J.Jill Arrives Fashionably Light
A new put-to-light system lets women's clothing retailer J.Jill keep up with growing volume in style.
Women age 35 and older frequently have a difficult time shopping for stylish, age-appropriate clothing. Too often, this group of women has to choose between clothes that are too matronly or too young.
Enter J.Jill. The specialty retailer fills the void for women in the over-35 crowd with clothing that suits a sophisticated, casual lifestyle. From professionals to stay-at-home moms, J.Jill's customers include active, upscale women who value comfort, individuality, and simplicity.
Founded in 1987 as a trio of catalog companies, the retailer consolidated under the J.Jill brand in 1999. At that time, it expanded with its first two retail stores and launched an e-commerce site.
Now a multi-channel retailer with a catalog, web site, and retail store presence, J.Jill was recently acquired by Talbots Inc., which operates more than 1,300 stores throughout the United States.
Though J.Jill is headquartered in Quincy, Mass., its distribution and call center is located in Tilton, N.H. The 573,000-square-foot facility opened in 1998 and dedicates 465,000 square feet to distribution operations.
At the DC, nearly 300 employees process orders for both direct-to-consumer sales and J.Jill's 231 stores around the country. The company typically has 12 design "seasons" each year and carries approximately 12,000 SKUs. The DC ships orders within 48 hours or less.
Turning Up the Volume
Since the DC began operations in 1998, it has deftly handled J.Jill's volume. It became clear, however, that new warehouse technology was in order to keep up with the company's growing volume, reports Glenn Broderick, J.Jill's director of retail distribution.
"We knew we would eventually need a put-to-light system, but decided to start with a simple radio frequency (RF) system," he explains. "By 2005, it was time to upgrade to put-to-light."
The company's search for the right system and vendor began at industry trade show ProMat in 2005. After narrowing the list to three vendors, J.Jill selected a put-to-light system from AL Systems, Rockaway, N.J.
"AL works with a number of retail clothing clients, including Talbot's, that utilize put-to-light," says Broderick. "We felt the vendor had the track record to help us accomplish our goals."
Let There Be Light
With 12 seasons each year, J.Jill must deliver clothing to its stores within a two-week window every month. The faster and more efficiently DC employees can process orders, the better.
Increasing DC productivity by 40 percent was one of J.Jill's key goals for the new put-to-light system. It also wanted to maintain or improve accuracy rates and reduce labor costs.
J.Jill's new system uses 350 lights to cover six DC aisles that are broken into a two-tier, multi-aisle configuration. Because it already maintains a conveyor system in its DC, J.Jill worked with AL Systems to design a put-to-light system that bolts on to the conveyors rather than re-routing them.
In addition, J.Jill wanted the system to integrate seamlessly with its warehouse management system from Manhattan Associates.
Beginning with receiving, the system is laid out in zones, each with 40 stores. The system pre-allocates cases to zones before they enter the building. Then, as cases arrive at the DC, J.Jill employees, using RF, break cases into totes and set them on the conveyor where they are diverted to the correct pack zones.
The pack zones are where the new light system comes into play. "Employees receive totes in their zones and scan the license plate number. That illuminates the lights for each store receiving merchandise from that tote," explains Broderick.
Before installing the put-to-light system, employees were forced to read and scan each item. Now, they scan the tote, put their RF devices away, and, after entering the SKU number, move on to the next store.
"We maintain a two-tier packing line, where each store has a pack carton location," explains Broderick. "Now that employees have both hands free to fill the totes, we have greatly improved productivity."
Once employees complete their totes at the end of the line, they drop them back onto the conveyor system and pick up a new tote at the end of the line, reversing direction to fill it.
"This cuts walking time in half," notes Broderick. "Employees can now dedicate 100 percent of their time to filling orders."
A Fast-Track Implementation
Getting the new system up and running was a relatively easy process, according to Broderick. "We implemented the new system in early December—one of our two slow times during the year—so we could be fully operational when we hit our busier periods," he says.
Broderick's plan was to fast-track implementation and install the system in three days. "We started using pick-to-light in small waves, then opened the system up to larger quantities of merchandise," he explains. "We were operating at normal volume within a few days."
Preparations for the installation began last spring, and the go-live day actually arrived two weeks ahead of schedule. Overall, implementation went smoothly, as did getting the J.Jill staff up to speed, notes Max Bushnell, manager of new client services at AL Systems.
"This was a low-impact implementation for J.Jill because the put-to-light system is an easy technology to learn," he says. "User training requires only about 15 minutes."
By its nature, light-directed picking is an expedited process that helps companies improve productivity. The technology was the perfect match for J.Jill's configuration, which helped the retailer achieve its productivity goals almost instantaneously, says Bushnell.
"Pick-to-light systems usually result in high productivity right off the bat, and J.Jill's needs perfectly matched this application's capabilities," he explains.
Broderick concurs. "Improving productivity was our biggest goal, and we achieved that by boosting processing from 575 units per hour to more than 800 per hour," he says.
At 99.98 percent, J.Jill's accuracy rate was high before the implementation. However, it expects the new system to reduce the number of gross errors, further improving accuracy.
In addition, the company has improved labor savings. "We have increased volume in the distribution center without having to add new employees," says Broderick. The software application also provides labor reporting that enables J.Jill to track its team's productivity and more effectively plan labor resources.
Looking ahead, J.Jill now has the ability to add more pack lines as its volume grows. Because the system is completely scalable, that growth will be easy to handle.
"As J.Jill continues to open new stores, it will be easy to simply add more light locations," Bushnell explains.
Overall, the project has yielded ideal results. "We came in ahead of schedule and on budget," Broderick explains. "We could not have asked for a more perfect fit."