The Robot Ballet Powering Fulfilment for Fast-Growing Fashion Start-ups

In the third of a series of articles on the current state of fashion e-commerce, sponsored by Magento, BoF visits Quiet Logistics, the company whose combination of Kiva Systems robots and human touch powers fulfilment for fast-growing fashion e-tailers, including Nasty Gal, Bonobos and The Fancy.

Inside the Quiet Logistics fulfilment centre in Devens, Massachusetts | Source: Quiet Logistics

DEVENS, United States — The Quiet Logistics order fulfilment centre, here in Devens, Massachusetts, is indeed quiet. Unlike in a traditional shipping warehouse, there’s nobody rushing up-and-down the aisles of this 275,000 square-foot facility (roughly the size of five football fields) packed with approximately 1.5 million units of inventory, 95 percent of which is fashion apparel and accessories sold by companies like Nasty Gal and Bonobos. Instead, employees are concentrated at the very front of the building.

When BoF visited the facility, the reason for this curious layout was immediately clear: an army of orange, $25,000-a-piece robots, made by Kiva Systems, which move around the floor, much like Roomba vacuum cleaners. The facility is lined with towering bins and the robots are programmed to deliver incoming products to the correct bins, then find and pick up items that have been ordered by customers and deliver them to warehouse employees who pack them up and ship them out. It’s a software-controlled ballet that’s 400 to 500 percent more efficient than a traditional manual warehouse, according to numbers provided by Quiet Logistics.

The company was founded in 2009 by Bruce Welty and Michael Johnson, who partnered on three previous start-ups, implementing complex software-driven warehouse management systems, before starting Quiet Logistics. But efficiency-driving technology is only one part of what makes Quiet Logistics appealing to fashion e-tailers.

Equally important is the human touch of the company’s warehouse employees, who are responsible for the presentation of the final product that arrives in the hands of customers — and not only fold and pack items, but do things like steam garments and handwrite notes.

“As an e-commerce company, we have relatively few opportunities to impress the customer,” said Bonobos chief operating officer Jonathan Czaja. “We care deeply about what I call the ‘out-of-box experience’ and that’s what Quiet [Logistics] does really well. On top of getting the right product to the right person at the right time, they care about presentation.” In the case of Bonobos, that means packing product using branded shipping boxes and stickers, and using craft paper in lieu of traditional tissue paper.

“We are asking consumers to make repeat purchases on the web, and the only way to do that is to create as much of a branded experience as possible,” added Welty.

Quiet Logistics currently services 20 clients, shipping to 130 different countries. On a typical day, the Devens centre ships anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 units, a number which rises to 30,000 units per day during peak periods like December and the January and June sales seasons. Indeed, Quiet Logistics is able to very quickly scale its fulfilment services up or down to meet the needs of its clients — shipping anywhere from a few thousand units a month to more than 500,000 — something which is particularly useful for companies that operate according to seasonal fashion cycles, as well as young start-ups that are scaling fast.

At some point, many of Quiet Logistics’ clients become too big for the company’s Devens warehouse and choose to open their own fulfilment centres, something which both Nasty Gal and Gilt Groupe have done in Louisville, Kentucky. Quiet Logistics continues to run Nasty Gal’s new facility, while, in the case of Gilt Groupe, Quiet Logistics struck a deal to establish and run the new 303,000 square-foot warehouse for 18 months, starting in June 2010, before transitioning operations to Gilt Groupe. As part of the deal, Quiet Logistics also managed the hiring and training of new staff and transferred remaining product from the company’s Devens warehouse to the new site.

“I think that’s where Quiet really came through shining; I didn’t have the time or the staff to train the new management,” said Chris Halkyard, chief supply chain officer at Gilt Groupe, whose order fulfilment centres are now entirely self-run, but continue to use Quiet Logistics software and Kiva Systems robots.

Importantly, Quiet Logistics can get a new fulfilment operation up and running in less than 90 days, something that’s of vital importance for fast-scaling companies. “The approach leverages the flexibility and modularity of Kiva’s robots, Quiet’s own software layer and our expertise in bringing buildings on line within short time frames,” said Al Dekin, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Quiet Logistics.

“[It’s] critical in allowing fast-growing e-commerce businesses to maintain their dramatic growth trajectories,” he added. “Ultimately, we’re in the business of handling high growth while creating a premium brand experience.”

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 6.23.58 PMThis article is sponsored by Magento, a company offering flexible and scalable e-commerce solutions used by more than 150,000 firms. Magento offers a range of resources, support and consulting services to help their customers get the most from their Magento deployments, including education, training, and developer certification program.