Big Shot

Nov 01, 2004 10:30 PM  By

MIDWAYUSA INC. of Columbia, MO, is a mega-player in the shooting business. The company serves a worldwide customer base, offering a menu of more than 50,000 SKUs. Entrées run the gamut from shooting, reloading, and gunsmithing supplies to hunting and outdoor products. Founded as a gun shop (Ely Arms Inc.) by Jerry and Larry Potterfield in 1977, the company has grown into one of the largest online ammunition and shooting accessory providers in the country.

Much of Midway’s success is attributable to home-grown methodologies and a practical rather than excessive investment in ordering and fulfillment technologies, says information systems vice president Joel Felten. Efficiency is a prime directive, and it is achieved in large part through microscopic attention to detail. O+F interviewed Felten to understand the unique attributes that contribute to Midway’s efficiency and gain insights into how a cutting-edge pick/pack house earns its bread.

ON ORDER New orders enter the facility via e-mail and the contact center. MidwayUSA’s super-sophisticated inbound phone system consists of a T1 line and an interactive telephone switch provided by Interactive Intelligence of Indianapolis. Based on Windows 2000, the system controls the Midway facility’s phone network. Call monitoring and recording can be done from any PC in the building. E-mail documents can likewise be received and fired off from anywhere.

“Interactive Intelligence allows us to pay close attention to what’s happening in the contact center,” Felten says. “We listen in on four calls per agent per week, and coach all agents regularly. One of our goals is to cut back on abandonment rate. Our goal is to answer within 20 seconds, and this applies to both order and service calls. Right now we’re at 80% in this area, which is really very good. We time calls as well. At the moment they average around five minutes per call, and that too is very good indeed.”

Interactive Intelligence permits supervisors a God’s-eye view of the contact center, Felten says. With a click, supervisors see how many calls are ongoing, how many are waiting, and how many agents are available to take calls. The system can pinpoint calls by agent as well, allowing supervisors to track performance and individual call efficiency. Interactive Intelligence also has the ability to channel incoming e-mails directly to the appropriate agent, rather than to some central receiving area for forwarding. The result is that agents can respond to e-mails in an hour or less, instead of the 24 hours customary for most online companies.

“Interactive Intelligence ties up all loose ends,” Felten says. “With it we can do call monitoring, recording, e-mails, Web-chats, and Web collaboration — just about anything imaginable. The system gives you real-time data on phone conversations and e-mails going on right now. It’s a boon for the agents, efficiency-wise. When an old customer calls in, the system cues in on the information we have on the guy, and up pops a screen with everything on it. The agent doesn’t have to bring up the screen. It’s there automatically. He can address the customer by name the moment he takes the call.”

INDUCTIVE REASONING Orders are picked, packed, checked for quality, and shipped by means of a smart conveyor network supplied by Hytrol Conveyor Company of Jonesboro, AK. Through a process that Midway calls “tote induction,” a warehouse worker scans a barcode on the invoice, checking it against the information keyed into the WMS. The invoice is then placed in a tote that the system conveys to each picking station in the facility. Each station consists of a 20-ft. conveyor on which totes accumulate for processing. An eight-digit number appears on each invoice, indicating stock location. The first three digits signify the row, the next two the shelf level on the row, and the last three the slot.

“We’re especially concerned with velocity of product,” Felten says. “We arrange the inventory to be within easy reach of the pickers so they’re not running around all over the place filling orders. This is done through a concept we call ‘pulling distance,’ the idea being that fast-moving stuff should be not distant at all. Hot product is placed right next to the conveyor. The picker simply turns around, pulls what he needs, and moves on to the next step in the process.”

When the tote receives the product allocated for it at one picking zone, it is placed on the conveyor and forwarded to the next. There may be five or six zones in all, and aided by the warehouse management system, the smart conveyor automatically sends the tote to each one in turn until the picking part of the process is complete. Invoices are scanned once again for shipping, and the stock in the tote checked against the results for accuracy. When inaccuracies are detected, the computer prints a reject label. The label is affixed to the tote, which is then conveyed to the appropriate picking zone for correction.

CHECKS AND BALANCES Quality control takes place on many levels, says Felten. In the shipping area, the order is rechecked, placed in a package carton, and labeled. Then the order is forwarded to the in-line manifesting system, where the box is weighed, measured, and checked to see if the order has been put on “hold” status. Weight is validated based upon the fulfillment steps taken up to that point. If the box turns out to be too heavy or too light, it may contain too much or too little product, and be rejected yet again. Computerizing everything has made this system of checks and balances possible and able to be done efficiently, Felten says. Midway imported computerization on a grand scale beginning roughly 25 years ago, and since then nearly every function in the company has gone electronic.

Still, Felten says, “you really can’t avoid bottlenecks in an operation of this size. Sometimes we get a rush of calls, and when that happens, bottlenecks do occur. We use a program from Blue Pumpkin to get around the problem. It’s a workforce solution specifically designed for contact centers. You feed the program historical volumes on call patterns and agent scheduling, and it matches your incoming calls with agents you have on hand at the time.”

Midway also trains personnel employed in other areas of the business to pitch in when the contact center gets too busy to manage itself. The company has set up an Emergency Response Group (ERG) comprised of 30-40 employees trained for this purpose. Through their association with ERG, the employees acquire not only new job skills but a better appreciation of the contact center’s pivotal role in the operation. “Cross-training is a great way to encourage global consciousness in employees,” Felten says. “When you give someone responsibilities beyond those for which [someone] was hired, that person becomes not just a job-holder but a stakeholder in your business.”

D. Douglas Graham is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO. He can be reached at mahakala@charter.net.