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Focus on: Data Collection 


Powell’s Books touts itself as being the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world, with an extensive collection of out-of-print and rare titles. The Portland, Ore.-based retailer also is among the growing number of regional chains that are replacing outdated and tedious supply chain processes with updated, seamless ones. 

With four stores in the Portland area, three small shops at Portland International Airport, a flourishing e-commerce business and two warehouse locations (one for new books and one for used), the privately held Powell’s struggled with keeping its distribution centers organized. In fact, when a book was misplaced, workers had no systematic way to find it.

The process by which employees stocked books was also inefficient and time-consuming: Workers were required to scan a book’s SKU number and enter the locator code into its database system each time. Rather than relying on technology, they also carried a tape measure to determine if a stack of books exceeded the amount of space on the shelf. 

And when the height limit was met, workers manually changed the locator code in the data entry program and kept mental tabs on what books belonged on what shelf. This process was far too unreliable for the growing business.

“We needed a device that was configurable to our needs,” said Jason Ellingson, used book distribution manager at Powell’s. “We wanted a solution that could scan our SKU labels, as well as our shelf bar codes, and would be accurate and effective for cycle counting by assigning locator codes and scanning multiple copies of the same book.”

The retailer turned to Mississauga, Ontario-based Psion Teklogix, a provider of solutions for mobile computing and wireless data collection. Powell’s deployed 50 of the vendor’s rugged, handheld computer devices, called NEO, in January 2010.

Most of the devices are used for cycle counting inventory, but a few help put books away. In the used-book warehouse, NEO technology allows employees to attach a locator code to each book so it can easily be found in the future. 

Here is how it works: The user scans the bar code on the shelf (the locator code) and the bar codes on the books themselves. As books are scanned, they are placed on the shelf. A file comprised of numbers is then created to make note of the quantity and ISBN of a book title.

When finished, the user docks the NEO where the device is connected to Powell’s book database, called Bookscape. The file is then imported, where it is read by the database system and updated with a new locator code.

“In the past, we never had a device or database that allowed us to assign the locator code at the time the book was physically put on the shelf,” Ellingson explained. “The locator code was originally added by the user doing data entry work, which really slowed them down.”

Once the technology was deployed, Powell’s experienced a huge jump in productivity. In fact, the retailer began saving an average of two to three hours data entry time each day, while drastically speeding up the cycle counting process by 20% to 30%. This also freed up staff members from having to go back and forth to the shelves to fix or add books. 

Moving forward, Powell’s wants to make the process even easier by deploying a wireless solution.

“We currently have to connect the device to a computer in order to update inventory, but we’re interested in making the process more convenient than it is now by going wireless in the future,” Ellingson said. “It’s on our radar.”

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