Cape Town – With thousands of products scattered haphazardly around ecommerce company Yuppiechef’s warehouse, only the most advanced operating system could make sense of it. And a very small team of Yuppiechef experts built one from scratch using app technology on off-the-shelf smartphones, deliberately throwing the warehouse into total chaos.
An engineer by trade, Capetonian Noel Ross-Gillespie joined Yuppiechef as operations manager in 2012 and was tasked with improving the operating systems in the warehouse to allow for the business to scale up.
With a reputation for personalised cards and very short turnaround on orders, Yuppiechef has a number of differentiators which weren’t readily solved by off-the-shelf systems. Choosing to ignore the industry standards, they decided to build their own warehouse management system and solve the various warehouse tasks with “an open mind”, knowing that they well understood the many facets of what they were trying to achieve.
Ross-Gillespie saw the underused capability of an Android smartphone, with its touch screen, battery power, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as an ideal platform on which to build the technology. “The thought was, could we leverage something really cheap?” he said.
Instead of investing heavily in expensive warehouse equipment and inflexible systems, they opted for carefully chosen tablets from Makro and Groupon and built a unique operating app for the devices.
The idea behind the wireless system in the warehouse was to permanently connect all operators with up-to-the-minute information about everything. Whether being directed to a shelf to pick items for orders, linking the personalised cards, receiving stock or moving items around, all tasks are performed in a way which is optimal to the way Yuppiechef has designed its processes.
Using clever user interface design, touch screen interaction and functionality like text-to-speech, the system guides users through tasks and is therefore easily adopted by vacation workers and office staff when called on for “peak” help.
“We deliberately employ a chaos theory approach to warehousing,” he said.
Instead of storing products by brand or type, which becomes challenging when changing product lines in the range, Yuppiechef “scatters” their products with no order in mind. The operating system then tracks each item and while it looks chaotic, technology ensures the opposite occurs. The result is a space-efficient, fluid way of storing the many permutations of shapes and sizes that they store.
“This idea of chaos theory really says that if we kept all of our knives together and you’re sent to pick an 8.5cm paring knife, you could be there for a while, because now the 9cm, 7cm and 10.5cm are all next to each other,” he said.
“So you’re spending time examining each one and maybe looking at the barcode, scanning a lot of them to try verifying them,” he said. “Whereas, if we take the 7.5cm paring knife and put in that box over there, and get the 9.5cm and put it somewhere else, when you get sent to a location as this whole system facilitates, you find a box and the only knife you’ll find in that box is the one you’re looking for.”
Where dreams become reality
Ross-Gillespie said because Yuppiechef was built around technology, staff members know that they can dream and their ideas could become a reality. “Often, we can roll out a feature very, very quickly,” he said. “That helps people dream.”
During the monthly “Fluff Week” the development team focus their attention on the smaller day-to-day aspects of the business that need improvement, working on areas that might not be part of their normal focus. “It follows Agile thinking in terms of dev, but it allows us to decide, [for example], well the most important thing right now is this new feature for customer acquisition, because it has a heavy weighting of points and in that week, we will try and tackle it.”
Ross-Gillespie’s top 10 tips for small businesses wanting to start out in online ecommerce, from a factory, distribution and automation perspective.
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