A rapid increase in e-commerce orders, shipments, and returns has been fueling growth and driving change at the Popken Fashion Group, an affiliation of four fashion companies with locations in 30 countries. In particular, the increased activity has been a catalyst for change in the company's Rastede, Germany, fulfillment center, which ships orders to end customers as well as Popken's 650 stores and business partners around the world. The company needed to find a way to alleviate the growing strain on the fulfillment center's operations and prevent customer service levels from slipping.
A retrofit of the firm's material handling system for returns was just what the doctor ordered.
"In the same amount of space, we can process twice as many returns as we could two years ago," says Thomas Wetter, head of logistics for Popken Fashion Group, noting that the new system yielded results immediately upon completion of the project earlier this year.
Popken Fashion Group's fulfillment center upgrade and retrofit included automated transport systems, packaging machines, conveyor systems, and support services from material handling solutions provider Interroll and logistics integration/consulting firms Cars & Rails and IntraLogistik. In total, the overhaul of the 59,000-square-foot fulfillment center took two years to complete.RETURNS: A KEY TO CUSTOMER SATISFACTION
The returns process is front and center at Popken Fashion Group because of its direct influence on customer satisfaction—and it is taking on even greater significance in an omnichannel environment.
"Having an effective returns management process has always been a strategic factor for Popken," says Stephen Cwiak, senior vice president and head of subsystems at Interroll, which provided the equipment for the project. "However, the recent [omnichannel challenges] have made it even more critical for the company to have a sound returns management infrastructure that can increase speed and improve processing capability so that the returns are fed back into the continuous distribution process."
To that end, Popken decided to heavily automate its returns process, with conveyor systems and packaging machines that have increased productivity in the fulfillment center by about 30 percent. Employees inspect returned items for quality before entering them into the automated system, which returns them to inventory or sends them off to a new destination for shipping. Popken implemented a modular flat conveyor system that moves the merchandise—most of which is polybagged for flat conveyance by the new packaging machines—throughout the facility to its final destination. The solution's flexible design allows the company to process a variety of types of goods, including boxes, containers, and textiles, in addition to the polybags.TAKING ACTION: THE NUTS AND BOLTS
As for the equipment used, Interroll retrofitted Popken Fashion Group's returns processing area by installing its modular conveyor platform (MCP) solution and semi-automated processing systems, including its RollerDrive solution, which is used to power the belt and roller conveyors that run throughout the facility. The modularity of the conveyor systems allowed Popken to customize some of the project—primarily to improve ergonomics and ensure a seamless connection with the automated packaging machines.
To further enhance productivity, the project connected Interroll's MCP to employees' workstations. Combined with the automated packaging machines, this allows Popken to package up to 3,600 articles of clothing per hour, Cwiak says.
But it doesn't end there. The new system is also helping to reduce costs in the distribution center. The driving factor is Interroll's RollerDrive solution, which utilizes zero-pressure accumulation, a technology that divides the conveyor system into zones that are switched on and off as needed—via sensors and intelligent controls—so that the system is only moving when there is material to be conveyed. This cuts down on energy costs and reduces noise as well as wear and tear on equipment. The system uses the same technology to create buffer zones that handle peak and seasonal needs.
In the end, it all adds up to a better-run facility and improved customer service, according to Popken. As Wetter explains, the 30-percent productivity improvement means that products are returned to inventory and ready for delivery even faster—ensuring that customers get what they want, when they want it.
"The Popken Fashion Group's main focus when it comes to logistics is making the customer number one," explains Wetter. "[We] are always interested in improvement in order to deliver the product to the customer as quickly as possible."