For Threadless.com’s warehouse manager Bryan Schaefer and warehouse director Lance Curran, holiday 2010 was a learning tool.
Just one month before last year’s holiday season kicked into high gear, Threadless moved into a new 45,000-sq. ft. facility in Chicago’s West Loop. Founded in 2000, Threadless specializes in graphic T-shirts and currently carries 5,000 SKUs. The warehouse employs 24 people—a figure that usually triples during peak periods.
“We had a lot of questions as far as set-up, layout and how things were going to be managed as we headed into holiday last year,” Schaefer says. “Even though we made it through in one piece — and pretty smoothly to say the least –there’s always a need for improvement.”
Since last year, Schaefer says there have been changes to the way the packing stations are laid out and things such as posting aisle markers at eye level at the beginning, middle and end of every aisle. “We also made some minor tweaks to keeping our shelves full at all times that paid major dividends. This helped improve with the speed and flow of how orders go out.”
Those minor tweaks included using more people and adding a designated refill worker on each shift.
Individual goals play an important role at Threadless. “We are vocal about achieving individual goals such as units picked per day and error rates,” Schaefer says. “Seeing is believing, so giving workers more knowledge about how they are performing helps immensely with improving the flow of orders that are being shipped out on a daily basis.”
Curran says the company’s seasonal staff has been excellent. “We like to interview our temps individually before we bring them on, but we also have a temp agency we use as a backup that we didn’t have going into last year. Having that backup is important when we need help on the fly.”
Last year Threadless received a huge amount of orders on Black Friday, “but we didn’t have the staff to run more than one shift that day and over the weekend,” Curran says. “This year we are planning on running multiple shifts starting Black Friday and through the weekend to make sure we stay on top of the rush. Refill is important. Nothing slows down fulfillment more than stockouts, so make sure you have a good refill system in place that can keep up with the extra volume going out the door.”
Since Threadless is an online community, Schaefer says, “we truly care about each and every customer so we want them to receive their products as accurately and quickly as possible in order for everyone to be happy when Christmas morning rolls around.”
This is more challenging for international orders, which is over half of the business, “but we do a pretty excellent job of meeting the cutoff date. Our goal is to stay within 24 hours from when any order is placed, but I always shoot a little higher and say 16.”
Keeping temporary workers around for the duration of holiday period is always a challenge. “This is five to six straight weeks of constantly picking and packing mass amounts of orders so keeping these workers focused and motivated gets more challenging each day,” Schaefer says.
Curran says incentives such as offering free T-shirts have been helpful in retaining seasonal help.
Stress is another hurdle, which Schaefer compares to the playoffs for the warehouse.
“All of our workers know how important holiday time is and this is the time to shine and make a name for yourself,” he says. “But with this kind of pressure it will also create some stressful periods. Not getting completely overwhelmed and keeping stress levels low will ultimately create a better and more efficient work environment. Stress always trickles down from the top of the chain so it’s up to us, as managers, to lead by example and keep the environment in the warehouse enjoyable.”
Curran says getting employee feedback regarding how the holiday season can be better is crucial.
Despite moving into a much larger warehouse last year, Threadless still needs to be creative with space during the holiday season because “we receive three to four times as much product for holiday as we normally do so finding a place to put new products on the shelves and store the others in back stock will be another challenge.”
There has to be communication in advance of the holidays, Curran adds. “Bring in all your reps from third parties you work closely with to see who they are planning for holiday and how you can work as a team to make sure things run smoothly.”