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Inside L.L.Bean’s 200,000 Ship-From-Store Peak Season

Building an omnichannel retail business can be painstaking, but L.L. Bean is realizing the benefits of offering fulfillment alternatives. In turning to ship-from-store fulfillment, the retailer is bringing more of its merchandise online to give customers a wider product selection.

When the Freeport, Maine-based outdoor company implemented buy online, ship from store across more than 40 of its 56 stores in September last year, shoppers responded in droves. In the first week of deploying the ship-from-store service from end-to-end retail management solutions provider Aptos, L.L. Bean generated 26,000 online orders per week that were dispatched from its brick-and-mortar fleet. On average, each location managed 600 orders during week one.

But while the added online orders may seem burdensome for store teams, the technology alleviated some of the more frustrating manual processes that convolute store operations.

According to Chrissy Atwood, senior project manager for retail stores at L.L.Bean, the retailer had begun to include some of its in-store inventory online prior to the deployment. But the process of discovering which store a product was available in when it was out of stock or back-ordered on the website created a hassle for store teams and call center associates alike.

“Calls were being transferred, and the customer would be put on hold—they’d take the shopper’s information and then try to find the product in the store,” Atwood sad at the Aptos Engage conference last week. “If inventory was inaccurate, they’d get connected to another store—we were doing that rerouting manually.”

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With the new ship-from-store offering, L.L.Bean now takes just 4 minutes on average time to fulfill a ship-from-store order instead of 14 minutes. After an order is complete, the Aptos OMS (order management system) automatically accounts for store and product availability to reroute to the most appropriate location for efficient fulfillment. Associates use the OMS platform to pick, pack and ship orders.

“All the store needs to do is just pick and pack,” Atwood said. The outdoor brand quadrupled the number of ship-from-store orders it delivered in the weeks after the initial deployment. Now store workers don’t have to confirm individual store inventory, and customers are making fewer phone calls to stores.

Call center reps, who comprise 10 to 15 percent of L.L.Bean’s online business, also have access to the more transparent inventory.

“Unbeknownst certainly to e-commerce customers, the call center reps can have some visibility of where the inventory may be coming from,” said Dan Tarkinson, direct IT application, information services at L.L.Bean. “It’s just another pool of inventory that we’re allowing them to tap into when customers have no idea otherwise.”

By the holiday, L.L.Bean began to hit its stride as more orders flowed in. Over the November-December peak season, the retailer fielded an average of 150 and 200 ship-from-store orders per store, per day—amounting to 205,000 such orders over the two-month span.

“Some of that was constrained through peak,” Atwood said. “We did some analysis to find that nearly 70 percent of products ordered were initially either sold out online so they would have never been visible beforehand, or they were back-ordered for more than a month given the supply chain challenges that we’ve had.”

That number has since dwindled to 40 percent of products, speaking to the improved visibility the ship-from-store implementation has brought to the customer experience.

“We call it shadow demand,” Tarkinson said. “So it is product that wasn’t on the site, because store inventory wasn’t there so people didn’t see it. So suddenly, when it’s there, they have the opportunity to buy it. So that demand suddenly gets built.”

To handle high order volumes, L.L.Bean converted the returns center at its Freeport flagship store into a mini-distribution center. And at the retailer’s regional stores, which typically span 15,000 to 30,000 square feet, one or two employees are now dedicated to managing ship-from-store orders daily.

After the implementation, the L.L.Bean team understood that getting a better read on safety stock levers should be a top priority going forward.

L.L.Bean continues to look for ways to expand fulfillment options, and expects to stand up its Aptos-powered BOPIS offering this summer. It’s now developing a system that notifies associates of deliveries in real time, giving them clearer direction on when to prioritize in-store versus online customer service.

And by next spring, L.L.Bean is on track to have in-store purchases shipped from a fulfillment center as another customer option.