Transforming Complex Retail Processes with Low-Code

Schwarz Group establishes a decentralized software development capability with Mendix to digitize processes across the retail value chain.

Across Europe, Schwarz Group is the parent organization to two beloved discount grocery chains – Lidl and Kaufland – who have over 12,000 and 1,500 stores, respectively.

The Schwarz family of brands places an emphasis on delivering products to their customers at the lowest price point by prioritizing efficiency throughout their supply chain. And technology is critical to delivering on this promise.

Schwarz Group has historically relied on many manual or legacy processes to carry out operations from the warehouse to store shelves. In 2021 they adopted the Mendix low-code platform to rapidly deliver digital solutions that empower their workforce to be more accurate and efficient, with over 120 applications live to date.

Removing Barriers to Innovation

With a vast network of employees, customers, and suppliers, Schwarz’s global IT team has a long list of digital demands. IT struggled to address their backlog in a timely manner due to the rigidity of traditional development platforms and a lack of developer resources.

“We needed something that would be faster to develop than building in SAP or with high-code, like Java or C#,” said Zdenek Prochazka, Head of Rapid Application Development within Schwarz IT.

Prochazka cited the lack of flexibility as a key barrier to innovation. Simple updates to existing systems, such as new content or adding workflows, could take days or weeks to implement.

“If we could offer a professionally-supported low-code platform, we could democratize development work out to other team members in the organization and allow our SAP and high-code developers to focus on very specific, mission-critical projects,” he shared.

In 2021 the Schwarz IT Group adopted Mendix and prioritized standing up a low-code practice and Center of Excellence (CoE). Having a central hub for Mendix learning and implementation would empower the smaller, local IT teams working in regions like Portugal, Romania, or The Netherlands to deliver digitization projects specific to Lidl or Kaufland’s needs within that region.

Inspiring and Empowering Local Teams

For Prochazka and his team, empowering regional developers and leveraging Mendix is solving the challenge around development velocity that previously permeated throughout the organization.

“Typically our developers are addressing areas of the business or processes that have not been digitized at all,” said Prochazka. “We are having more meaningful conversations about solutions as we can see them come to life more quickly. It is completely different than talking about how a process works on paper. ”

The Mendix CoE within Schwarz promotes resources that further accelerate developer productivity, such as:

  • A starter application, or a template app that comes with standard branding, modules, and features to avoid duplicate work at the start of each new project.
  • Leveraging the library of reusable modules, components, and APIs from the Mendix Marketplace.
  • The knowledge of the internal Mendix community to share ideas, solutions, and address challenges.

Marcian-Petrut Bondoc-Popescu is a developer working for Schwarz in Romania and an active member of the Mendix community. “Our community Teams channel allows us to connect internationally when we have questions or ideas. Recently I was tasked with integrating an SMS service module and I asked about this topic in our internal channel,” he said.

“A team member in Lidl Netherlands reached out to me, as they had recently done something similar, and they shared details on how to approach and consume that API without going through the same trial and error that they had already done.”

Annika Schatz leads the Mendix Center of Excellence in Schwarz IT, and has seen several examples where the composable, abstracted nature of Mendix has significantly reduced development timelines.

“I think the best example is one project where we received an estimate to build the solution in Java that would take 800 days. We scoped it out with Mendix and estimated 200 days,” said Schatz.

“It turned out to take 300 days, and that was because we were moving so quickly that the product owners wanted to add even more features than we originally planned for. It was a huge difference.”

Product Recall Efficiency

The speed of low-code development has made more room for experimentation and prototyping within Schwarz. “In our case, we are talking about building prototypes in one country to learn more about how something can be done,” said Prochazka.

“That country can learn and test, and then we can think more broadly about how to make changes or updates and then roll it out on a more international scale.”

One example of this is PRIA, an application that manages product recalls, which was developed in The Netherlands and is now being rolled out internationally. Christiaan Snoek, a solution consultant for Lidl Netherlands, has been part of the team overseeing the development.

“It’s one of my favorite applications. We built [PRIA] to manage the very complex process of withdrawals and recalls within our stores. Previously, this was a very inefficient process,” said Snoek. Product recalls can happen for various reasons at any point in the supply chain.

For instance, a supplier may have made an error during production or a truck transporting goods to stores can overheat. This means the recall can start at several points in time, ranging from the warehouse or the store shelves.

Prochazka gives the example of a recall in Lidl Germany, where communication must flow from 40 regional warehouses to over 3,000 stores, and then to the employees of those stores, too. “You have a very complex workflow of information, and the process needs to move very fast,” said Prochazka.

“With PRIA we are saving time processing all of this information. We are also gaining the ability to communicate via the channels we need to reach the right people. We integrated Teams, SMS, and our in-store information portal. The recall messages surface where our team members are already looking.”

PRIA provides greater transparency by integrating real-time information on the stock of the recalled item to surface how many units have been sold or are still on shelves. This is particularly valuable in cases where Lidl may need to alert their customers or the public.

“The process of recalls happens all the time and requires people to work outside of regular hours if there is a problem. So PRIA also helps us to improve work-life balance by reducing the manual burden on our team members and allowing them to focus on other things,” said Snoek.

End-to-End Process Transformation

Today, Schwarz has delivered over 120 Mendix applications. These solutions are improving communication, transparency, and accuracy for warehouse employees, suppliers, and retail team members.

In one case, the EDI (Electronic Date Interchange) application, manages the organization and processes for EDI supplier management. There are many instances where Schwarz will need to exchange EDI messages with their suppliers. To establish this type of communication they need to agree on a structure, attributes, and types of messages.

“This is typically a very long process with many steps. Lidl and Kaufland also have over 16,000 suppliers in different countries. To organize this collaboration and help us get to an integrated message saves us a lot of time on both sides,” said Prochazka.

Today, the EDI application has 15,000 vendors working within the application as external users to orchestrate communication with Schwarz stores.

In Lidl Portugal, the use of Mendix has snowballed from financial form requests to an order control application that optimizes inventory.

“Since we deployed our first application, Fin Forms, we received a lot of positive feedback right from the very beginning. We had many other departments come to us wanting their own Mendix application,” said Gonçalo Henriques, an IT consultant at Lidl Portugal.

“In 2022 we developed an application called Order Control to audit the preparation of goods from the warehouse to our stores. Before, there would often be goods missing or too many would arrive to the store.”

Order Control is a progressive web application (PWA) that runs on a Schwarz-specific mobile device. The device has a barcode scanner and runs on a private browser. With the app, employees can more readily see the inventory and ensure that the correct quantity makes it from the warehouse to the store. This application was the first of its kind where a Mendix application would run on a Schwarz mobile device.

“We engaged the Mendix team to help us. Now that we have configured these capabilities, we are already seeing more ideas where we can support processes that run through the warehouse to stores,” said Henriques.

Henriques says that before Mendix, Lidl Portugal typically could wait years for new applications to be developed by central IT. Today, following the infrastructure and processes established by their CoE, the country’s developers are delivering 2 applications per month and showcasing MVPs sometimes in just weeks.

In Switzerland manager of digital solutions, Vasco Lobo Branco, shares that Mendix has been critical in eliminating Excel or paper-based processes. In late 2023 the Lidl Switzerland team launched their Cleaning App to digitize the checklist associated with regular deep cleanings throughout the stores.

“The module cleaning is a deep cleaning that happens 3-4 times throughout the year at night. It’s done by a service provider and then a store employee has to review and inform the facility management team how it went,” Branco summarized.

“The store employee used to have a paper checklist. The first challenge was that it was static, so it couldn’t be customized on a store-by-store basis.” In cases where the cleaning was not properly done, a game of telephone would ensue between the store, facilities team, and service provider to ask for more details and photos.

The Cleaning App now runs on Schwarz’s Zebra devices. Facilities management can configure the modules for each store on the back-end. Automatic notifications keep store employees aware of when cleanings are happening, and now they can use the mobile device to take photos if something isn’t done properly and they will be routed automatically to the facilities team.

“We end up saving time for the store employees and reduce the sending of emails. It is a game-changer for our facility management team and a great way to combine Mendix with our mobile office solution.”

Technology Supports Business Vision

Investing in a rapid development capability is helping Schwarz to deliver on their ultimate goal to bring customers quality products at discount prices. This newfound speed and accessibility of software development has made way for new ideas that previously may have gone unaddressed or deprioritized within IT.

“Experimenting is the essence of the Mendix platform, and it’s one of the big advantages compared to traditional development. With traditional development you are more code-centric and you don’t want to waste time trying things, because iterating on the unknown might be too time-consuming,” said Bondoc-Popescu.

“But with low-code, everything is easy. You can copy, paste, export, and import from one place to another. It’s begging you to try and figure it out. You can research or delve into something without having to worry too much about the time you’ll spend. If you are curious and willing to get your hands on something, then you can start to build quite quickly.”

Across Romania, Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and more – Schwarz team members are bringing ideas to life more quickly than ever before. “Mendix gives our local IT teams more freedom and possibilities. Somebody in Spain will never need a snow service app, but somebody in Finland does. That is one of my favorite examples,” said Schatz.

“It also gives us a modern approach to software development. When you look at all of the hot topics in the technology world right now, low-code seems like just another buzzword. I prefer to see it as a next step in our evolution, not a less valuable technical solution. We need software developers and it is hard to find them. Suddenly, with low-code, you have access to completely new groups of people that were not available before.”