The Container Store Deploys Voice Picking

Chain puts employees first in voice-directed warehouse application rollout

Container Store employee Paul Rylander communicates with the warehouse voice-picking system through a headset.

The Container Store credits its “employees-first” culture as integral to its success, believing that if you make employees your highest priority, they in turn will take better care of customers. It’s a business model that extends to all facets of the chain’s operations — including the decision to deploy a voice-directed warehouse picking system.

“As a company, the first thing we consider in anything we do is: How is this going to help our employees?” said Christy Parra, logistics systems director, The Container Store, Coppell, Texas. “It’s very important that any new technology we install be something that is going to make life better for our employees, in addition to the company, our stores and customers.”

After reviewing voice-directed warehouse applications, the chain decided to deploy Jennifer VoicePlus, from Lucas Systems, Pittsburgh. The tool, in essence, creates a conversation with warehouse workers that frees their hands and eyes to focus on the job at hand.

“Our distribution center employees had a big part in selecting our voice system,” Parra said. “We had to make sure it was right for them.”

Parra said employees preferred Jennifer’s human voice and voice-enabled help functions.

“We also liked the ability to tailor what the user hears, not just for ease of use and efficiency, but also to keep things fun and interesting,” she said.

The application integrates with The Container Store’s warehouse management system and supports order picking in the 1.1 million-sq.-ft. center for direct-to-consumer fulfillment and store replenishment. It includes the flexibility to use speech recognition and bar code scanning interchangeably using a standard multi-modal mobile computer.

Also, Jennifer gives distribution center supervisors increased visibility into real-time operational information and the tools they need to effectively manage their work.

Parra emphasized that for The Container Store, voice picking is about more than efficiency.

“For us, it’s not just about being faster,” she said. “It’s about safety and making things better for our employees.”

Parra said that the new system makes picking easier and also more consistent compared with the RF-bar scanning system that The Container Store used previously.

“With Jennifer, you just have to follow directions,” she said, “as opposed to reinventing the wheel on an RF device. Also, the RF bar code-scanning device is big and a little clunky to hold. Voice picking frees up both hands, which is a big plus.”

Prior to deployment, the retailer conducted training sessions for every employee who would touch the system.

The training was less about the actual operation of Jennifer — the system is easy to use — and more about getting employees comfortable with the new technology.

“Change can make people feel nervous,” Parra said. “We wanted to make sure everyone felt comfortable the day we went live, so we did a lot of training and let people practice on the system.”

The retailer also assured employees that they were not going to be “automated out of a job” by the new technology.

“We try to be as transparent as possible and make sure everyone knows the end goal,” Parra said. “So we held a meeting for everyone in the distribution center and made it clear at the outset that [the voice-picking system] wasn’t about cutting anyone. Instead, it was about helping employees be safer and do their jobs better and allowing us, as a company, to stay ahead of our growth, keep pace with technology and be continuously evolving.”

The actual deployment went very smoothly and only took two to three days.

Since going live with voice picking last fall, The Container Store has seen steady increases in picking productivity, and a sharp reduction in employee training time.

“Our employees think it’s much faster, and it is,” Parra added. “We can pick 10 to 12 times faster than before. Employees also like that they don’t have to ask someone what to do next. We deploy the work and Jennifer takes them through the day in a very fluid manner.”

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