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5 Best Practices for Routing in Food Distribution


Routing isn’t the hardest part of being a successful food distributor—but it probably comes pretty close. Route engineers agonize over how best to make sure that each customer gets what they need, when they need it, week in and week out. routing for food distribution

Then, when the rubber meets the road and the week’s actual orders materialize, it’s anyone’s guess how well those weekly plans are going to translate into daily routes for your drivers. And that’s before we even get into adding new customers, updating customer frequencies, or adapting to the changing needs of the market. 

Getting these routes right—and then executing on them successfully—involves complex processes that can be hard to optimize depending on what tools and technologies you have supporting your efforts. The result is that routing is usually a source of stress and a major time-suck, rather than powering flexible and efficient last mile logistics.  

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you can implement these five routing best practices, you can level up the service you offer to your food distribution customers—all while reducing costs.    

Utilize Cloud Technology

Let’s talk for a second about the current technology market for food distribution routing. Over the course of the past few decades, many food distributors upgraded from routing based on spreadsheets and maps to leveraging some kind of software—on-premise by default. 

For reasons that we don’t need to spend too much time on here, on-prem deployments of routing software have been the norm in food distribution for years, even as cloud-based solutions have become much more common in other industries. Why? Because very few of the SaaS  route optimization providers were able to account for the unique routing needs that come with effective food distribution. 

Most solutions could handle dynamic route optimization—i.e. the kind of route planning process that works for industries like retail where you have a different customer mix each day of the week. But dealing with recurring weekly orders with multiple time window preferences and different cycle times wasn’t within their capabilities. Finally that’s starting to change. 

As SaaS routing solutions designed for food distributors make their way into the market, distributors will finally be able to reap all the benefits that come with cloud technology. For instance, they won’t have to purchase new servers in order to scale, they won’t have to worry about deploying software updates manually across multiple branches, and their software solutions won’t be ticking timebombs of obsolescence.

In this way, you can pave the way to make the other best practices in this list feasible. More than that, you can future-proof your routing in a way that’s impossible with on-premise software.  

Reroute Early and Often

Like we said, many of these best practices are predicated on the idea of SaaS routing solutions. Of course, not all SaaS solutions are created equal—the best case scenario is a solution that can generate and optimize routes quickly and is easy for your team to use.  

Why are speed and user-friendliness important? Because they enable you to reroute as frequently as you need to to keep up with changing customer needs and an evolving network. 

Let’s say you’re opening a new distribution center and might want to move some of your customers onto new routes. You don’t want to wait until your yearly planning exercise to potentially improve cost efficiency and customer service. By the same token, you want to be able to understand right away what would happen if you took on a new customer, or if you changed the frequency or days of the week with which you deliver to another customer.

When reroutes are easy to pull off as needed, you can perform them early and often. You can test out potential route changes without wasting weeks in the process, and you can make smarter decisions more quickly whenever the market—or your operation—changes.  

Make Sure Your Weekly Planning Translates Easily into Daily Routing

You know what they say about the best laid plans. But when it comes to routing, there’s a spectrum: any route plan has the potential to lead to disruption when the orders actually come in for any given day of the week—but some plans are too disconnected to execution and become immediately prone to disruption. 

That’s why what you really want is a single pane of glass for planning and daily routing. When you generate weekly plans, you shouldn’t have to import them into a routing module in another software solution, then export the plans back to your planning solution when they don’t work. Adjustments to plans and routes should happen seamlessly, and adjustments to one should automatically update the other. 

Not only does this save time, it reduces the potential for delivery disruptions and helps you improve the service that you offer to your customers. 

Blend Static and Dynamic Route Optimization

Speaking of daily routing: what’s the best way to make sure you’re getting the most out of your delivery capacity? Dynamic route optimization. But how are you supposed to leverage dynamic routing when your business relies on static routes to ensure that regular customers get the service levels they expect? 

The answer: a hybrid approach that combines both static and dynamic route optimization. There are different ways that this might look, but the general idea is that you start with a static route based on your weekly plan—this includes all of the stops that you know you need to make, with the amount of flexibility codified in the system. Then, using this static route as a blueprint, you dynamically route around your constraints based on the actual orders that materialize that day. 

You have to strike a careful balance in order to avoid causing chaos. Customers that want to be the first stop on Tuesdays and Thursdays have to stay the first stop on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while more flexible stops need to be optimally sequenced around those “anchors.” But when you have the technology to navigate those complexities, you can instantly boost your route efficiency and get more out of your last mile operations—all while ensuring that your customers get the level of service they expect. 

Leverage AI-Powered Routing

One of the reasons we placed an emphasis on cloud routing software deployments above was that it makes upgrade cycles much easier. With no effort on your team’s part, you can be sure that you’re always running the latest and greatest version of the software. This is especially important when it comes to routing, because the most powerful route optimization tools increasingly leverage AI capabilities—and as those capabilities get better, the software that you’re already paying for gets better as well. 

That’s not to say that AI isn’t mature enough to have an immediate impact on your routing. It is. It can leverage huge amounts of historical data in order to generate smarter ETAs than a legacy software system could hope to generate. This, in turn, enables you to be more efficient with how you sequence your routes, since you don’t have to risk late deliveries to important customers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As this technology evolves, it has the potential to empower even greater efficiency across the board.

Routing in food distribution has historically been a difficult process, but in the era of SaaS technology and AI it has the potential to look completely different. With the right best practices and the right technology, routing for food distributors can be an area of improved efficiency and flexibility in the last mile of the supply chain.  

check out our food and beverage distribution resources hub


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