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Case Studies: Warehousing/Retail

(Pen Computing Issue #53

It's Lock, Stock and Barrel for Crate & Barrel

When Crate & Barrel was founded in a small, crumbling brick building in Chicago's Old Town district back in 1962, automation was the farthest thing from the minds of the owners. In fact, they didn't even have a cash register, an oversight that was soon corrected. Today, after more than 40 years of success and explosive growth, Crate & Barrel employs some of the most sophisticated IT systems available.

And those systems aren't luxuries, they're necessities. From housewares to games, furniture to linens, even food - just about anything the well-dressed home requires can be found on the shelves at Crate & Barrel. With 11 warehouses, six distribution centers and more than 115 retail stores scattered across the country, keeping track of what's in stock and where it's located can be a daunting task. Add in an internet storefront that did triple the expected business in its first year of operation, and you've got a challenge: how do you make sure the right product gets to the right place at the right time, whether it's being shipped to a store or directly to the consumer?

For Crate & Barrel, the answer was Intermec and Quest Solutions, an Intermec Honors Partner. The companies teamed to deliver wireless networks and mobile computing devices that help Crate & Barrel manage its inventory and distribution processes by providing real-time data. The new systems have laid the foundation for further growth.

The company had been using handheld bar code scanners for some time to track its housewares inventory. However, the scanners were used only for checking in skids of goods, telling the warehouse manager that Skid A was in Location B, for example.

These original devices were big and bulky, and Crate & Barrel wasn't satisfied with the equipment vendor's service and support. So when Crate & Barrel decided in 1996 to replace its existing scanners, they looked for a company that could provide not only the right devices, but also the right service.

"You can really tell, as an end user, when companies have good support systems in place," said Ray Sue, technical services manager for Crate & Barrel. "And Intermec does."

After evaluating products from several vendors, Crate & Barrel selected handheld computers, vehicle mount terminals, scanners and printers from Intermec.

"We went to a trade show and saw what was out there," Sue said. "In the end, we came right back to Intermec. Some of the other equipment looks prettier or fancier, but that doesn't translate into getting the job done. We just got more from Intermec. Intermec equipment is better suited for the environment we have."

Quest Solutions stepped in to tie all the systems together. And when Crate & Barrel's rapid expansion brought additional challenges, Quest and Intermec stepped up to the task.

In one case, Crate & Barrel had to install a wireless network in a renovated cotton bale storage facility, intended as an interim warehouse to be used for only six to eight months while a new warehouse was being constructed. But that didn't mean that the company was willing to forgo the efficiencies of wireless communications - it just required an extremely cost-effective approach.

"Intermec, Quest and Crate & Barrel really had to put their heads together to pull this off," Sue said. "The warehouse was a five-story concrete building with five rooms on each floor, so RF coverage was an issue."

The result? The team came up with a solution that included dual-radio access points with power over Ethernet, and daisy-chained it all together with 200-foot extension coaxial cable. "It wasn't pretty, but it worked," he said. "The durability and strength of Intermec's dual-radio access points allowed for some creative engineering."

Now, inventory at all of Crate & Barrel's distribution centers is tracked via the Intermec handheld vehicle-mount computers that communicate with the company's back-office systems via an Intermec 802.11b wireless network.

"Technology had matured," Sue said. "As the 802.11b standard emerged, we saw a stable future with Intermec's wireless devices, as they were based on open standards. Intermec also has features such as dual radios and IP tunneling that are important to allow our workers to roam around the warehouse without losing connectivity."

In 2003, the company implemented a real-time inventory model to manage its furniture inventory, and with the addition of an Internet storefront, it was clear that real-time data was required. That meant wireless communications. Crate & Barrel again selected Intermec Technologies Corp. to provide handheld and vehicle mounted computers, bar code printers and a wireless network infrastructure.

"Previously, furniture was just checked in as it arrived," Sue said. "That created stock discrepancies, because we couldn't track the storage location. Sometimes we misplaced whole trailers full of furniture that hadn't been checked in."

Now, bar codes are placed on all shelf racking and on the furniture as it arrives. Warehouse personnel can be sure the product is stocked in the correct location and have visibility to inventory items and quantities.

And Crate & Barrel isn't done. Now that the company knows the location of every item, the next step will be to track items in transit. "We're looking at wide-area wireless communications to scan items in the truck and as they're being delivered, right on the spot, for proof of delivery," Sue said.

With a world-class IT infrastructure in place, Crate & Barrel now is ready for even more growth. "We have a much tighter rein on our inventory now," Sue said. "It's hard to put a value on that, but procedurally implementing RF has saved us so much, as far as time, paperwork and processes. The warehouse guys are picking faster, they're moving product faster. It's really changed the way we work. We've really built a foundation for growth. Now, the systems are in place to allow us to expand."

It's a far cry from using a cigar box for a cash register. -