Navigating NCOF

This year’s National Conference on Operations and Fulfillment (NCOF) was held at the Opryland Resort and Conference Center in Nashville, TN, April 28-May 1. The home of country music became the meeting place for about 2,000 direct-to-consumer operations and fulfillment managers and vendors. I have attended NCOF the last six years, and this year I spent most of my time renewing old friendships and wandering the exhibit hall looking for ideas to save money — products and services that would make bottom-line improvements in operations.

The Opryland Hotel was truly spectacular, with its 4.5-acre atrium garden enclosed in a glass dome. Each morning, hotel map in hand, I headed out to find the exhibit hall — something of a logistical challenge. Still, if you measure success based on what you learn, contacts you make, and ideas you can take back to your company, NCOF this year was a big success for me.

Pound wise

Much of the buzz at the show concerned a possible Teamsters strike (August 1) and the postal rate increase effective June 30. Regarding the potential strike — though nobody knows for sure if it will happen — it makes sense to plan for the worst and avoid shipping everything with a single carrier. The USPS rate hike, on the other hand, is a sure thing, and it has caused shippers to reevaluate their carrier selection and look for lower-cost alternatives.

Shippers can lower freight costs about 25% by using a parcel consolidator. NCOF sponsor RR Donnelley Logistics (RRDL) is the largest consolidator and mailer of small parcels to homes in the United States. Through a nationwide network of consolidation centers, RRDL is able to distribute packages and enter them into the U.S. Postal Service system for “last-mile” delivery.

At NCOF, Donnelley Logistics announced a new integrated package tracking system, developed in partnership with the USPS, that provides end-to-end visibility for all Donnelley packages over 1 lb. at no extra cost. It merges scan data from USPS and RRDL together in one system. Shippers and consumers alike can track the progress of a shipment as it moves through the RRDL and USPS delivery network. The new system allows the same end-to-end tracking data to be viewed in three different environments: on the Donnelley Logistics Web site (, on the USPS site, or even on the client’s own Web site through a Donnelley Logistics program called StoreFront.

Inbound freight costs are often ignored and difficult to control. DM Transportation Management Services ( offers a vendor inbound cost and control program tailored to the direct marketing industry. DM Transportation negotiates volume discounts with freight carriers and participating companies benefit from their combined volume. According to president Bill Wilson, multi-company consortium rates on LTL, air, and international shipments help DM Transportation save its clients an average of 24%. A proprietary tracking system provides visibility of all domestic and international shipments in one desktop application.

Productive measures

A good work measurement system will provide a framework for continuous productivity improvement — a critical concern for all warehouse and distribution center professionals. NCOF Exhibitor Don Cook & Associates’ Productivity Evaluation Program (PEP) might just be right for you. Cook & Associates ( is an industrial engineering consulting firm that specializes in productivity improvement. Its PEP system integrates work measurement; staff scheduling, quality control, wage incentives, and budgeting in one program. Clients include Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Bloomingdales. According to Cook, the average productivity improvement results in a project payback of less than 12 months.

WMS to scale

Small to mid-sized companies take note: Manhattan Associates ( has a warehouse management system called PkMS Pronto that may be just right for you. This Windows-based WMS can increase productivity throughout the warehouse, help you pick and load faster, pack better, and reduce the cost of inventory and operations. While not as powerful or complex as PkMS, the smaller Pronto version has many of the same features, including inventory planning and control, advance ship notices, RF-directed receiving and putaway, and wave processing. PkMS Pronto also eliminates the need to have a separate shipping manifest system, and according to Manhattan Associates, Pronto is scaleable to fit your needs and can be installed more quickly than traditional WMS solutions.

Wrap it up

For many fulfillment managers, gift wrapping is high on the list of operational nightmares. During the holiday season it is not uncommon for a company to hire as many as 100 temps to wrap gifts. I was very excited to discover a new company, Met-Tech Corp., that offers two gift-wrapping solutions. High-volume companies could benefit from Met-Tech’s fully automatic, random-size gift-wrapping machine that wraps up to 90 packages per hour. It automatically measures, wraps, tapes, and conveys boxes. Up to six different types of gift wrap can be selected. The machine measures any size box and delivers a precut sheet of wrapping paper. It also provides a flat table surface and fixtures to aid wrapping. According to Met-Tech, automated wrapping efficiency is two to three times greater than the efficiency of manual wrapping. Semi-automatic gift-wrap stations are available for smaller-volume users, and you can view a video of both machines in action. For more information, e-mail Mike Miller at

Looking for an alternative to foam peanuts, air bags, or bubble wrap? Check out Geämi’s protective packaging, made from Kraft paper. It is easy to recycle and friendlier to the environment. The system consists of pre-cut paper expanded by a machine to create thousands of little hexagonal cells to protect fragile items. Take the Geämi challenge and request a free cost evaluation of your existing protective packaging compared to Geämi’s. See the company’s Web site ( for details.

Jeff Kline, founder and president of Kline Management Consulting (, has over 20 years of experience with companies such as Nordstrom and He provides operations assistance for catalog and e-commerce companies. Kline can be reached at (901) 850-0645 and

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