The seasonal decorations retailer switched its ERP software this year after a busier-than-expected holiday period in 2018 strained the shipping department. Since then, the retailer has increased employee accountability and fulfillment efficiency, shrinking the number of workers it needs for peak season.

Holiday decor retailer Christmas Central had several operational upgrades this year, which—so far—have paid off.

After a challenging 2018 holiday season when an unanticipated spike in sales left its workers stretched thin, Christmas Central changed its enterprise resource planning—or ERP—software and warehouse management system to SAP Business One. The move made Christmas Central’s fulfillment process more efficient, with two warehouse teams that work staggered shifts and ship packages seven days a week. This allowed management to shrink the number of seasonal workers hired this year and improve customer service by giving agents more package-tracking capabilities.

The changes left the retailer better equipped to handle the 22.0% uptick in sales during 2019’s Cyber 5—the five-day shopping period from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday—and the 25.0% revenue growth in December, according to vice president Nathan Gordon.

Christmas Central, which sells holiday decorations online and in several of its bricks-and-mortar sister stores, captures about 70.0% of its annual revenue from September through January, he says. Its peak season kicks off after back-to-school campaigns end, ramps up by Nov. 1 and tapers off after the holidays. Given that Q4 commands such a disproportionate share of the retailer’s sales, anything that can streamline operations during the busy season has a huge impact on the company’s bottom line, Gordon adds.

In 2018, Christmas Central hit $30.7 million in online sales, up from $24.9 million the previous year. The Christmas decor retailer wasn’t prepared for that 23.4% growth in 2018 since 2017 sales increased only 4.6%. The “dramatic” jump in orders put a strain on the shipping department—especially around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Gordon says. But the revenue boost last year helped Christmas Central claim the No. 991 spot in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000 rankings.

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Transitioning to a new ERP system

“When you’re doing over a million packages in the fourth quarter, you really need a robust system,” Gordon says. “The old system had a lot of Band-Aids, and we were piecing together a lot of things and doing some stuff backwards. This [system] put everything in one spot and has increased efficiency and accountability.”

The retailer invested north of $1 million in the new custom-built ERP and related upgrades, and executives expect to recoup that much in cost savings within two years, Gordon says.

Prior to the new ERP, which was implemented in the spring and summer, warehouse employees used to retrieve, or “pick,” items for order packing from lists printed on paper order forms. There was no good way to track the division of labor, Gordon says, and sometimes assignments were simply thrown away or had to be reprinted for other reasons. While pickers did have a blueprint of where to find items in the warehouse with logically mapped instructions, some workers shuffled through papers and started with page 30 rather than page one, he adds.

Now, with orders loaded into scan guns, warehouse managers can see how many assignments were doled out to a given worker and when. Managers can review activity reports that allow them to quickly address any personnel issues that crop up, such as an employee who shows a 15-minute lull between two order picks that were next door to one another, Gordon says.

Workers now have insight into where the order is, such as in the system, in a worker’s cart or in the process of being packed, Gordon says. “We can see exactly where the item is at any second,” he says.

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All of this has helped Christmas Central speed up the fulfillment process and minimize the size of the temporary team it needs to put in place for the holidays. During prior peak seasons, the warehouse division often reached between 300 and 350 employees to accommodate holiday demand. This year, the number of warehouse workers capped out at 180—despite the boom in business.

Additionally, the new ERP is better for customer service, too. Christmas Central has more robust tracking tools integrated into the system now, Gordon says. The retailer’s employees can access a customer’s history that would include purchase and delivery destinations, in addition to other information like the size and weight of a box that was shipped.

“If a customer says ‘I didn’t get my order,’ the system spits back in real time whether an order is in multiple boxes so we can say ‘Oh, you didn’t get your order because box A went UPS and box B is going USPS. It will be delivered tomorrow,’” Gordon says.

Working out the kinks

ERP implementation was not without its kinks. Like Christmas Central’s system switch a few years ago, there was resistance from employees who were used to the old procedures. Training took 2-3 weeks for operations or accounting employees, 1 week plus additional ongoing sessions for warehouse managers, 1 week for customer service employees, and 4 hours for pickers and auditors.

But Gordon says the biggest annoyance was turning off sections of the website, temporarily freezing sales in certain inventory categories while his operations team recounted products and ensured they were entered into the new system correctly. Employees had to adjust listings as they learned the software’s quirks, like certain text fields disallowing special characters. The process was a slow one, taking two or three months.

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“Every single item in our catalog was affected at some point,” Gordon says. “Merchandise was sitting in the warehouse, not being inputted into the system because of the way it had to be loaded. Everything was new, and there was a learning curve.”

Christmas Central’s year-to-date revenue through May was up about 25.0%, according to Gordon, who anticipated growth would remain in that ballpark in subsequent months. But sales remained relatively flat while the company installed the new ERP and a rotating group of items couldn’t be sold from June through August.

Revenue growth has been back on track since then, with fall sales increasing in the 20.0% range and month-to-date December sales up 25.0% over last year, Gordon says. Christmas Central also expects to see 30.0%-40.0% growth in January.

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