Magazine Article | May 1, 2002

Keep An Eye On Distant Sales

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

WMS (warehouse management system) upgrades and facility expansion drive a major clothing distributor's customer base from coast to coast.

Integrated Solutions, May 2002

From the vantage point of corporate headquarters, the view of the national sales landscape can be as skewed as a gaze down the wrong end of a telescope. While those tiny figures at the other end of the receding tunnel may in fact be potential customers, they can seem to be unreachable. The key to bringing them up close and personal is a distribution system that flips the telescope into its intended position and puts distant customers right at hand.

Getting the telescope affixed to the proper perspective was the challenge Bodek and Rhodes faced in the mid-1990s. A Philadelphia-based company since 1939, Bodek and Rhodes distributes t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other printable items to companies that do customized screen printing and embroidery. By 1994, when it expanded into the over 200,000-square-foot warehouse it now operates in Philadelphia, Bodek and Rhodes realized that, in order to continue to grow, it would have to garner customers outside of its home region, the Eastern seaboard. Competitors with multiple facilities spread out across the United States could already reach more customers in the one- to three-day turnaround times screen printers and embroiderers demand. Says Richard Weisbrod, Bodek and Rhodes' director of warehouse operations, "In our industry, if you can't service customers in a day or so, they will find a supplier that can." For example, when Phoenix-based Company X decides on a Monday that it wants 150 "10 Years Of Success" golf shirts for the following Saturday's corporate retreat, the screen printing company it calls will look for a distributor that can respond quickly with raw goods. "Unless you're part of the West Coast market, you're not going to be considered a primary supplier for that order. You'll be the fourth or fifth call the printer makes, and that will happen only if no one in the region has the product or can deliver it fast enough," Weisbrod explains. "We had to go national in order to grab more market share."

To do that, Bodek and Rhodes had to make two key moves. First, it had to expand its distribution coverage area by building strategically located remote warehouses. Second, it had to bring in a WMS (warehouse management system) that could work with the company's central order processing system and provide just-in-time inventory replenishment for its customers. In addition, the new WMS would have to be configured to operate independently at each remote warehouse in the event of a system communication breakdown at the Philadelphia headquarters.

WMS - The Long And Short View
In 1998, Bodek and Rhodes opened its second warehouse, a 127,000-square-foot facility in southern Michigan, adding the Midwest to the geographic territory the distributor can cover. To complete the coast-to-coast span, it opened a 151,000-square-foot warehouse in California three years later.

In both facilities, Bodek and Rhodes installed Stradivari Premier, a browser-based, RF (radio frequency)-enabled WMS from Vertex Interactive, Inc. (Fairfield, NJ). In each facility, including the Philadelphia location, Stradivari Premier runs independently, managing incoming and outgoing inventory for that facility. Each facility's WMS also connects with a legacy order processing system, which runs on an IBM RS/6000 box at corporate headquarters. "We have Windows 2000 servers running Stradivari Premier at each location," Weisbrod explains. "If we lose communication with our host system in Philadelphia, we can still operate in Michigan and California. Those facilities can continue to pick, put away, or ship anything they have in their systems at the time of a host system disconnection." Moreover, the likelihood of a disconnection has greatly decreased since Bodek and Rhodes switched from dedicated T1 lines to frame relay for connecting each facility's WMS with the host system. "There are fewer glitches than we had with the T1 lines, which would go down in a storm or get cut every two or three months," says Weisbrod. "Plus, since we were using the T1s less than 60% of the time, it was more cost-effective to go with frame relay."

Using frame relay, orders released from credit approval processing are exchanged with each warehouse every three to four minutes via flat file transfer. A zip code table on the host system determines which warehouse will fulfill the order, depending on available inventory. Once the order has been pushed to a particular warehouse, Stradivari Premier configures the order for a picking and packing process facilitated by RF (radio frequency)-based handhelds and access points from Intermec Technologies Corp. (Everett, WA).

An additional processing engine, which simulates EDI (electronic data interchange), ties the legacy order management system directly to Bodek and Rhodes' suppliers. That connection ensures warehouse inventory is replenished according to sales trends the system has been monitoring. For example, in mid-January 2002, in anticipation of pre-Super Bowl trends, the WMS in the Philadelphia warehouse released orders for trucks loaded with blank t-shirts to be sent to Pittsburgh and Boston, as well as to customers in Philadelphia. Because all three cities had representatives in NFL conference championship games, screen printers in those cities were preparing to produce "conference champion" shirts for hometown fans of Super Bowl-bound teams.

See Fit To Ship Faster
With the opening of each additional warehouse, Bodek and Rhodes has steadily increased its ability to hit industry standard turnaround times in a larger geographic coverage area. "Adding the Michigan facility enabled us to service 49% of the country the next day and the rest in two to three days," Weisbrod says. "Now, with the addition of the California facility, we can service 65% of the country in one day and the rest in two to three days."

With new warehouses and a new WMS driving its processes, Bodek and Rhodes can now confidently tell customers that, if an order is placed by 4 p.m., it will be shipped the same day. According to Weisbrod, the company lives up to that promise 99% of the time. Because a typical order is only one or two cartons, Bodek and Rhodes can rely heavily on carriers such as FedEx and UPS to supplement its own fleet of trucks. To increase its chances of turning same-day shipping into next-day delivery, Bodek and Rhodes often practices "zone skipping" with its outsourced carriers. For example, from the Philadelphia warehouse, it sends trucks to UPS hubs in Stratford, CT, and Harrisburg, PA, in order to ensure next day delivery in a region extending from Maine all the way into eastern Ohio.

Not only have new warehouses and a more efficient WMS enabled Bodek and Rhodes to increase its coverage area and decrease its response time, they have also helped it to increase and manage a significant increase in its offerings. From the 5,000 SKUs the company offered before the warehouse expansion and system upgrade, Bodek and Rhodes' inventory has grown to 13,000 SKUs - a 260% increase.

Expand Your Horizons With Warehouse Expansion
Even with Bodek and Rhodes' recent growth, Weisbrod notes that expansion is likely to continue. "We have grown from a regional to a national company in only four years," Weisbrod says. "But, we still have competitors that have more facilities and can cover certain parts of the country more quickly than we can. So, we will look for future expansion in order to take even more of their market share." Any expansion efforts will target the goal of offering next day delivery to all customers. With just-in-time replenishment becoming a standard customer expectation, hitting the one-day turnaround mark is imperative. "Remember, our customers stock nothing," Weisbrod asserts. "We are the warehouse."