July 18, 2012
technology review | Voice

The Container Store turns up the sound

The Container Store turns up the sound

Late last year, The Container Store pulled the plug on its old RF picking system and switched over to voice. The result? A 10-percent productivity gain.

By David Maloney

As its name implies, The Container Store sells, well, containers. And lots of them. Since its founding in 1978, the company has grown into the nation's largest retailer of home organization and storage systems, with its 57th store opening in Westbury, N.Y., this month. It supplies all of those stores from an 835,000-square-foot distribution center in the company's hometown of Coppell, Texas.

Dealing with the retailer's wide array of containers—some of them quite sizeable—has sometimes proved challenging for the facility's order pickers. That was particularly true under the old radio frequency-based order fulfillment system, which often required pickers to juggle scanners and unwieldy items. Last year, those challenges prompted management to switch to voice technology. The voice system is hands-free, which allows pickers to select needed items unencumbered by paper lists or scanning devices.

"We had been picking with RF for the past 15 years. It was not broken, but we were looking to improve on that," explains Christy Parra, the retailer's director of logistics systems. "We have a lot of bulky things, so going hands-free was desired."

Converting over to voice was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. According to Parra, the retailer had looked at voice systems about five years back but decided that what was available at the time did not suit its needs. This time around, it came to a very different conclusion, she says, largely because of recent technology enhancements. Compared with their predecessors, today's systems are more user friendly as well as simpler to configure, Parra says. On top of that, she says, the current systems are easier to customize, an attribute that was important to The Container Store.

The Container Store looked at systems from five different voice vendors before inviting two to come in and set up a small pilot program at its DC. Employee involvement was crucial to the decision, as the company prides itself on its employee-centric culture. (The retailer has become a fixture on Fortune magazine's annual list of the best places to work. During the recession, it managed to avoid laying off a single employee or closing any of its stores.)

"We are an employee-first company, so we needed a system that makes sense for our users," explains Parra. "Our users really drove this decision."

The system ultimately chosen was Jennifer VoicePlus from Lucas Systems. "[The users] felt that Jennifer VoicePlus offered a more natural voice," Parra reports. "Training was also very simple, and they liked the ease of the commands, as well as being able to get information back from the system."

Parra notes that in addition to the normal picking dialogues, workers can query the system about the size of their assignment, how they're doing as far as performance, and what the target goals are for that assignment—interactions that allows workers to continuously monitor their productivity. If they're about to go on break, they can even ask the system to calculate how much time it's expected to take to complete their current assignment.

The Jennifer voice system went live last September. Today, it works in conjunction with the facility's Catalyst warehouse management system to oversee all order fulfillment activity at the Coppell DC, which includes both store replenishment orders and direct-to-customer orders. (Most of the latter are Internet-based orders, but some are orders customers place in stores for shipment directly to their homes.)

The Jennifer software itself is resident on Motorola MC3190 terminals, which offer scanning capabilities in addition to voice. The Container Store currently deploys 80 Motorola units in its voice picking operations. The terminals are used by about 100 workers over two shifts—one shift devoted to direct-to-customer orders and one that handles both store and consumer orders.

Store replenishment primarily involves the selection of cases, which order pickers deposit onto pallets, with each pallet earmarked for a particular store. Walkie rider trucks transport the pallets through the pick areas.

To begin the process, a worker dons a headset and microphone and logs onto the voice system using the Motorola device. Next, he or she scans a pallet's ID "license plate," which allows the system to associate an order with a particular pallet.

The system then directs the worker to the location of the first pick. Upon arrival at the location, the worker reads off a check digit displayed on the storage rack to confirm that he or she is in the right spot. The worker then selects the required number of items and places them on the pallet. Picking instructions are sequenced so that heavier items will be picked first and thus, positioned on the bottom of the pallet.

Lucas has configured the voice dialogue for The Container Store to eliminate the potential for confusion arising from some of its product packaging. For instance, many of the retailer's items are packaged with inner-packs. To ensure clarity, the system is set up to provide instructions like "pick two cartons of six." If it merely said "pick two," the worker might interpret that as meaning he or she should pull two inner cartons out of the master carton, which would result in a mis-pick.

The process continues until all items in the order have been selected or the pallet is full. The voice system then directs the worker to ferry the pallet to a particular shipping dock for staging. On arrival, the worker reads off a check digit posted at the dock position to confirm that the load was dropped off in the right place.

Replenishment orders ship to stores as full truckloads, with the average load containing anywhere from 900 to 2,000 picks, depending on product size.

Direct-to-customer orders are also filled via the voice system at the Coppell DC. But in this case, items are picked to wheeled carts that hold six to eight order container trays, designated A through H.

To begin the process, the worker uses the Motorola device to scan a cart ID number. The voice system responds with an order number and asks the worker to scan one of the container trays to associate it with the order and its position on the cart. Additional orders are assigned to the cart via the same process.

Workers then pick items in small batches from racks according to directions from the voice system. When the picks are completed, the system provides instructions for allocating the items to containers—for instance, place three items into container A, four into container D, two into F, and so on. Workers read off check digits as they deposit items into the containers to confirm the quantities.

Once all items for the cart are selected, the voice system instructs the worker to take the cart to a packing station, where items are transferred to shipping cartons. The average direct-to-customer order contains 1.3 cartons. The facility processes about 1,200 direct-to-customer orders a day—a number that swells to about 3,000 orders a day during peak holiday times.

Since going to the voice system last year, the facility has posted solid gains. To begin with, it has seen a 10-percent increase in overall picking productivity, with a jump of 15 percent in some applications. Accuracy now sits at over 99.9 percent.

Worker safety has improved as well. For one thing, there's less bending involved, since employees no longer have to set down a scanner in order to make a pick. And since instructions are transmitted through the headsets, workers no longer need to glance down at the devices for assignments, so their eyes are always focused on their work and their surroundings.

Parra notes that during the transition, the company took great pains to ensure workers were comfortable with the new technology. In addition to familiarizing associates with the dialogue and commands needed to interact with the voice system, the retailer spent time making certain workers understood how to change batteries, plug in headsets properly, reboot the system, and so on.

"Although our employees thought voice was very cool, it was still different for them, and we wanted to make sure they were comfortable with it," says Parra. "Voice is really simple to operate, and we stressed that if you have a problem, just take a breath and repeat the command. The voice system can easily walk you through the situation."

About the Author

David Maloney
Editorial Director
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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