I Can See for Miles
A year ago, Ideals Publications (WWW.IDEALSPUBLICATIONS.COM)—a Nashville, Tenn.-based division of Guideposts that publishes 100+ titles annually for children and adults—was operating, as many publishers do, under a paper-based inventory management and distribution system that involved order-faxing and a returns-handling system that could sometimes take weeks. Last July, however, Ideals began working with a new distribution company that had a new warehouse management system in place, called IRMS, to automate inventory management and returns processing. Today, Ideals’ order- and returns-management process is paperless, and its inventory levels are more accurate and visible to them in real-time. Returns are in the door and back in active stock in a matter of minutes, not days or weeks.
The system is based on bar-code scanning, eliminating manual reporting and tracking. When inventory is scanned, its status is automatically recorded in the system. When orders are placed, the system searches existing inventory and determines whether stock is sufficient to fill an order. Outgoing orders are then removed from the available stock listing and tracked throughout the process.
For Brad Jones, Ideals Publications’ operations manager, one of the best parts about the system is that he can view the data anytime he wants, right from his desk, via an Internet site. “It really helps with tracking things down and reducing error. It gives us a better idea of what kind of inventory we have,” he says. “… They have a virtual warehouse on the Internet, and we can check their stock regularly and make sure that our records match, and we can track returns.”
Keith Shay, president of Ware-Pak (WWW.WARE-PAK.COM)—the University Park, Ill.-based book distribution and fulfillment company that Ideals works with—says the system benefits his publisher-clients by providing them with a virtual view into the warehouse, but it also saves his company significant time. “One of the things about the IRMS system that is pretty phenomenal is that its inventory system [is electronic]. Previously, we were on a paper system. So you had to create cards for every location, you had to write on the card, what the product was, you’d count it, and you’d have to key in all that information.”
Jones adds, “It took a long time to get things going [prior to this] ... There were no automated systems, and we had to send a fax each day ... They [the distributor] would process the orders. Whereas Ware-Pak is sending stuff out the same day.”
Returns … Simplified
Another big drain on time is handling returns. The idea behind IRMS is to streamline returns-handling to enable publishers to get their books back into active inventory faster.
Returns from bookstores are in a state of “disarray … and [require] quite a bit of processing,” says Carl Brewer, president of the 10-year-old Integrated Warehousing Solutions (WWW.IRMSWMS.COM) that created IRMS. “So what we’re doing with Ware-Pak, is that as [a book] … is being received or recognized in the returns process, at an ISBN by ISBN level, we’re recording it and tying quality assurance to that process, so that a publisher has the ability to know within a two-second time frame: This is what I got back, this is what its condition is, and their ability to resell it,” he explains.
“… Whereas, in the past, that may have taken anywhere from two days to a week [to sort out returns and record the data], now we’re doing it in two seconds to five minutes.”
Jones says, “Since it processes returns a lot quicker, we’re able to access that stock and send it back out.”
“Eighty-five percent of returns are processed [including receiving, assessing the condition, remarking and reshelving] the same day, which … really helps us because then we have the product back on the shelves so that we can complete the orders,” says Shay.
Also important, notes Brewer, is publishers’ ability to see distributed books that are not yet sold. “A lot of bookstores will take inventory on a consignee basis,” he says. “In the meantime, that inventory sitting on the shelf [at the bookstore] may still belong to the publisher. So the publisher needs to know what they have, where it is, and their ability to act upon it. That’s probably one of the strongest values of that IRMS is providing in this model.”
For international distribution, where shipping times and returns processes take that much longer, Ideals Publications says the time savings are especially valuable.
LINKING THE SUPPLY CHAIN
For different types of users, the system can have different benefits. For example, Shay says, “If you’re an educational publisher, you’ll put together a kit to send out to the market [containing different inventory items]. It’s critical those kits are done properly. This module allows us to assign a kit number to something, which has really made the whole kitting operation much smoother.”
Each piece of inventory has an SKU or ISBN number, as does the final kit. “The system will … look to see what you have in inventory … and tell you how many kits you can make,” Shay explains. “Without that module … you’d be running around the warehouse just to see if you could do it.”
Brewer says, “It’s about real-time visibility of taking critical data from all different points across the supply chain and bringing it back up to a single view … so the publisher has a greater increased service level to their customers, they have a lot of discrete controls because of that visibility.”
While Jones says it’s hard to quantify the exact amount of time he has saved over the past year, he says, “We don’t have to constantly oversee inventory.”
He estimates that he spends at least half as much time overseeing inventory as he used to. “It’s definitely a lot faster,” says Jones. BB