Wednesday, 11 August 2010

On NBNi's Summer 2010 Expansion Project

This post first appeared on the NBNi web site earlier today, where it was the inaugural post on the blog we have launched in order encourage the exchange of information and ideas with our industry colleages about how to meet changing cusotmer needs.

If you are distributed by us or if you buy books from us in any quantity, you almost certainly know by now that NBNi is expanding into larger, more modern distribution premises in Plymouth this summer (the main switchover between locations takes place this coming weekend). Over the months we have been preparing for and running this project, many clients, customers and colleagues in the industry have been asking us: "If the future's digital, why are you taking more space?" It's a simple question with a simple short answer, and a not-quite-so-simple long one. Today I'm going to focus on the short answer (the longer one will follow in a separate post). The key words are service, efficiency, turnaround times, customer expectations, quality control, communication, people.

We've been running our business from premises designed over thirty years ago when the book industry supply chain worked at a much slower pace than it does now. We’ve also more than doubled in size in the past six years, and we can’t continue in the same premises. When our old warehouse was built, just-in-time ordering was an unknown phrase; Amazon wasn't even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos' eye; customers were used to waiting for books to come into stock in their local bookstore, and most publishers thought of the "customer" as the buyer in the bookshop, library supplier, wholesaler - not the ultimate user or consumer of the book.

Everything's different now. Internet retailers have been the dominant force in changing the supply chain for some years, and more recently in the UK the centralisation of Waterstone’s has also engendered change. The Internet resellers have incredibly high expectations of both data and physical book supply, and each one works to a slightly different model with its own service needs and priorities. Amazon needs consignment supply, The Book Depository needs daily actual stock data, Boffin requires direct-to-consumer supply, to name but a few. In the meantime some of the difficulties Waterstone’s have experienced at the hub have driven us to invest in new technologies that enable us to ensure and prove accuracy of supply.

On top of all of that, far more specialist publishers are now engaged in direct-to-consumer activities, with email and web-based marketing campaigns replacing traditional direct mail. What’s certain is that whatever route the customer is ordering through, they now have far more choice, and wield far more power than 30 years ago. And that's not just choice of books - but choice of what to do with their time, period. If the book isn't available when they want it, there are plenty of other ways to engage with ideas and text on and offline. Our changed consumer culture demands a different level of responsiveness from those of us still engaged with supplying physical books to resellers and end users. And to provide that responsiveness, we need to be working from premises designed around the new paradigms of book supply, where we can communicate with each other and our clients and customers more effectively, and where we can work faster and more accurately.

Most of our clients still rely on print books as their primary source of revenue. And the best way in which we can support our publishers through the present turbulent and unsettling times is to ensure that the experience of obtaining those physical books is as simple, and enjoyable as possible for the customer. Whether they are a wholesaler, a librarian, an independent bookshop in a German or Italian university town, a consignment distributor in the Far East, or an individual ordering via a vendor or publisher web site - people need to like ordering from us.

It is with all this in mind that we are going through the pain of relocating 3.4 million units of stock; a pressurised process that hasn't always been smooth. With thousands of active isbns, some of which sell only a few units of stock a year combining the process of a move, with keeping everything available for order and continuing timely supply has been a huge challenge. And of course it is not just books that we are relocating; our staff are also moving over to the new premises. No-one has to move house as our new warehouse and offices are less than a mile from the old ones. But people will be working in a new environment. It's a much better-planned, safer work space. (For example the new picking face is completely separate from the hi-bay storage, so there will be far less interaction of people and fork lift trucks). On balance our teams are excited to be working for a company that is so obviously investing in expansion and the future at a time when much of the economic news is doom and gloom. But even good change causes disruption and we’ve all had to retain our senses of humour at times.

We're deeply grateful to all of our publisher clients and to all of our customers for the support and encouragement we've received during the course of the project. Our objective is to reward you for this support with faster service, greater efficiency, better communication, greater accuracy and above all to be a company that you want to work with and want to buy from, staffed by people you really enjoy communicating and working with.

With thanks to my colleagues at NBNi for permission to re-post here.