20 Years of Personalizing, Distributing Gifts

NORTH JACKSON, Ohio – The Things Remembered Fulfillment Center in North Jackson ships merchandise to more than 470 retail stores, but that’s just one component of the bustling operations, says Brett Dickson, associate vice president at the warehouse and distribution center.

Nestled on 500 S. Bailey Road, the 235,000-square-foot building is home to three operations for the Cleveland-based gift company.

“The distribution center takes care of all the inbound traffic for the merchandise and then turns around and fulfills all the stores with raw material,” Dickson explains.

Then there is the call center and what he characterizes as “the core of our business,” the fulfillment operation, which personalizes gifts ordered over the internet, in stores and from catalogs.

“Personalization is a huge chunk of the retail industry and it’s growing. We’re poised pretty well to satisfy that need,” Dickson says. “The fulfillment center is an opportunity.”

The building and all three operations mark their 20th anniversary this summer. The fulfillment and call center opened in late June 1997, while the distribution center opened July 7 of that year. The warehouse operates around the clock.

“When we opened the building, there was no internet,” reflects Diane McCarty, director of sales and customer service, who oversees the call center. “We were predominantly here to serve the stores.”

The operation has two busy seasons, Dickson says, the traditional holiday shopping season and the period that stretches from Valentine’s Day and extends through Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and graduations.

Merchandise arrives through the 11 doors at the receiving dock, says Ron Leo, systems/operations manager for the distribution center.

Leo, who has worked at the center two decades, says the center receives anywhere from five ocean containers per week at a slow time to up to 30 containers weekly during the busiest seasons.

“Our season is not Thanksgiving to Christmas,” Leon says. “We start layering inventory into our stores as early as September and start building that inventory in the stores to prep for those five weeks of strong sales, because you couldn’t hit the stores with everything at the end.”

Once merchandise arrives, the quality-control team inspects it. The team checks everything from the item itself to the Universal Price Code to the retail price on the label before it’s taken to be racked and shipped, he says.

Merchandise is assigned to the flow lines, whether larger items such as jewelry boxes, cigar humidors and automated carousels or smaller items such as key chains, necklaces and bracelets.

Right now some $11 million worth of inventory is within the distribution center. That doubles to $22 million “in the heat of the season,” around October.

“Year to date, we have shipped 100,000 pieces to our stores on an average week,” Leo says. His operation also performs outbound quality control, auditing shipments to ensure accuracy of the shipments to stores.

The distribution operation also provides inventory for the fulfillment area, which is “basically a store,” says production manager Joe Whittaker.

While much of the hard-line engraving is done in the stores, the fulfillment operation handles items that contain glass, are plated, need soft line, etching and laser embossing. “Product comes out to the floor, is personalized and then after it’s personalized QC-inspected and then packed up and sent down to shipping,” Whittaker says.

Personalization specialists operate one to two engraving machines at a time, depending on what they’re personalizing, he says.

“They’re also responsible for production goals and quality goals,” he says. “On the hard lines side, we try to have nine units per hour that they want to achieve. On the soft lines side, we want to do six units per hour.”

About 70% of the fulfillment operation handles web orders compared to 30% fulfilling orders from stores, he says.

Soft lines – anything sewn – represent a growing portion of the business, in part because of a focus on store sales of such products. The operation has 40 embroidery machines, including 10 added last year to accommodate growth in the segment. Each Barudan machine is equipped with 10 needles and several colors of thread.

Laser engraving is another growing aspect of the business. The area has six units. When the center had one laser engraver, it produced 50 pieces a week – “a very small portion of our business,” Whittaker says.

“Right now, we’ll do, when we get busy, 400 pieces a day in laser,” he says.

The laser can be used on wood, plastic, metal, acrylic, “anything really with a coating,” he says.

“The laser point is so small you can do very detailed designs,” says production trainer Andrea Murphy. “We had an NBA acrylic plaque that we did that was very detailed for the NBA All-Star Game.”

Any problems with the personalization equipment are handled by personalization manager Christy Ruby and the technology services team. Her department also handles new-product testing.

“When our merchants at our corporate office go out to pick product, they send it to our team and we test it on the different machines,” Ruby says. “We have to verify how it can be personalized and its limits.”

Whittaker, also at North Jackson 20 years, says the operation has made “a lot of strides as far as updating processes and procedures along the way.”

One example is a box-on-demand project the center is developing to get away from pre-made boxes, reducing freight expenses by reducing item volume and packing materials needed.

“We’re switching over as we speak,” he says. The first of two box-making machines should be on-site by the end of July, the second in August. “Then we’ll hopefully be up and running by September,” he says.

The call center takes about 500,000 calls annually on its five inbound lines, which include a customer service line and one for the Things Remembered loyalty program, McCarty says. Results are measured by sales metrics such as average order volume and number of calls versus number of sales and other metrics such as the time customers are left on hold or how often calls are answered within 20 seconds.

“We are a blend between customer service and a sales organization,” McCarty remarks.

The operation includes a team of business-to-business account representatives who do outbound calling “to raise awareness of our business gift options and build new business for Things Remembered,” McCarty says.

While demand remains strong for traditional business gifts such as plaques and awards, a trend has developed for more “useful gifts,” from pens and folios to etched wine glasses, she says.

At off-peak time, the call center has a staff of 37, plus 20 account representatives and a couple of administrative assistants, she says. “But really, all the activity happens in the fourth quarter, when we bring on roughly 100 seasonal teammates,” she adds. “We go from 230 people in the building right now to over 1,000.”

In addition to looking for employees who possess soft skills such as reliability and a good attitude, the center looks for people who want to learn, says human resources manager Kathy McBride.

“We do a lot of training from a standpoint of learning to engrave, learning to monogram,” McBride says. “Those aren’t skills that we’re going to find in outside hires.”

In many cases, seasonal employees simply want the extra cash for the holidays, but return year after year. Full-time employees typically are recruited from those seasonal employees.

“This year we had folks come back in March and some of them will stay with us all the way through the Christmas season again,” McBride says. “There are some that left us right after Mother’s Day that we hope will come back again around September to rejoin us for the holidays.”

PicturedL Kathy McBride and Brett Dickson say Things remembered has two busy seasons: the holidays and early summer.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.