How did you get into this line of work?
I think it’s one of those things where you just fall into a career path. Years ago, I started working in a catalog distribution center for JC Penney in Columbus, OH. I worked there for six-and-a-half years. My role there was to load and unload trailers and do the tough things that drive you back into college. I got laid off there, and went to work for a company called Children’s Palace, which was a part of Child World, a large specialty toy retailer. A distribution center manager there mentored me, convinced me to stay in distribution and to go back to school. I got my degree in business administration, ended up back in that facility, and within seven years became distribution center manager.
Does fulfillment require any special aptitude?
It takes a mixture of things. To reach a certain level, you must have good math skills, for budgeting and understanding how budgets interact with each other. I think, though, that the greatest skills you can have are your “soft” skills, your people skills. And your leadership abilities are absolutely critical to being successful.
An operations vice president once told us that he visualizes himself as a conductor leading an orchestra. Do you see yourself that way?
Absolutely. We have to wear many different hats, but that’s a good comparison, because a conductor is somebody who not only knows where you are right now in this piece of music but also knows where you’re going. A great leader must have that vision.
Does a traditional retail background help in direct-to-customer fulfillment?
I’ve known companies say that as long as someone has a background in distribution, he should be a solid performer in fulfillment. But it’s a completely different discipline. In retail, your stores are customers, in almost the same way that end users are customers. They’re family. In fulfillment, they’re not family, and they’re very unforgiving. There’s a whole customer service side of the business that people with a background strictly in retail distribution don’t necessarily understand.
Where did you get your direct-to-customer fulfillment experience?
During my years at QVC, I got great training in fulfillment on the customer service side. For instance, I was with QVC in the U.K. for a year, and I worked very closely with the customer service department over there. We actually built our call center right next door to our distribution center, so there was a lot of interaction. My point is that the complexities of fulfillment are different from those of retail distribution.
Will dot-com fulfillment ever be cost-effective?
In many cases, the honeymoon is over. People investing money in dot-coms are now asking for some return on that investment. They’re asking you to sharpen your pencil a little bit and do some re-forecasting and budgeting, cut down some of the costs, and hit the profit marks they’ve set for themselves. In our case, we feel that we’re building our customer base and that now it’s time to go back and become more focused on efficiency within the facility. Will the dot-com fulfillment centers ever be as cost-conscious as the typical catalog or even retail distribution centers? Yes, I think we’re going to get to that point.
“I think some people can wait two or three days for a tube of lipstick. It’s not as if we’re shipping organs for a transplant.”
Even if online customer expectations keep pushing costs up?
They do drive costs up, but there are opportunities to become more efficient. For example, take a look at some of the packaging that you may use to “wow” your customers. As you start to build your volume, you can drive down some of those costs per unit. You can also look at some packaging alternatives that are still as nice but are less expensive.
Do Internet shoppers really expect orders to be delivered as fast as we’ve been led to believe?
I think retailers are really starting to listen to customers and understand what it is that they truly value. Although there may some markets where shoppers want the item within the hour, not everybody does. I think some people can wait two or three days for a tube of lipstick. It’s not as if we’re shipping organs for a transplant. To get it within 24 hours — is it really that critical? Is that really what you want to pay for? If so, there are means to accomplish this.
I would imagine that the small size of most of your products keeps down your costs.
Yes, we’re very fortunate that we don’t get into really large shipments, although there’s obviously some difference in size between a tube of mascara and a bottle of perfume. Most of our packages are in the two- to-three-pound range, so we’re able to use a scaled-down sortation system. We typically have two-and-a-half units per order. It makes for some efficiencies.
What do you think you will be doing ten years from now? Do you see this as your life’s work?
I’ve been in distribution and fulfillment since 1976, so it’s taken up a good chunk of my life already. And I can honestly say that I enjoy what I do. I love the challenges, the newness. With Sephora.com, I got in on the absolute ground floor. You can’t get in any earlier than I did. For example, I took the very first packages we shipped to the post office in my car and used my credit card to pay the postage. I see myself continuing in distribution or fulfillment, but I hope that at some point I can get back into the international arena. I really enjoyed my year in the U.K. I learned so much in that time and would love to pursue international work.
What is the future of distribution?
I think that you’ll probably see more people entering the field, and I think you’ll also see that the professional caliber of those people is going to rise. It’s becoming a more respected profession. But to be able to provide the type of leadership necessary to be effective, it’s going to get more and more difficult for a person who was, say, a dock foreman to climb the ladder and get to be general manager or distribution center director.
You deal with many groups within the company. How do you handle conflicts?
A lot of people would like to do a lot of different things. They strike deals with vendors, and sometimes they make agreements that we can’t always honor from a fulfillment point of view. Sometimes people high up in the organization may have certain expectations, such as, “Why can’t I place an order today and have it delivered tomorrow (without using an expediting service)?” They don’t have a good grasp of the total picture of warehousing, order processing, transportation, and so on. So the challenge is to try to explain and communicate the process to people in a manner that gets your point across but still maintains professionalism.
And in a manner that still enables you to continue working together closely.
That’s one of the unique things about Internet fulfillment. It takes some very careful planning and working with the marketing people to understand what they’re doing and its impact on the fulfillment center. As a case in point, for a retail operation to triple its sales is absolutely unheard of, unless it’s during a going-out-of-business sale. But we’ve run e-mail campaigns and offered gift certificates and tripled our sales in two or three days. So there has to be very, very close coordination between all of us to make sure that we’re successful and that we meet or exceed the customer’s expectations.
Do you provide any kind of special training for your employees?
We do take pride in the training we offer our packers to provide the best possible customer service. We meet with our employees every day to relay general information and to discuss any special campaigns that are going on and what part they play in the bigger picture. We’ll let our employees know, for instance, that certain promos are coming up and here’s the impact they’ll have on us, or that in a week from today we’ll be in an overtime situation, those types of things. We try to communicate as much as possible so that everyone’s in the loop. There’s also a bulletin board in the building where we put up a lot of information.
Is serving the online customer different from serving the catalog or retail shopper?
One of the features we have that’s different is beauty advisors, whom people can call if they have questions about makeup. We also have an online magazine that talks about various products. But yes, from a customer service standpoint, it is different. It is a little more than answering a question about shipments or whatever. Customers ask beauty questions.
So it’s something like providing tech support.
What goes with this? What goes with that? Here’s what my complexion looks like. What should I be wearing? Yes, I had never thought of it that way, but it is like tech support.
What would your advice be to people entering dot-com fulfillment?
I would tell anyone coming into this arena that it’s very challenging but very rewarding. I have thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed my time here. I absolutely love it. It was a bit of a gamble, leaving a nice, secure environment like QVC, where I had been very successful. But the challenge was too hard to pass up.
Sephora.com, a premier online beauty retailer and division of European luxury-goods merchant LVMH, went live in October 1999. Since its launch, the site has become the leader in order volume and brands while providing a good shopping experience and total customer satisfaction.
I supervise a staff of 50 and provide strategic and tactical leadership support for all fulfillment-related operations; support retail and dot-com operations in the role of project manager; and partner with merchandising, marketing, and customer service groups to ensure a positive customer experience.
In addition to enjoying time with my two daughters, Kelsey and Angela, I enjoy cooking, listening to music, reading, traveling, shopping, and fishing.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven R. Covey The Acorn Principle, by Jim Cathcart
The Beatles The Rolling Stones The Who
Field of Dreams, 1989 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968