Operations and Management: Musician’s Friend Marries Up Freight Savings

Marrying up has paid off for Musician’s Friend. The Medford, OR-based cataloger of musical instruments and accessories cut its outbound freight costs 20% by switching from a ship-alone to a marry-up fulfillment system. And although the picking and packing labor costs increased 10%, or $300,000, the first year as a result, the cataloger saved $3 million in parcel packaging and shipping, says founder/CEO Robert Eastman.

“Marrying up” refers to combining shipments of large and small items. In such a system, an order for a large item, such as a guitar, would be fulfilled in the same package as a smaller product, such as guitar strings, ordered at the same time. During its early years — from 1983 until 1997 — Musician’s Friend married-up orders as a matter of course, as is typical for smaller operations.

But having outgrown its original Medford fulfillment center by 1997, the company added two more distribution centers, in Kansas City, MO, and Knoxville, TN. From then until 2001, Musician’s Friend filled orders out of the three facilities on a ship-alone basis.

The ship-alone process can be more efficient in terms of picking and packing. Generally speaking it’s more costly to combine a large item picked from one end of a distribution center by a forklift with a small item hand-picked at another end of a distribution center — or taken from a different distribution center altogether.

Nonetheless, marry-up shipping for a cataloger of large goods, such as the musical instruments sold by Musician’s Friend, “makes a lot of sense,” says fulfillment consultant Wayne Teres, president of Framingham, MA-based Teres Consulting. Generally, “combining package shipments outweighs even the packaging costs,” he says. “The trick is to make sure the smaller product doesn’t get damaged by the larger one.”

Bill Kuipers, partner with the Haskell, NJ-based fulfillment consulting firm Spaide Kuipers & Co., also points out packing problems as a potential drawback for marrying up. “It’s so cumbersome to pack efficiently,” he says. “You can usually save on handling at the expense of a freight cost increase.”

That wasn’t the case for Musician’s Friend, though. “To get a product ‘married’ to an item from forklift to carousel can be a logistical nightmare,” Eastman admits. “So most catalogers that sell large bulky items will ship them separately from smaller accessories.” But in Musician’s Friend’s case, “the outbound-freight split-order cost of having dual packages runs way more than the cost in labor to bring the large item into an area together with the small item.”

In 2001, Musician’s Friend, which is now owned by retailer Guitar Center, consolidated all fulfillment to its largest distribution center, in Kansas City, Eastman says. And after six months of development — including the inhouse writing of a special software program and the building of a special staging area — the company switched back to a marry-up system in February 2002.

The software identifies orders arriving from the cataloger’s primary picking carousel so that the marry-up clerks can match them with the large products that are coming in on pallets from its forklift pickers. In addition, the pickers and packers are equipped with hand-held radio frequency devices that tell them where items are located in the warehouse, enabling them to communicate and marry up in batches. Once the products are matched, they go into the marry-up staging area, are scanned, and packed together as one shipment.

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