In the last 60 years, Fred’s order-fulfillment process has evolved from loading items onto pickup trucks by hand, to operating two 22-hour-per-day, 6-day-per-week distribution centers that stock more than 12,000 items for nearly 700 discount retail locations.
But, with progress comes growing pains, and an ever-increasing volume of product pushed Fred’s material handling systems to their limits. A recent audit of the aging sortation system in their Memphis DC revealed excessive wear and tear on the sorter. It was determined that a sorter upgrade was necessary in order to avoid downtime that would cause a major disruption to the Fred’s supply chain.
View the video below to see how Intelligrated’s sorter upgrade increased Fred’s material handling productivity in a minimal rebuild turnaround time.
“Without the sorter running, we would not be able to service our customers in our stores,” said Reggie Jacobs, executive vice president of distribution, transportation and corporate service at Fred’s. “It would be devastating to the operation … We need to have vendor partners who understand how critical material handling is to the success of our organization. That’s why we picked Intelligrated to assist us with the project.”
As a part of its Sorter Upgrade Program, Intelligrated engineers identified specific problem areas of the sorter, provided a full analysis of available options and gave Fred’s the flexibility to customize its solution. It was determined that upgrading the sorter from a tube to a slat carrying surface would boost capacity to meet the retailer’s expanded needs.
Upgrading the sorter required a complete mechanical rebuild and in order to minimize downtime, Intelligrated implemented the entire sorter rebuild in just four days. A team of ten field service technicians were dispatched to execute the project, which included tearing down and rebuilding the sorter, training the Fred’s team, ensuring availability of spare parts and fully testing the new system. After four days (including Saturday and Sunday), the DC was up and running without a hitch.
The sorter upgrade has yielded impressive results through peak throughput rates, handling a higher volume and larger variety of conveyable SKUs than before.
It's time to start prepping your operation to handle returns and exchanges. Dealing with returns is a costly necessity of doing business. The key is to make sure that the process is handled in a way that keeps customers coming back. Most retailers see an uptake in returns the week after Christmas through mid-February. While there may not be time to make major changes to your operation before the inbound starts to arrive, there is time to implement the following practices so that your distribution center greets returns and exchanges with increased efficiency and exceptional customer service.
Here are five tips for dealing with returns during the post-holiday season.
1) Prepare your team
Unhappy gift recipients will want to know how to return or exchange an item. Check your staffing levels to make sure you are ready to handle the influx of calls and emails that will be coming your way.
Returns coming back from stores require personnel to strip that product from returning trailers before they can be put back into service. Be prepared to add additional yard jockeys and personnel to the trailer "clean out" process. Failure to have the right staff may make the difference of having the right equipment to put at the door at the necessary time to load outbound shipments.
Unfortunately, people often think of returns as unwanted. Therefore, all too often, it becomes an area of temptation and theft. Situations where personnel find themselves caught up in this temptation is extremely heartbreaking but the problem can be overcome with a clear message and communication regarding the value of returned product to the profitability of the company.
2) Test your inbound procedures and software
Make sure you have a well-documented process for receiving returns. This will ensure that you can easily add labor to the returns area and produce efficient and accurate results.
Returns have the potential to back-up receiving docks. The end of December is a good time to have your quality assurance team complete a review of your processes. Review and communicate guidelines for actions to take on returned items. If the merchandise is sellable, does it go back to inventory stock in a prime location to eliminate additional touches? Will a slower moving item be returned to reserve storage?
A multichannel fulfillment center has to deal directly with the returns from consumers as well as the returns coming from the retail channel. The direct-to-customer channel requires additional processes and quality assurance measures in place in order to provide the track ability of the returned package and the traceability of the product within. Have your tracking software, scanning equipment, and procedures in place and well tested so that you can easily account for all D2C returns. Give priority to D2C versus the retail channel. Customers are easily lost over a bad return experience.
3) Improve your product inspection process
The product inspection is often the most labor consuming portion of the return process. And often this need for labor comes at a time when operating budgets are the tightest. Deal with the returns in cascading levels of inspection so that damages and out-of-date products are identified immediately saving some of the more detailed inspection to be handled in a downstream process.
Closely identify and evaluate the cost added to each type of product as they go through the returns process in comparison to the value of the product. Use these evaluations to inform and make decisions that may lean more towards bulk buy-out or disposal opportunities.
4) Review vendor return guidelines
In addition to reviewing your own processes, it is important to make sure that supplier return guidelines are well established and documented. What is the cut-off date for returns? What does the quality of the merchandise need to be to qualify for a return?
When coming out of a large season, products no longer in your inventory are often returned. Since returning this merchandise to stock is not cost effective, preplan an agreed upon benchmark of the cost-to-value relationship when dealing with products that are not return to vendor or return for credit.
The space required to process and hold returns while awaiting return authorizations from vendors can tie a significant amount of valuable floor space and inventory locations. End of season returns to vendor (RTV) authorizations are often large quantities and sometimes take several weeks for approval. Work with your merchandising managers to get intermediate approvals at various major completion states.
5) Optimize use of equipment and space
Optimize facility layout by staging a quality inspection at the receiving dock to make restocking decisions and to return products back to inventory as quickly as possible.
Use outbound picking technologies for inbound logistics to get SKUs back to their location as quick as possible for resale. This can deliver a greater return on investment. For example, if sortation equipment is only used during the first and second shifts for normal outbound operations, the equipment can be used during the third shift (late-night shift) for returns. Utilize every free minute your equipment has.
The above article can also be viewed at MultichannelMerchant.com
In his latest quarterly Executive InSight blog post, Intelligrated CEO Chris Cole discusses some of the key trends impacting companies in the retail industry and how these issues effect their distribution operations. Click play below to view Chris’ video blog.
Read a summary of Chris Cole’s August 2011 Executive InSight video blog:
In his latest quarterly Executive InSight blog post, Intelligrated CEO Chris Cole discusses some of the key trends impacting retail distribution.
“The future of retail distribution will be defined by multi-channel purchasing requirements that are driven by the consumer – the so called “ubitquitous basket” that provides the shopper with a channel agnostic shopping experience. This is driven by the continued increase in e-commerce, m-commerce, even v-, or video commerce, which is on the horizon. But, however digital, mobile and social shopping behaviors become, at the end of the day the consumer needs to actually receive a physical product – which means distribution of that product.”
In his video message, Chris touches on a few of the business drivers that Intelligrated’s retail clients say are influencing change in their distribution operations:
- A perfect order is not enough: The consumer demands on-time, accurate shipments, a positive shopping experience and quality product.
- Challenging consumer behavior, such as
- Private dressing rooms: Consumers are ordering multiple sizes and styles, then returning what doesn’t work.
- First order delivered wins: Consumers are ordering from multiple merchants, and only keeping the first order to arrive. The rest are returned.
- Buyer’s corrections: Consumers want the ability to easily change or cancel an order.
What does this mean for distribution operations? Chris discusses the following issues that distribution centers need to be able to handle:
- More and more each- and split-case picking
- Mass customization of value-added services to enhance the consumers experience and build brand loyalty
- Effective management of increased returns
“Discovering efficient, labor-saving ways to meet the demand for smaller, higher velocity deliveries will be a key component of success, and will drive demand for more and more automation in order fulfillment both domestically and overseas,” Chris concludes.
Distribution operations that serve retail stores are being asked to look beyond the four walls of their distribution centers for ways to improve efficiencies and lower costs at the store level. Intelligrated discussed this trend in a recent article from DC Velocity, at ProMat 2011 and in a video interview with SupplyChainBrain at the 2011 RILA Logistics conference.
Many of our retail clients are realizing that there is a potential for significant store labor cost savings by making some changes in how DCs fulfill orders, in particular by delivering “store-friendly” loads. These loads can be arranged according to a store planogram and/or include value-added services like hangers or price tags. Optimizing orders for store receiving can significantly reduce the labor required at the store level, which can make up a significant portion of a retailer’s supply chain costs.
For retailers that are beginning to look to the DC - there are a few key elements to keep in mind, from available technologies to company considerations:
Sophisticated Software – Having the right software to drive your DC is the most important piece of the puzzle. Warehouse Control Systems continue to grow in sophistication, and have moved beyond simply managing material flow. They can now incorporate a range of capabilities to manage orders, inventory and the processes needed to optimize delivery of product. Advancements in visibility tools also provide the real-time information operators need to monitor performance and adapt throughout the day.
Understand Available Picking Technologies – Possible solutions to improve store-level efficiencies can vary from highly automated systems to traditional mechanization to basic software-driven solutions. Technologies like pick-to-light and voice can allow for operational flexibility in order fulfillment, while highly automated goods-to-person or automated storage and retrieval solutions can offer increased labor savings.
Process Changes – Consider new picking system concepts that allow the contents of totes and cartons to be organized in a way that lines up with your store planograms.
Planning for Tomorrow – Picking the right solution also means having a clear understanding of your operation’s business goals as well as current and future demands of your retail stores. These can include labor demands, promotional or seasonal requirements, frequency of inventory turns, planned store layout changes or future new store construction.
It may only be February, but spring and summer are both right around the corner. With the last of the Easter bonnets, plush bunnies and marshmallow Peeps® coming out of reserve and into pick modules, it’s time to start planning for the spring and summer surge. Lawn and garden products, fresh produce and warm weather fashion assortments will soon be hitting the receiving dock. Are you ready to begin spring cleaning?
Here are some tips to help your operation get ready:
Slotting: Out with the old and in with the new
Now is the time to review and rotate your SKU inventory and answer a few questions.
- Do you have each SKU in the appropriate storage location? Examine the cubic velocity of your item master and forecasts for the new SKU set, and move items at the end of their life cycle to slower moving locations and single deep racking or shelving.
- Are your high-velocity SKUs in the right pick face, pick module or slapper line? Plan to slot the new spring and summer higher velocity movers and initial allocation inventory into slapper lines and deeper modules for lower cost-per-piece fulfillment.
- Have you considered cross-docking? Cross-docking your fastest movers and/or initial allocation inventory could further reduce handling costs.
- Do you have enough locations for storage and picking? Consider consolidating slow moving or out-of-season inventory to free up locations. Engage your IS team for all adjustments needed to your WCS or WMS to accommodate these changes.
Personnel: Prepare your staff
- Team meeting: Refresh your associates and managers on procedures and operational changes required to handle the upcoming seasonal influx.
- New procedures: Make sure all associates are refreshed on safety procedures, and evaluate the need for new procedures. Now is a good time to introduce new procedures based on what you’ve learned from the holidays and past seasonal peaks.
Spring Cleaning: Prepare your facilities and equipment
- Safety first: More volume means more traffic through your facility. Inspect and refresh floor striping, evaluate your machine guarding and ensure all safety signage is up-to-date.
- Preventive maintenance: Ready your material handling equipment with necessary preventive maintenance in preparation for increased volume and extra production requirements.
- Summer temperatures: Prepare for climbing spring and summer temperatures and make sure all cooling systems, fans, ceiling vents and dock louvers are maintained and ready for operation. A cool and happy workforce is a productive workforce.
- Housekeeping: Top off sorter oilers and ensure guarding on chain drives are in place. Opening vents and dock doors to bring in a spring breeze can increase dust and debris entering into the building.
With a little preparation, your operation will sail through those April showers and be ready to smell the roses this spring.