Belgian shoe retailer Brantano isn’t impressed by steady growth, not even in today’s increasingly challenging economy. Having entered the UK market just five years ago, they already have 97 stores and intend to open around 38 new stores this year and a further 15 to 20 next year. The UK management team has ambitious objectives and a track record that suggests they will be achieved.
When company founder André Brantegem opened a small shoe factory in Belgium in 1953, it is unlikely that he imagined Brantano as it is today. By the mid sixties the company was a successful manufacturer, but then the attention of their major customers was drawn to the stylish new shoes available from lowcost Italian manufacturers. Clearly this was a threat to Brantano’s business, but the forward-looking management also saw it as a new opportunity.
They decided to close all manufacturing operations and focus instead on retailing: a brave decision that quickly paid off, leading to rapid growth and the development of the successful Brantano out-of-town retail concept. By 1997, the group had more than 100 outlets in its domestic market and was ready to expand overseas.
Entering the UK market
The following year, Brantano entered the UK market by acquiring 48 Shoe City stores and a Distribution Warehouse from the British Shoe Corporation. All are out-of-town and offer a wide range of products in a sales area of 500 to 1,000 sq m – ideal for conversion to the proven Brantano format.
Today, these stores carry major brands such as Nike, Adidas, Hush Puppy and Clarks. All stock is displayed (a Brantano innovation) so that it is immediately clear to customers which styles are available in their size. In total there are around 4,000 lines available, including 2,500 shoe styles, each stocked in up to nine different sizes, and a range of accessories that includes socks, shoe-care products, handbags and some sports clothing. New products come in every day, so the range is constantly changing with more than 2,000 new items introduced each season.
Unlike many rapidly expanding companies, Brantano has been able to achieve its impressive growth whilst remaining profitable. Fundamental to this success is its belief in efficient processes. For a retail operation, efficient logistics is one of the most important: not only does it minimise costs, it also increases flexibility, allows more efficient relationships with suppliers and improves customer service.
Having successfully integrated the British Shoe Corporation stores, refined its approach to the UK market and rolled-out its UK retail strategy, Brantano was ready to embark on the next phase of expansion. In 2000 it announced that the UK network would be expanded quickly towards a target of 250 outlets, with around 20 new stores added each year.
Achieving this with the warehouse acquired from the British Shoe Corporation would prove a significant challenge. The largely manual systems could not provide the accuracy or the flexibility required, were inefficient and incapable of delivering the throughput that would be needed for the growing number of outlets. Brantano therefore decided to invest in a solution that would allow its business to grow efficiently and provide the accuracy and flexibility needed by the growing store network.
Three major objectives were set for the new distribution centre, which would be built on a green-field site at the Coalville Interlink Business Park in the East Midlands: it must allow rapid growth up to 150 stores with the ability to be simply extended for up to 250 stores; it must substantially increase efficiency and accuracy; it must increase efficiency at the stores by eliminating in-store checking of deliveries. These objectives were required to be achieved with smooth and reliable processes that were sufficiently flexible to allow changes in the product mix without further significant capital investment.
Four companies were asked to tender for the automation contract and multinational integrator Vanderlande Industries was selected for its competitive price, specialist knowledge of retail distribution, and good IT capability. The decision may also have been influenced by a strong recommendation from the Brantano head office in Belgium, which has been working successfully with the integrator since 1995.
‘We are now thinking of Brantano as a multinational company that will expand into other world markets,’ explains Brantano’s project leader Pete Towers. ‘We therefore had a preference for a supplier that has a multinational capability and is committed to long-term partnerships with its customers. This will help us move quickly and will support our emphasis on maintaining profitability as we grow.’
To manage the project, Towers put together a highly integrated team, including his own staff and specialists from Vanderlande Industries and building supplier Wilson Bowden. By working closely together from the beginning, many compromises that can afflict similar projects were eliminated and both timescales and costs were reduced.
The solution developed by Vanderlande Industries specified two high-speed sortation systems, fed by automatic conveyors from manual picking areas. The carton sortation system has the ability to both put away and dispatch at the same time so accommodating both picking and replenishment simultaneously.
When a delivery vehicle arrives at the distribution centre, the Warehouse Management System (developed by Brantano) is polled by Vanderlande’s Flow Control System for the number of cartons, number of items and their destination. The barcode, fixed by the supplier to each carton, is scanned on induct to the sortation system, allowing the carton to be automatically directed to the correct destination for manual put-away.
Stores receive two types of replenishment: prepacks of a single style in a range of sizes determined by historical data; and individual supplements determined by local sales patterns. Prepacks are made-up by the suppliers, so do not require any further processing at the distribution centre. This allows them to go straight to a dedicated groundfloor area of 11m racking where they are put-away by stacker trucks. Movements are simplified by dedicating one isle to each day’s intake of the next three days. Each isle also has a quality checking station to allow random checking of items against samples. Processes for rapid stocking of new stores have also been included, using the pallet racking area to carry the extra product.
Product is held on four mezzanine floors also supplied by the conveyor system. To increase picking efficiency, some cartons are broken and put-away as individual shoeboxes. All product is scanned and the storage location, chosen by the operator, reported back to the WMS via RF terminals.
This very flexible process is enabled by Vanderlande’s new Warehouse Control System, which sits between the sub-system FSC control level and the WMS. This provides an easy-to-use interface that allows operators to quickly remap operations from terminals on the warehouse floor as well as providing a portal for operational data. ‘This is an outstanding feature that has really surprised me,’ emphasises Towers. ‘It gives us tremendous power to ensure that our operations are always optimised for current activities as well as delivering data that enhances our business processes.’
Picking lists are generated by the WMS and printed in the picking zones. Two batches of bulk items are picked each day, in location order, either in whole carton or pallet quantities. Shoeboxes are picked into wheeled bins and manually loaded onto the conveyors. Picked items are conveyed to accumulation lanes, after which they are scanned, inducted and sorted to one of 30 spurs, each allocated to a single store. Items in polybacks are hand picked into store orders and taken directly to the dispatch area.
Each sortation system is optimised for a particular product profile and the entire system has been designed with considerable care to allow lose shoeboxes to be transported, inclined, accumulated, merged and sorted without losing their lids on route. ‘Brantano stores display every shoebox, so they must be immaculate,’ explains Roger Peart, sales and marketing manager for Vanderlande Industries UK. ‘They had some concerns initially, imagining dented ends and lids spread across the sorter. Our experience in this sector, however, allowed us to integrate subsystems that are optimised for this type of product range.’
To allow high-speed sortation of shoeboxes with loose lids, Vanderlande specified its own Distrisorter MkII. This system, which has been developed specifically for this type of application, uses conical pop-up transfer rollers to ensure that loose lids are not dislodged due to the speed of direction changes. Accumulation is provided by Vanderlande’s Qveyor zero pressure system feeding onto a merge table before each sortation induct.
Refining the design
‘Testing in a laboratory environment helped us refine the design and then ensure that the commissioning would progress smoothly,’ explains Peart. ‘It gave Brantano a lot of confidence in the solution and helped us deliver the project comfortably within the planned budget and timescales.’
The result is a system that has met all the objectives set by Brantano. Delivery accuracy has already increased from 99.5 per cent to 99.9 per cent and Towers is confident that the system will allow Brantano to achieve 99.97 per cent. This alone has eliminated around 2.5 hours spent by every store, every day, checking deliveries.
The system has also allowed 100 per cent checking (by weight) of deliveries from suppliers, which is expected to generate a substantial annual saving. Brantano can now receive three times as many deliveries in a day and can build up stocks in the stores for the busy ‘return to school’ period in just six weeks, compared with twelve weeks using the previous system.
Vanderlande will be conducting a preventative maintenance programme that includes regular ‘health checks’. Should a problem occur, telephone support will be available within ten minutes. Vanderlande engineers can access and recalibrate the system remotely via a modem link and will be on-site within hours if needed.
‘This project has been a great success. The benefits in accuracy and efficiency are dramatic,’ concludes Brantano’s Pete Towers. ‘But the biggest benefit is that it enables growth. This is a business tool that supports our expansion strategy, not just with increased throughput, but with better data, more efficient management of suppliers and a vast range of other business benefits.’