September 1, 2005
enroute | National Motor Freight

A very special delivery

a very special delivery

With millions of muggles waiting for the latest Harry Potter volume to hit the bookstores (or their doorsteps), the people charged with its distribution relied not on magic, but on careful planning and painstaking execution.

By Peter Bradley

There is magic in literature, the kind of magic that engages and entrances a reader and draws him or her into the characters' lives. And in some books, like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, magic is deeply entwined in the plot's twists and turns as well.

Whether or not that explains the phenomenon that is Harry Potter, there's no denying that the series written by J.K. Rowling has resonated with readers around the world. The publishing phenomenon continued this summer. On July 15, fans of Harry Potter flocked to bookstores around the nation to await the stroke of midnight, when the sixth book in the series would go on sale. Within 24 hours, 6.9 million copies of the book were in customers' hands.

While the books' appearance at the stroke of midnight may have seemed another bit of magic, something much more mundane was at work. The responsibility for ensuring that stores had books to sell on July 16—but not before—required not magic, but careful planning and execution among its publisher, Scholastic, and Scholastic's printers and distribution partners. Given the project's scale—an initial printing of 10.8 million books—and the stipulation that every one of those books be kept under wraps until the release date, it's a story worth telling all its own.

It's all in the planning
The job of planning for the distribution of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince fell to Andrew Yablin, who is vice president of global logistics for Scholastic. It was not his first experience with Harry. Yablin also headed up the logistics effort in 2003, when the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was released.

Yablin credits meticulous planning, which began in January, for the smooth rollllout. "I think the biggest key to our success, because we knew that this was going to be quite large, was the pre-planning that went into the whole thing," he says. "Plus I was fortunate enough to have the same team members both internally and from all the providers—it was a veteran team."

For Scholastic, the team included Yablin; Francine Colaneri, vice president of procurement, who oversaw manufacturing; and Ed Swart, direcr of operations for the Scholastic Trade Division. "Watching a team that's been together before come together again and build on opportunities from the last time was an unbelievable experience," Yablin says. "For the three of us, it was quite an interesting challenge time the print-and-bind schedule to what sales needed and to what would work on the distribution and logistics side."

The carriers that would haul all those books also took part in the planning. Terry Budimlija, who headed up the Harry Potter team for Yellow Transportation, reports that for Yellow, the process began in January. "We had multiple discussions, conference calls and such to talk about the details, delivery dates and what Scholastic expected from Yellow. What we needed was information ahead of the product. Our detailed planning couldn't begin until we had information on shipments, consignees, delivery dates— information that allowed us to electronically sort into service centers and distribution centers."

Early on in the process, Yablin and his colleagues visited each of the eight U.S. binderies that would produce the book to ensure their shipping processes met Scholastic's strict requirements. "The three of us went to every one of the binderies and put on a presentation on exactly how things were going to happen. Whether it was coming out of bindery A or bindery F, it had to be handled exactly the same way," Yablin says. Scholastic went so far as to create a standard operating procedure that detailed everything from how pallets were to be shrink wrapped to the steps to be taken to ensure that shipments were handed off to the correct driver.

Yablin and his team also made site visits to the carriers' offices, traveling to both J.B. Hunt's headquarters in Lowell, Ark., and Yellow Transportation's headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., to work out in detail when and how the books would be moved. The team also remained in close communication with its other distribution partners, like Combined Express, a Pennsylvania-based third-party logistics service provider that managed all the appointments, deliveries and routing for Hunt and United Parcel Service (UPS).

Carriers get on board
Though Scholastic printed more copies this time than it did with the fifth volume (whose initial print run was a mere 6.8 million), its carrier base was smaller this time around. Yablin says he chose to use a single truckload provider to maximize the payload in his truckload shipments. Hunt ended up handling every one of the 10.8 million volumes in the first printing, including those that moved through Scholastic's own distribution center into the Yellow or UPS systems. That amounted to about 1,000 truckloads. "The last time we weren't able to maximize payload because we had various providers with different tare weights on their vehicles,"Yablin says."This time we worked with Hunt specifically on getting the same equipment, and we were able to take some of our payload targets up to overcome some of the cost increases." Those included diesel fuel costs that ran about a dollar a gallon higher than in June 2003, for the previous Harry Potter release, plus increases in base rates for all carriers. "We needed to maximize transportation capacity," Yablin notes.

Apparently he succeeded. "With Hunt's help, we averaged over 79,000 pounds on every truckload," Yablin reports. (The maximum allowed on most U.S. highways is 80,000 pounds.) "That takes a lot of pre-planning, a lot of skill. We kept everything legal, but we kept it right at the legal max. Once we knew the book's specs and weight, we were able to max out the loads. I think we brought the payload up almost 8 percent on average from the last book to this book, which was really phenomenal."

Safe and secure
Hunt had the task of carrying all the books from the binderies and staging them for delivery to DCs run by major customers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, as well as to Scholastic's DC in Jefferson City, Mo. But it also had another, more daunting responsibility: safeguarding those books between the time they were printed and the release date. The enormous number of books involved and the time it took to produce them increased that challenge. Scholastic's printers began producing the books in late May, a full month and a half before they went on sale, lengthening the period of exposure.

The books could not linger for long within the binderies, which had little storage space. So the team had to come up with a different solution. Because the copies would move mostly in truckload quantities, the team decided to pre-position a lot of truckloads, using the trucks as rolling storage in Hunt's secure yards.

But the books didn't stay there for long. Two or three days after the presses started up, shipments of books began to move out. At that point, keeping those shipments secure while positioning them for delivery became the carrier's responsibility. "We told them that security was job number one on this project," Yablin says. "There was an eight- to 10-week period where we had to keep this under wraps. We absolutely mandated that everything would stay on the trailers. I didn't want to take it off and put it in another facility."

This time around, the job was made easier by technological tools that weren't available in 2003. "I think technology has come a long, long way in a short period of time," says Yablin.

Those technological tools included Qualcomm's OmniTracs satellite tracking system and its OmniExpress wireless fleet management system, which are installed on Hunt's tractors to help the carrier keep tabs on shipments in the yards or on the road.

Hunt also equips its trailers with the FleetView wireless trailer management system sold by Texas-based Terion, a business-to-business wireless communication company. That system, which provides trailer location and event status information, became an important tool in safeguarding shipments after they were loaded.

Yablin explains that Hunt programmed the system on each truck to indicate the route from the bindery plant to the destination yard, so that it would trigger an alarm if the truck strayed off course. But even after the trailers reached their destination, the Terion system remained activated. "Once a trailer was dropped in the secure yard, there was a geo-fence put around it," Yablin says. That meant the Terion system would send an alert if a trailer moved as little as 10 feet, he explains. "That was a tremendous advance from where we were just two years ago."

Over and out
Another of Hunt's responsibilities was to move truckloads of the Harry Potter book from the binderies to the Scholastic distribution center in Jefferson City, Mo. There, the books were staged for shipment via Yellow Transportation or UPS.

"We tried to make that process as close to cross-docking as we could," Yablin says. "We had our own procedures in the facility to keep the books out of the commingled storage rack. But we definitely tried to time it so that as soon as a Hunt truck arrived, the cargo was quickly loaded onto another vehicle and sent back out."

Much of that activity took place late in the process. For instance, Yellow collected the 750,000 books it would handle in some 2,000 shipments in late June. Those shipments, almost all carton pick orders, were scheduled based on the transit times Yellow needed to deliver books on Thursday, July 14, two days before they went on sale.

Though it handled less total volume than Hunt did, Yellow found that its job still presented plenty of challenges. The carrier had scheduled deliveries in the 48 contiguous states, plus Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Yellow was essentially responsible for two waves of deliveries: the first to small distributors or resellers that then shipped the books to other customers, and the second to small booksellers, drug stores and small retailers. The bulk of those deliveries were executed on Thursday, July 14, with a handful on Friday. Some shipments were as small as half a dozen cartons.

"Every single delivery was pre-positioned out to the destination terminals by Wednesday night. It all happened on Thursday, and we were able to move everything by road. We did not use any air," Yablin says. "By following their lead in getting products to the outer islands, Hawaii and up to Alaska, we released on time to minimize cost and keep the loads secure but also get them in position. In a lot of cases, we were able to load LTL direct to densely populated areas like Los Angeles and Boston and New York. We were able to load those in Missouri so that we wouldn't have to open the trailers until the delivery day. They were actually route loaded, so that we didn't have to touch it. We reduced our security risks significantly by eliminating the need to go through any of their DCs."

It helped that Yellow was able to determine how its trucks would be loaded well in advance of the books' release date, says Budimlija. "Once we had a spreadsheet that had all the information, we were able to lay that on top of our network and put together a plan for loading trailers with the highest level of security we could. We were able to load 95 percent of the shipments to destination service centers or destination DCs. That minimized handling."

Most of Yellow's work took place on the weekend before the book's release, with shipments timed to reach destination terminals on Wednesday for the Thursday deliveries. Shipments to more distant locations, like Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, had moved earlier in the month.

Part and parcel
Along with Hunt and Yellow, the third carrier that participated in Scholastic's big rollout was UPS. Yablin says that although UPS played a relatively small role in the process, it was nonetheless a crucial player. The average order size was larger this time than for the 2003 release, he explains, so economics dictated that a larger share of shipments would move via LTL than by parcel delivery. "But it was still critical to have the small-package service provider," he says. For Scholastic, UPS handled shipments to some of the smallest retailers, as well as residential deliveries for books ordered directly from Scholastic, about 1,300 deliveries for a total of 16,000 books.

Both Yellow and UPS had a team working in the Scholastic DC for several days. "We had their teams on the ground verifying count and address and order," reports Yablin. "We shipped carrier load and count: We did not want any problems with the count because of the security issues that would arise if something showed up at its destination short. We wanted to make sure the carrier was absolutely 100-percent responsible."

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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