OPERATIONS

The Container Store Deploys Voice Picking

BY Marianne Wilson

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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How to stop the retail executive exodus

BY Christine Rivers

Compared with most other industries, retail companies face shorter time horizons and tighter metrics. The pressure to perform is great, which perhaps explains why many retail firms are having trouble holding onto their top executives.

For example, one major U.S. retailer recently suffered the departures of a senior marketing executive, a division president and another executive VP, all within the space of a few months. One of those executives had lasted only five months, while another had a tenure of less than two years.

This high turnover problem goes right to the top of the retail executive ranks. A recent study (2011 Russell Reynolds Associates U.S. Retail CEO Study, “A Perfect Storm: CEO Succession Challenges in Retail”) of more than 80 major U.S. retailers with more than $1 billion in annual revenues found that retail CEOs were 80% more likely than their Fortune 1000 CEO peers to leave within two years of being hired.

How can the retail industry find a way to reduce executive turnover and improve retention? Here are five suggestions:

1.Make hiring decisions based on where the company is headed, not where it has been.

Operational excellence should be an important consideration in CEO succession, but it should not be the determining factor. Rapid technological change is pushing companies to reinvent their business models and rethink the way they reach customers. In this environment, it is crucial to have executives at the top who are willing to take risks, make mistakes and focus on top-line growth, even if such actions fly in the face of conventional operational excellence beliefs.

2.Realign the culture to embrace innovation.

Your best executives can have excellent alignment with your strategic goals as a retailer, but they will still end up exhausted and thinking about jumping ship if they have to fight constant battles with the corporate culture. Hiring an executive for his or her capabilities as a strategic thinker does not make sense if the overall organization continues to worship at the altar of operational excellence.

3.Build bridges; break down silos.

Retail companies want their leaders to be innovative, but most innovation requires the interplay of opinions, perspectives and ideas. When a work force is segregated into silos, there is little room or opportunity for innovation to take place.

One way to start breaking down silos is to make sure that leadership development tracks give executives a chance to experience both the functional and commercial side of the business. As long as silos are allowed to persist, they will impede innovation, causing frustration among creative senior leaders and ultimately making it harder to retain the sort of forward-thinking executives that companies need most.

4.Don’t ask an individual to move a mountain.

Individual leaders may be talented, strategic and creative, but they do not operate in a vacuum. Asking an executive to lead change in a static and entrenched organizational culture is like asking a single person to move a mountain northward when thousands of others are being paid to push the mountain in the other direction.

Yes, it is important for companies to have innovative executives in key positions, but it is equally important to develop governance structures, systems and processes to support these executives, foster a culture of debate, and encourage calculated and strategic risk-taking.

5.Make sure HR has a seat at the table.

Beyond showing that the CEO understands human capital is a strategic concern, having an HR representative on the top leadership team gives companies an opportunity to map out the organization’s talent demands several years into the future. This talent map gives companies the ability to build, develop and recruit leaders whose skills, temperament and vision match the company’s own culture, strategy and objectives.

Christine Rivers is a VP and leader of Hay Group’s Leadership and Talent practice for the Retail sector. Hay Group is a global management-consulting firm.

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Digital Signage Goes Portable

BY Marianne Wilson

Portable digital displays proved the ideal solution for a temporary installation at a Gap store in Manhattan. The application takes the hassle, along with the unsightly cords and wiring, out of digital signage.

The retailer deployed tabletop digital signage displays that run on rechargeable batteries, eliminating the need for any external power. The freestanding portable displays, from BrightSign, measure 10.5 in. by 19.9 in. by 9.9 in. and feature a built-in 12.1-in. high-resolution screen and media player. They are self-contained and enclosed in a sleek steel display tower.

“There aren’t a lot of electrical outfits on the floors of most retailers, and that has dictated where digital signage displays are placed, which is often on the perimeter of the store,” said Jeff Hastings, CEO, BrightSign, Los Gatos, Calif. “But with the battery-operated portable displays, the retailer can place the signage directly on merchandise tables and check-out counters, and right where the shopper is making the buying decision.”

The batteries in the BrightSign tabletop displays provide 15 hours of life. Gap recharges the batteries overnight, similar to how a consumer would recharge a cell phone, while the store is closed.

Gap installed the displays in the small shop adjacent to its flagship on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. The space is routinely made over to spotlight limited-time Gap partnerships and special collections. At the beginning of the summer, it was dedicated to the Gap-Threadless summer collection of graphic T-shirts. (In February, Gap entered into a partnership with the Chicago-based Threadless, which works with emerging artists to produce unique T-shirt designs.)

The chain used the digital displays — 15 in all — to draw attention to the individual artists who designed the 15 T-shirts on display and to tell the story about what inspired the design. (The displays were positioned on the top of the fixtures.) Threadless used BrightSign’s BrightAuthor PC software application to create the content (video, which plays as a slide show) that ran on the players. The software is available free to the supplier’s customers.

“This type of display takes the customer from being interested to being engaged to purchasing,” Hastings said.

The screens, which provide full-motion high-definition video, are designed with a 180-degree viewing angle, he added.

The BrightSign tabletop displays are equipped with Wi-Fi adaptors that allow for content updates through store networks or other remote locations.

“New content can be downloaded very quickly with the Wi-Fi connection,” Hastings said, “which makes the displays very dynamic in nature.”

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