The lure of the current occupant of the former Coca-Cola bottling plant in San Francisco brought me back for my third visit in a year-and-a-half. Here I was, again, at the processing facility for Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties. The more I learn about the incredible ways this organization is serving the community at large, the more I want to help them shout it from the rooftop.
This time the majority of my visit was as far from the roof as you could get. There in the basement – once the restroom, locker room, and shower for the plant workers – lives the department of e-commerce. What brought me here was books, and a desire to explore another piece of the recycling puzzle. (Read about my previous visit when I explored and documented textile recycling at this facility.) For here is a place where you can recycle encyclopedias, textbooks, novels, dictionaries, how-to books…you name it!
My enthusiastic and insightful guide was Johnny, e-Commerce Manager extraordinaire. We started the tour in his cubicle, a standard-issue work space in one of the many rooms that houses the physical manifestations of Goodwill’s online presence. There on his computer screen was the face of the electronic master behind the curtain – the powerful software that enables the staff to manage every aspect of inventory, shipping, and beyond.
“More people are buying books online than in stores these days, so our inventory can be seen by millions of people at a time,” he explained when speaking about the main benefit of investing human, spatial, and financial resources into this branch of the enterprise. He walked me through various screen displays and the ways they set up parameters or “rules” to determine where a book will be sold. Goodwill is a vendor on Amazon, e-Bay, AbeBooks, Alibris, and half.com.
Up until four years ago, most books received at Goodwill went to a salvage vendor. There was no infrastructure then to support what happens now. The range of merchandise they sell online is diverse and growing each day. DVD and CD sales are included in the monthly sales totals with the books. A lot has changed in a short time.
What does this look like? Four years ago, Goodwill sold 10-20 books per day online. Today, that number is anywhere from 500-1000 books online each day. Sales used to be limited to within the U.S., and when they decided to offer international shipping, sales increased by 15% . In March 2010 alone, this department in the basement sold 20,000 books, DVDs, and CDs. Springtime usually shows a downward trend, and in April, online totals were near 18,000 books, DVDs and CDs sold. Even with a slight dip, it’s pretty darn impressive!
OVERVIEW OF THE FLOW
A book’s sales rank on Amazon is a primary determining factor of how fast a book will sell. Incoming books with good sales ranks will be diverted to e-commerce for processing in order to be sold online. Others will be triaged for either the retail stores or salvage vendors.
How do the books turn into sales? When book are received in the warehouse, each and every one of them is processed. All books with a barcode are scanned to determine their “street value.”
While waiting for the computer to bring up the sales rank, a Goodwill employee will examine the overall condition of a book to make sure it is acceptable for e-commerce. Should a red bar appear across the bottom of the screen, the book is to be rejected. If no red bar, the book gets put in a bin and sent to the basement for further processing.
Because of the sheer volume of books coming through the doors, and finite space in which to store and process them, books have a limited time in the system. Here’s an overview of their life-cycle:
- e-Commerce – Books will stay in e-commerce for 90 days. If after 90 days, they have not sold, they will go through the same process as retail-destined books: As-Is Store, then salvage.
- Retail – Books that end up on the shelves in the local stores are not appropriate for e-commerce. These could be lightly damaged books, leather-bound older books that have no bar codes but will be a happy find for a treasure-seeker, etc. In general, these books have a 30-day cycle in a store before they rotate out to the As-Is Store.
- As-is Store – Located in on the main floor of the processing facility, this area is the final stop for anything to be sold by Goodwill to the public before going to salvage.
- Salvage vendors – Salvage vendors purchase all unsold books in bulk and sell them through their respective networks. Encyclopedias and dictionaries are among the books that go directly in the bins for salvage.
Johnny and I were ready to leave the computer behind and stroll through the processes in e-commerce land. Before stepping away from the cubicle, we were momentarily sidetracked by two quotes he keeps on a whiteboard hanging to one side. Both were by Frank Herbert, author of Dune, and one spoke volumes to me:
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
It was then that I learned a new word: kaizen. In a broad sense, kaizen is about eliminating waste and inefficiencies while improving systems. Johnny told me about the weekly department team meeting, called a “kaizen event,” that he holds with his staff. The input and exchanges of team members during these sessions have led to improvements to the way the department does things. Like the Herbert quote says, it’s a process. Big and small, the changes have added up: together, they have doubled the department’s volume of production while increasing incoming-generating potential. Kaizen goes deeper, too, into the humanity of the workplace, and the individuals who partake. From what little I read about it thus far, it’s a beautiful philosophy and practice.
Leaving the shielded calm of the cubicle and main office area, it was hard to ignore the fact that merchandise and supplies were shelved, stacked, and/or being carted through every corridor, repurposed room, nook and cranny of the basement. Space is at a premium, and I was awed by the ways they are able to make the finite and awkward spaces work.