September 1, 2007
special report | High-Stakes Distribution

Harry Potter and the magic of distribution

Harry Potter and the magic of distribution

To the millions of fans awaiting the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the book's appearance at midnight on July 21 may have felt like magic. But it was actually a matter of careful planning and flawless execution.

By Peter Bradley

It may have been the most anticipated event in the history of publishing. It certainly was the largest book release on any single day. For the millions of fans who had followed Harry Potter as he battled the evil Lord Voldemort through the previous six books, the culmination of it all—the release of the seventh and final installment—could not come soon enough.

Bookstores around the country stayed open late into the night on July 20, many offering celebratory parties as they awaited the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Within 24 hours, booksellers of both the brick and mortar and online variety had collectively sold 8.3 million copies of the final episode in author J.K. Rowling's wildly popular series.

In delivering 12 million books on time to customers across the United States and 29 other countries under a blanket of heavy security, the U.S. publisher, Scholastic Inc., faced challenges on a par with those faced by Harry and his friends in their struggle against the most powerful dark wizard of all time. Those 12 million books represented the largest single book distribution project in the industry's history—surpassing the previous record of 10.8 million held by book six in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was released in 2005. With millions of fans pre-ordering books and expecting them to arrive on Saturday morning or be ready at their booksellers in the pre-dawn hours, failure to have books available as promised was not an option.

Nor was releasing the books early, for that matter. Scholastic took the strictest of measures to ensure that not one of those copies slipped out of its control. "When you think about the number of exposure points, it is just massive," says Andrew Yablin, vice president of global logistics for Scholastic Inc., who had overall charge of the book's distribution. "We tried to minimize the risk by having the books out there for the least amount of time possible."

That was no small feat given that the books moved by truckload, less-than-truckload (LTL), rail, and air—and in at least one case, on car-free Mackinac Island in Michigan, by horse and wagon. But it all worked out in the end, says Yablin. "Everyone had books who was supposed to have books," he says.

No magic act
Scholastic's success was no act of magic. Rather, it was a carefully planned and executed distribution effort that required close collaboration among members of the company's logistics team and a core group of carriers.

Planning for the rollout began in January, even before Scholastic had the finished manuscript. Internally at Scholastic, the project would require tight coordination among members of the logistics staff and their colleagues in sales, purchasing, customer service, and manufacturing. Yablin points to Ed Swart, director of operations, and Francine Colaneri, vice president of manufacturing and procurement, as key partners and team members.

The close collaboration also extended to Scholastic's logistics partners: J.B. Hunt, Combined Express, Yellow Transportation, and ActivAir. J.B. Hunt, one of the nation's largest truckload carriers, moved the majority of the books—all but about a million of the copies. Hunt operated in partnership with Combined Express, a Bensalem, Pa. based logistics and trucking company that specializes in publishing and retail shipping. Yellow Transportation, a major LTL carrier, handled domestic LTL shipments. ActivAir, an international forwarder that specializes in book and magazine distribution, managed international shipments to 32 destinations in 29 countries.

Yablin notes that several of Scholastic's carriers were old hands at the Harry Potter distribution game. Both J.B. Hunt and Yellow, for example, had been involved in previous Harry Potter releases. Hunt, in fact, was able to pull together the same team to work on the most recent rollout. And Yellow Transportation's team was headed by Terry Budimlija, director of operations for the Chicago area, who had played the same role in earlier releases.

What's the plan?
During the months leading up to the rollout, each of the carriers met with Scholastic managers frequently and developed detailed distribution plans, which Scholastic managers had to approve. The carriers were bound by strict confidentiality agreements until the project was complete.

The plans were based on various factors, such as length of haul and, for international shipments, customs clearance. Among other matters, carriers were expected to spell out how they planned to balance the need to deliver the books early enough for Scholastic's customers to supply their own (or their customers') outlets with the need to keep the books under wraps as long as possible. They also had to address matters pertaining to security and cost. Yablin, not surprisingly, paid particular heed to the carriers' plans for maximizing shipping density in order to minimize both the total number of shipments and the transportation bill.

Yablin points to the planning process with Yellow as an example of how the collaboration paid off. "The biggest difference this time was the rare opportunity for the carrier to sit at the table and help design the logistics plan," he says. "Six months ahead, their leadership team sat [down] with me and helped me maximize what we could do."

The planning meetings weren't restricted to the carriers' management teams, however. Mark Calcagni, J.B. Hunt's vice president of sales for national accounts in the Northeast, reports that the meetings held by Scholastic, Combined Express, and Hunt also included safety, security, maintenance, customer service, and other Hunt personnel as well as rail and truck operations managers."We didn't leave anyone off the list [who] might touch this," he says.

With a project of this scale, Calcagni explains, Hunt felt that it was essential to get all of its people on board. "You can have all the technology," he says, "but it comes down to drivers and the other people." In particular, Calcagni praises Steve Keller, Hunt's senior operations manager for special projects, and Larry Koger, the carrier's director of operations and customer service, for their work on the project.

Yellow Transportation also made it a point to include people from all areas of the organization in the planning process—especially its security team. "We involved them up front to make sure we had a good security plan," says President Maynard Skarka. "It is safe to say that a project like this gets the highest security."

Load 'em up …
As soon as information on the book's actual size and weight became available, Scholastic began the process of calculating load plans. "Then we could plug that into a formula to see how many books we could get on a truck and then reserve the capacity," Yablin says. The eventual load plan came within 1,000 pounds of the legal maximum allowable weight on the trucks.

When it came to the particulars of load planning, however, Scholastic's logistics partners took on much of the responsibility. For full truckloads, Combined Express— which acted as a third-party logistics service provider— worked with Hunt to design a uniform plan: Each truckload would be exactly the same as the next. The uniform loads were palletized, with each pallet shrink-wrapped with a corrugated top and banded. "It was a pretty tight package," Yablin says. "We tried to design the package so we could tell pretty quickly if product had escaped the system."

Before the trailer doors were closed and sealed, every load was photographed. Yablin compliments Hunt for its performance in executing the plan. "Hunt was phenomenal," he says. "They did not drop one load."

For LTL shipments, Yellow Transportation had charge of loading. In contrast to previous projects, Scholastic and Yellow agreed that the carrier would be responsible for load and count, which made Yellow responsible for any discrepancies at delivery. "We brought their folks in and allowed them to load out the way they wanted to,"Yablin says. "We had the load plan ahead of time. We knew which ZIP codes were served by which terminals, and we organized the flow out of the DC by terminal and by trailer."

… and move 'em out
As the official release date neared, the process of moving the books from the binderies to distribution centers run by major resellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders Books, and Amazon got under way. J.B. Hunt handled these shipments, which were all full truckloads that moved direct to the DCs.

The delivery schedule was based on Combined Express's length-of-haul calculations from the binderies. Shipments for destinations farthest from the binderies moved out first for delivery to staging locations within a day's drive of the customers' DCs.

Hunt brought all of its staged trailers to company facilities chosen for their tight security. "We picked out places that we felt were secure, with people on site 24 hours a day," Calcagni says. "It was kind of a secretive operation. We handled it through our normal flow, but we watched it differently."

On site, Hunt used trailer-tracking and -monitoring technology from Terion Inc. to provide geo-fencing around each trailer. "If a trailer moved 10 feet, it would set off an alarm," Yablin says. "You don't want to depend on the guard at the gate. Before it would get to the guard gate, it would get turned around."

In addition to the electronic safeguards, security personnel checked the trailers' seals several times a day. Once the trailers hit the road, Hunt relied on its Qualcomm satellite tracking system to alert dispatchers if a trailer strayed from its prescribed route.

In all, about 70 percent of the loads moved entirely over the road. The remainder moved as intermodal shipments, with Hunt providing the drayage and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Norfolk Southern railroads handling the rail linehaul. All deliveries were by appointment.

"There were a lot of pieces [to put together] to make this work," Calcagni says. "This laydown was our biggest success. We had four book laydowns for experience and had the same team members involved. That was key. It was flawless."

Still, the project was not without its challenges. One of the issues for Hunt, for example, was asset utilization. As with all truckload carriers, one of Hunt's prime concerns is keeping its equipment moving (and productive). But the size of the project and the security requirements meant tying up some trailers for longer than usual. "Because of the production schedule—with that volume we had to work far ahead of when we wanted the customer to have the product—we used Hunt for storage in transit," Yablin says.

Covering the bases
While Hunt handled the truckload shipments, Yellow Transportation took charge of the LTL shipments, which moved to their destinations from Scholastic's Jefferson City, Mo., DC. LTL shipments for the East and West coasts went out first, followed by those headed for destinations closer to Jefferson City. Yablin notes that as a result of the advance planning, 60 percent of the LTL shipments handled by Yellow were able to move direct to destination terminals, avoiding intermediate handling.

The LTL shipments involved about 250 to 275 Yellow terminals, with deliveries to all 50 states. The plan called for shipments to arrive at secure Yellow facilities the night before the deliveries were scheduled. "The time of the shipments' release was based on transit times," Yablin says. "They know to the hour how long it takes."

Skarka attributes the project's success in part to the carrier's efforts to communicate the delivery plan throughout the Yellow network. "We had to make sure everyone in the system understood the plan and that everyone had accountability," he says. "That was the most challenging piece."

Yellow took special care to see that nothing went awry with the deliveries. Scholastic and Yellow even set up a special toll-free number for drivers or consignees to call if they had any delivery issues. "We didn't want refused deliveries. We didn't want anything coming back to us," Yablin explains.

For the tightly controlled release, all of the books were packaged, wrapped, and labeled with security in mind. Labels, for example, did not identify the book, and opaque black shrink-wrap on skids and pallets obscured the contents and made any tampering quickly evident. To add to security, drivers were told only that they were picking up printed material.

Yellow Transportation, however, took things a step further. The carrier also designed a special label for the shipments that included both the delivery date and instructions in bold type telling drivers not to deliver early. "In their network, early delivery is a good thing," Yablin says. "They had to re-train their whole workforce that early is not good."

Potter goes global
Scholastic's logistics challenges weren't limited to the domestic arena, however. The publisher's logistics team also had to arrange for the air shipment of books to 29 foreign countries to coincide with the release date.

With the previous Harry Potter releases, Scholastic had permitted consignees to select their own forwarders. But that had sometimes led to problems with shipment visibility. So this time around, the company decided to use a single provider for its export shipments: ActivAir, a forwarder based in the United Kingdom. "We told our export customers that if they were going to get product, we were going to use one freight forwarder," Yablin says. "That way, we were able to control the timing of the release from us to the foreign airport."

As with the trucked shipments, all of the air shipments moved on pallets. Those pallets were built for air export at one of the binderies and moved by J.B. Hunt to an ActivAir facility. That facility provided 24-hour manned security, primarily by off-duty police officers hired for the project. All shipments moved in wide-body aircraft that could accept LD7 aircargo containers. "Nothing was loaded in the belly loose," says Joe Kronenberger, vice president for the United States for ActivAir. The forwarder also established an over, short, and damaged (OS&D) reporting process on receiving to ensure that goods arrived intact.

When it came to scheduling, the goal was to have shipments clear at destination as close to the release date as possible. "Scholastic allowed us to put the plan together based on our experience with clearance and delivery in each country," Kronenberger reports. The shipments moved on a total of 17 airlines and all- cargo carriers.

"My guys did a great job," Kronenberger says. "I was able to put this in the hands of my general manager, Kent Gauger, and export operations manager, Andrew Barnes. Empowering people from the very top down … made this a success."

Yablin likewise has nothing but praise for his own team and his carriers. "This is part of history," he says. "This one will be hard to eclipse."

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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