July 2007 | Case Studies | Reader Profile

Vimal Patel: Taking an Eagle's-Eye View

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When Vimal Patel speaks, everyone listens.

As manager of merchandise flow at American Eagle (AE) Outfitters' Warrendale, Pa., distribution center, his job is to make sure all departments - receiving, replenishment, packing, and shipping - pull together to achieve the facility's goals.

"Every department wants to do well individually, but they don't always look at the holistic picture of company-wide goals," says Patel. That's where he comes in, advocating a broad, all-encompassing view.

At 6:30 each morning, Patel meets with DC supervisors and group leaders to outline the day's objectives and assign workers to departments to handle current volume.

Throughout the morning shift, he monitors progress and productivity, making changes to accommodate priority orders. Patel is also responsible for workplace safety.

The Warrendale DC is one of three that serve AE's 840 U.S. and 73 Canadian stores—which sell clothing for the 15- to 25-year-old set—plus its new MARTIN+OSA sportswear stores and online direct sales channel.

When Patel joined AE as manager of industrial engineering in 1999, he was no stranger to the needs of a retail business. His parents owned convenience stores in Scranton, Pa., and his first post-college job was managing a CVS pharmacy store. His first supply chain management position was distribution manager for Petrie Retail, a women's clothing chain based in New Jersey.

Like other purveyors of youthful apparel, AE manages giant spikes in its business during the back-to-school and holiday seasons.

"Weekly receipt projections can range from 300,000 to 3.7 million units, combined with weekly replenishment projections that may expand from 100,000 to 1.2 million units," Patel says.

One challenge these numbers pose is that no matter how high the volume climbs, the DC's conveyors and sorters can only handle a fixed amount of product per hour.

To move the record-breaking volume that passed through Warrendale during the most recent holiday and early spring seasons, Patel looked at the receipt and replenishment plans and sharpened his figurative pencil.

"I backtracked from the plan, then crunched the numbers," he explains. "I had to determine how much we could pick, pack, and receive, respectively, per hour."

Then, given the maximum materials handling capacity, Patel looked for creative ways to reach AE's targets.

Rocking Around the Clock

"To meet the demand, I had to buy more capacity; more time to ship products out," Patel says.

That meant extending the first shift by two hours and 45 minutes. His counterpart on the second shift used a similar tactic, so together they kept the DC working practically around the clock. They also called in a cavalry of temporary workers.

"The trick is to use as many resources as possible to meet volume goals," Patel says.

In the two years since AE created his current position, Patel has seen the DC's departments learn to share resources for the common good as they never had in the past.

"Before, it was challenging to get all the supervisors to work as one team," he says. Now, they are starting to embrace Patel's philosophy of taking an eagle's-eye view of business.

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