on the Move. This Retailer Proved It.

You don’t always need real-time visibility into trailer location to prevent goods losses on the road and labor-related losses in your retail stores, warehouses and distribution centers.

A deilvery driver unloads packages from a tractor trailer
by Ed Tonkon
November 09, 2023

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about loss detection and prevention with retailers lately. With organized retail crime (ORC) continuously on the rise, everyone wants to know how to stop thefts. 

I’ve also spent a lot of time talking to retailers about trailer tracking. Some of these conversations are prompted by the nightmare of dealing with cargo thefts, the anxiety of not knowing where high-value inventory is, and the palpitations that arise from potential stop-and-swaps. However, even more are spurred by the uncertainty these retailers are facing around forthcoming labor needs and shelf stock levels, as well as the struggle of holding suppliers and shippers accountable for late or missing inventory.

These challenges aren't merely abstract; they translate into tangible losses and missed opportunities. As someone who has been in the retail and logistics industries for over 25 years, I deeply understand these intricacies. The foundation of retail success lies in visibility and accountability. Think about it: how many times have you grappled with the uncertainty of trailer movements, especially when these units are filled to the brim with merchandise destined for stores, warehouses, or distribution centers? The repercussions of this uncertainty manifest in multiple ways: the difficulty of establishing a robust chain of custody, the challenges of holding carriers accountable for any form of discrepancies, and the ever-looming threat of labor inefficiencies. Imagine a scenario where your personnel are clocking hours, merely waiting because of unforeseen delays. It's a cost that you can't afford.

Yet, in this milieu of challenges, there's a silver lining. Innovative new ways to track trailers are emerging, promising streamlined operations and enhanced accountability. That’s why I want to challenge you to think differently about trailer tracking – specifically why you really need to track trailers and how extensively you really need to track them to accomplish that business objective.

For example, I know that in an ideal retail universe, you would know where every piece of merchandise in motion is currently located and when it’s going to arrive at its destination because tracking information would be intricately woven into your task management and labor assignment protocols. This wouldn't just be an operational luxury; it would set the benchmark for efficiency. With this real-time view into a trailer's location, you would be able to know when and how many staff need to be at the dock, while also being acutely aware of potential hiccups or challenges that might have arisen during transit.

But we must acknowledge reality. Not every carrier embraces real-time GPS tracking. Some might be willing to use a tracking system if you (as the retailer) coordinate and pay for everything, while others might shun the idea altogether, leaving you in a familiar quandary. 

So, let’s think about the next best thing to real-time trailer tracking: 

  • tracking arrivals and departures (for accountability purposes)

  • tracking the state of inbound/outbound trailers (for fraud/theft deterrence purposes)

If you could at least gain this type of visibility, I imagine it could help you mitigate several losses you’re experiencing today.  I know it did for one leading U.S. retailer, which I’ll refer to as “Retailer X” for the sake of confidentiality.

Retailer X's story is one of transformation – and likely a familiar one to you. Beset with challenges of trailer transparency, and shipping partners unwilling to invest in a real-time tracking system, they faced recurrent logistical nightmares. Shipments would arrive late, and the lack of insight into the journey of their goods was a gaping void in their operational strategy. Determined to find a resolution, they asked my team if there was a way to use the technology they already had in their stores to document when trailers arrived and departed. They just wanted a system of record if they couldn’t have a system of reality. 

What’s interesting is that the technology they were referring to – the technology they wanted to repurpose – is traditionally used for physical inventory. It’s a fleet of mobile computers that have built-in barcode scanners and run our inventory visibility software. Always eager to find out-of-the-box solutions, we put our heads together and came up with a tracking system anchored in barcoded truck bolt seals. 

The barcoded bolt that Zebra developed with/for one retailer to help them better track trailer movements and prevent inventory losses in transit.

Each seal serves as a beacon that is meticulously scanned at every touchpoint, mapping each leg of the trailer’s journey from outbound facilities to inbound hubs. It is affixed to the trailer door by the driver on the loading dock before the trailer pulls away and broken only by the person responsible for reporting the trailer’s arrival, opening the trailer door, and accepting/handling the cargo at each destination – after the seal is scanned by an associate with a mobile computer. (The software on the device is synced to the retailer’s trailer tracking/inventory management system so they have a single source of truth about trailer arrivals and cargo condition. This real-time reporting enables Retailer X’s logistics and loss prevention managers to track any exceptions, which are flagged when a barcode is not scanned during a certain timeframe (i.e., within one day, four days, etc.) for any portion of the trailer's trip. 

The trailer driver may have multiple bolt seals depending on how many deliveries are scheduled for that day or week because, once scanned on an inbound leg, that bolt seal is discarded, and a new seal added. The new barcode is then scanned for the next leg of outbound to inbound trip. If the seal is already broken when the trailer arrives at one of Retailer X’s stores, it can be assumed that there was an in-transit incident that requires investigation to rule out theft or fraud. The impact of this tracking tool has been nothing short of revolutionary. Retailer X now finds themselves in an empowered position, with timely alerts when a truck is late (indicated by the lack of a seal barcode scan) and the ability to act swiftly in the face of discrepancies regarding on-time arrivals and about cargo condition. No one can debate a claim that the trailer door was opened in transit or that the trailer was late. There’s hard evidence of both found in the barcode scan (or lack thereof) of the trailer seal. 

Retailer X's success is a testament to the adaptability that's achievable even in the absence of real-time GPS.

Now, I realize that the barcoded seal is more of a “tracking” solution in the sense that it enables you to “track” – or rather confirm – when trailers don’t arrive on time and if there are potential damages (if the seal was broken, swapped, missing, etc.) Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily empower you to improve labor utilization. For that, you will need the type of real-time trailer visibility that FourKites provides. But I do want to remind you that we have also come up with a way for you to plug into those live updates via Zebra Workcloud – as long as the carriers you partner with are plugged into the FourKites system. You can read about how that system works and what the setup looks like in this post: 

Want to See the Real-Time Status of Inbound Deliveries or Receive Alerts When Trucks Will Be Early or Late? Now You Can and So Can Your Front-Line Workers.

And the narrative doesn't end here. 

The horizon of trailer tracking is quickly broadening beyond the traditional solutions (like FourKites + Zebra Workcloud real-time tracking) and the untraditional solutions (like Retailer X’s barcoded trailer seal).

Consider the potential of combining the core features of platforms like FourKites with the robustness of Retailer X’s strategy, all while integrating them with task management functionalities. Such a fusion would create a bridge, amalgamating the best of real-time tracking with traditional methodologies. You would be equipped with a formidable arsenal: tools to anticipate and proactively address shipping challenges, ensuring teams are always primed to manage. Be it late, early, or right on time, every piece of merchandise would be accounted for. And in the rare instances of discrepancies, like damages or other issues, the integrated system would pave the way for quick and efficient resolutions. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? 

We think so. It’s why we’re looking into what’s possible as you’re reading this.

Of course, even if we make all the right connections from a software + hardware + information system perspective, you will need buy-in from carriers to get the full benefits of these tracking tools – even if you agree to pay for the technology installation and management. But remember that you decide what the service level agreement (SLA) looks like, and you can certainly require carrier compliance with your tracking requirements. 

Now, if getting buy-in from leadership to pay for any kind of trailer tracking tools seems like the biggest hurdle here, I honestly think the numbers will speak for themselves. If you’re… 

  • paying people who aren’t doing any work (because they’re waiting on a trailer with no confirmed ETA)…

  • constantly receiving reports of cargo thefts or tampering occurring on the road and having to commit resources to investigate and attempt recovery…

  • never recovering lost inventory…

  • falling short on projected sales because your shelves are empty – and your shelves are empty because trucks are late/MIA)…

Then at some point it’s going to save you money to spend a little bit on one or more of the trailer tracking tools I mentioned above.  I bet when you sit down and crunch the numbers, you’ll see that trailer tracking may not be as financially out of reach as you think. (And I bet that your carriers will start to get on board with the idea when they get tired of fielding calls, complaints and claims from you related to late arrivals or inventory damages.)

In Other Words 

The paradigm of trailer tracking is in a state of flux, evolving and adapting to the demands of modern retail. While the allure of real-time GPS tracking remains undeniable, trailer tracking tools such as the barcode seal we created with Retailer X have carved a niche of their own, promising you a blend of control, efficiency, and unparalleled accountability. 

In this dance of technology and innovation, you stand to gain immeasurably. So, let’s talk about what’s causing friction in your supply chain and store operations and see if there’s a way to remove it – at least in part – with the different trailer tracking tools we now have at our disposal. And if we can’t find one that works quite like you need, let’s work together to come up with one that will. 

You can contact me and my team here.

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