BY JOHN D. SCHULZ

BY JOHN D. SCHULZ

Every logistics manager itches to know how his or her company stacks up against its competitors. But finding out isn't easy. A logistics manager can't just call his counterpart at Brand X and ask prying questions about inventory levels, transportation costs or other intimate details of their supply chains.

So a group of big companies is trying the next best thing. Operating on the assumption that they can learn from the experiences of their peers, transportation executives at five large U.S. retailers - Best Buy, Home Depot, OfficeMax, Rite Aid and Target - have launched what they describe as the most comprehensive best-practices study their industry has seen.

They and 75 other big retailers are cooperating in the Inbound Retail Best Practice Process Review, a survey conducted by Percite Information Technologies Inc. The survey aims to find out what's happening in inbound retail supply chains - and to provide participants with ideas on how their companies can improve.

Wilson Lester, senior vice president, supply chain, at Rite Aid and a member of the survey's steering committee, said the survey will enable participants to see how they stack up against competitors in such areas as technology. The results could be used to win corporate support for investments to improve logistics efficiency, he said.

Wayne Bourne, vice president of transportation for Best Buy, the Richfield, Minn.-based electronics retailer, said survey participants will be able to say, "This is how other folks manage their supply chain. These are the results they get. This is what our supply-chain team can get."

Bourne said this survey is different from any other that he has seen because it's designed by retailers for the benefit of retailers. For example, the survey's section on order management includes questions related to the use of prepaid vs. collect freight terms, an issue of keen interest to retailers.

The organizers of the survey realized that retailers would never divulge sensitive supply-chain information unless it was given to a neutral third party who promised to keep it confidential. Percite, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, is filling that role. Percite helped prepare the online survey and will aggregate the data so that no firm's competitive information is compromised. Specific company data will not be shared even with members of the steering committee, said John Traendly, a former FedEx executive who is president of Percite.

Data will be collected in an online survey - or interview, as Percite calls it. The survey consists of 325 questions, each of which may have multiple parts. Some of the questions have up to 100 data points. The survey has nine sections. Traendly estimates that each will take an hour or two to complete. Most participating retailers have divided sections among in-house specialists on various subjects, he said.

Traendly hopes to get the online interviews back by mid-August. Percite will hold regional meetings with participants from late September through mid-November with participants to review the results and discuss the insights gained. Participants will receive a copy of Percite's final report, expected by year-end.

To obtain meaningful results, organizers are seeking the broadest possible participation. As of last week, 80 companies, many of them with multiple retail chains, and with annual sales totaling more than $600 billion, had signed up for the survey, Traendly said.

The survey's questions probe companies' retail categories and product lines to obtain insights into the type of freight being moved. A building-supply retailer would have some things in common with a department store's retail shipments, but it wouldn't be an apples-to-apples comparison. Percite's job will include to distill the responses into information that can be useful to different kinds of retailers.

Some of the questions, such as cost of goods sold, will require input from company finance. One question asks how supply-chain overhead costs compare with the cost of goods sold or corporate revenue. Others deal with such topics as inventory levels, replenishment and service-provider rates. That category is broken into truckload and less-than-truckload, as well as air, ocean, private fleet and third-party logistics providers.

Other sections focus on organization, technology, order management, truck, fleet, international and ocean, delivery of goods to stores, and logistics technology.

The transportation questions are detailed. The ocean section asks participants to list their top three carriers, the approximate annual container volume with each carrier and the number of years they've been doing business. It then asks them to rank each of 19 criteria on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of their importance in selecting carriers, and to rank their satisfaction with their top three carriers on each of those 19 criteria. The criteria range from rates and on-time performance to insurance and financial stability. Other criteria in this category include capacity availability, proactive alerts, billing accuracy and C-TPAT certification.

There's more: Importers will be asked about shipment routing and the average actual transit time from vendor to U.S. destination from various regions, by ocean and air. The survey asks whether the West Coast port shutdown last year changed their routing plans, and if so, what they've changed. It also asks shippers what percentage of their shipments had to be expedited last year, and the reasons for having to do so, ranging from the vendor not being ready to ship on time to bad weather and customs delays in either the country of origin or in the U.S.

The original draft of the online survey contained a section on airfreight, but Percite dropped that because retailers said it did not represent a significant portion of their transportation spending. Nonetheless, those who do use airfreight regularly should benefit from questions regarding air transport in the international section. Participants are asked to identify their top three air carriers, the percentage of shipments from various regions, their primary reasons for using airfreight, their satisfaction with their top three carriers on rates, on-time performance, billing accuracy and other criteria, as well as the top five products they ship by air.

Among other things, the technology section asks about the respondent's use of electronic data interchange, what EDI standard they use, whether they use internally developed software or a purchased package to process electronic transactions, whether they use carrier websites or forwarder websites to track shipment status, and whether in-transit shipment messages are linked to SKU-level detail on shipments.

Discussions that led to the survey began last fall. The first draft of the online interview was ready in mid-March. After four weeks of interviews with numerous supply-chain executives to get their views on content, the online questionnaire was updated and posted on the Percite website (percite.com) on June 23. Interest in the survey has already prompted Percite to add a message board.

Bourne said he expects the survey to produce an Internet chatroom environment that allows supply-chain executives to exchange ideas. "We're interested in getting factual information that is actionable," he said.