At L.L. Bean, all-hands-on-deck for final holiday push
Retail • By tradition, top execs take to warehouse floor down the stretch.
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Freeport, Maine • With the final retail rush under way, L.L. Bean CEO Chris McCormick is playing Santa's helper against a backdrop of conveyor belts and beeping front-end loaders as he boxes up slippers and shirts. But there's little time to reflect on the holiday cheer those gifts will bring because he's busy concentrating to make sure no shipments go astray.

At L.L. Bean, top executives are abandoning their desks to work in the shipping department and to answer customers' phone calls as part of an annual all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure right up to the last minute that purchases arrive at their destinations before Christmas.

"Consumers are going to buy when they want to buy. There's no changing that, so we have to be ready," McCormick, his sleeves rolled up, said during a break inside the busy 1-million-square-foot distribution center where nearly 200,000 orders are shipped daily in late December.

There's never been a better time to be a procrastinator because retailers continue to offer later guaranteed delivery, and in some cases they are offering same-day delivery in select cities, said Al Sambar, a logistics and retail strategist at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon.

Retailers are increasingly focusing on speed, with some experimenting with regional warehouses to get the product closer to potential customers, said Raj Kumar, a retail partner at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.

Macy's, Toys R Us and Walmart are testing pilot programs in which stores are utilized as shipping hubs as retailers push for next-day and same-day delivery, he said.

L.L. Bean's worldwide shipping hub remains centralized, about a mile from the corporate headquarters, and features seemingly endless aisles of flannel shirts, L.L. Bean boots, camping supplies, and other items, along with a labyrinth of conveyors and chutes that transport them, and a fleet of trucks.

The company hired 4,700 seasonal workers to help with the holiday rush, doubling the workforce, and 500 administrative employees were expected to get into the act during crunch times.

Late into the week, McCormick was boxing goods in the shipping department with the company's financial controller, Kierston Van Soest. Nearby were the company's chief financial officer and other executives. In Bean parlance, they're dubbed day hikers, because they're on a temporary daily assignment.

Pulling items from a shopping cart, McCormick and Van Soest scanned the products with a bar code reader, printed shipping labels and order forms, and then boxed up the items, tossing in catalogs for good measure. On this day, popular items included headlamps, Wicked Good slippers and shirts.

In the past, McCormick worked on a product-sorting conveyor line, in the retail store stockroom, and in a recycling area, breaking down empty cardboard boxes. The worst job of all, he said, was one stint working in the part of the call center that deals with angry and frustrated customers, attempting to set things right.

The company does its best to keep customers happy. On that day, hundreds of shipments were being upgraded free of charge to UPS air to beat the first major winter storm in the Midwest.