After the marriage: moving in

As in other industries, consolidations and mergers are sweeping through the catalog business. But only after the courtship, when it’s time to integrate logistics such as warehousing, fulfillment, and computer systems, is the marriage truly tested.

To ensure a smooth integration, mailers should, while they’re hammering out the terms of the deal, figure out if, when, and how operations will be combined, says Todd Barr, vice president for direct marketing services for Atlanta-based consultancy Kurt Salmon Associates. “I’ve seen due diligence performed as an afterthought, which led to problems during integration further down the road,” he says.

For instance, before Delray Beach, FL-based office supplies retailer Office Depot and Los Angeles-based cataloger Viking Office Products merged in June, they agreed that whenever possible, “distribution centers will be consolidated,” says Viking president Irwin Helford. “But it will be done carefully and only when we have the systems in place to make it successful.”

Nine out of Viking’s 10 U.S. distribution facilities are in states where Office Depot also has distribution centers. The companies are considering their first warehouse integration, in Cincinnati. When Office Depot’s Cincinnati distribution center lease expires next summer, Viking may expand its Cincinnati operation to accommodate the Office Depot business, Helford says.

Westerly, RI-based cataloger Paragon also was in no rush to consolidate operations when it acquired Boston-based puzzle cataloger Bits & Pieces in 1997. Both parties agreed that Bits & Pieces would continue outsourcing its fulfillment to a third party rather than have Paragon’s Westerly warehouse fulfill for the new acquisition. “We try not to get into the peripheral issues, such as integrating, right away,” says Coy Clement, president of parent company Paragon Holdings. “We want to concentrate on growing the business.”

It’s the technology… Unlike Paragon, however, many catalogers are anxious to maximize warehouse efficiencies almost immediately following a merger. To ensure the success of integrating warehouses, experts say that the technology of the merging titles must be compatible. “Sometimes the advantage of acquiring a company is totally blocked if you can’t get at its systems,” Barr says.

When $35 million Potpourri Collections, which owns gift catalogs Potpourri and Expressions and needlecraft titles The Stitchery and Counted Cross Stitch, bought Durango, CO-based equestrian gifts cataloger Back in the Saddle in October, Potpourri needed to modify systems only slightly to integrate the new title with its Medfield, MA, warehouse. Back in the Saddle’s daily sales and merchandise reports, for example, can now be accessed through the Potpourri system.

“The whole process took about two weeks,” says Potpourri president Jack Rosenfeld. “I think what made the Potpourri acquisition of Back in the Saddle successful is that both companies are PC-based. And our computer system is set up for multiple catalogs. We already had four divisions, so adding a fifth was no problem.”

On the other hand, women’s apparel and home goods cataloger Bloomingdale’s By Mail overhauled its entire distribution center this past summer to accommodate the fledgling catalog business of fellow Federated Department Stores marketer Macy’s.

For starters, Bloomingdale’s By Mail added 130,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space to its Cheshire, CT, facility and renamed the operation Federated Logistics Direct. Bloomie’s also reconfigured its computer systems to accommodate orders from both companies and retrained more than 600 operations employees-900 for the holiday season-to become familiar with Macy’s fulfillment practices.

As the call volume rises, so does the stress level in the call center. (If your phones are ringing off the hook with holiday orders, you know what we mean.)

Signs that your reps may be at their boiling point include avoidance techniques, such as coming in late or lollygagging after breaks; sniping at co-workers; and that certain “edginess” to their voice.

Before your reps take out their stress on each other-or on your customers-consider the following stress-busting tips:

* Give your phone reps a break, especially after they handle a difficult call. “Some reps need to be able to vent, and that’s perfectly natural. Those emotions help to remove stress,” says Liz Kislik, a Valley Stream, NY-based call center consultant.

* Encourage regular stretching or exercise breaks. Kislik suggests the following tension-relief exercise, which reps can perform at their station: Sit at the edge of the chair, and place one foot slightly ahead of the other. Then rock back and forth, keeping your head steady and shoulders down and back. After a few repetitions, switch feet.

* Hire someone or train a staffer to lead reps in relaxation exercises, such as visualization techniques (“picture a calming place, perhaps a deserted island or an ocean”) and breathing techniques (“take long, deep breaths from the chest”).

* Lighten the mood. “Laughter is the best way to relieve stress,” Kislik says. “Tell jokes, post cartoons, maybe even rent a Marx Brothers or Three Stooges video to show on breaks.”

* Show your appreciation. Your reps may be more willing to work harder under stressful holiday conditions if they know you care about them. For instance, Carol Bamberry, manager of customer service and sales for Littleton, NH-based gift cataloger Littleton Coin Co., says fun activities, such as “secret Santa” drawings, gift certificate giveaways, and free lunches, work best to motivate her 16 call center reps. “A little creativity goes a long way,” Bamberry says. “As long as your people feel they’re appreciated for the work they do, they’ll pull through for you.”

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