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Idiosyncratic bookstores selling both new and used titles live in the domains of halcyon college days and learned travelers. The few such businesses to survive into the 21st century have had to fend off the rise (and fall) of book superstores, and its ilk and, most recently, the e-book reader.

One such survivor is Powell’s Books, in Portland, Ore., which is using modern technology in its warehouse to remain customer friendly, both in its stores and online, so as to live to sell books another day.

Powell’s opened 40 years ago, and over the years its flagship store has grown to fill a four-story building covering an entire city block — approximately 68,000 sq. ft. of space divided into nine color-coded rooms. Some 3,500 sections hold the various categories of the million or so books on the shelves. Approximately 80,000 people shop the store, five smaller locations and online on a typical day, and founder and owner Michael Powell estimates that he has probably sold well over 100 million books.

Keeping those shelves stocked with pre-read books falls to used book distribution manager Jason Ellingson and his staff. One of Powell’s warehouses is filled with new titles in neat rows; the other is Ellingson’s stomping ground, where he presides over more than two million volumes wedged in wherever there is shelf space.

Therein lays a tale about the need for an enhanced technological solution to keep tomes flowing to shelves while holding down costs and improving productivity.

Managing the problem

The warehouse staff was struggling with hand-held scanners, which often faltered when trying to read faded titles on some book spines. In addition, Powell’s employed two different barcodes — one placed on the books and carrying data like the title and relevant SKU information, and a second acting as a locator code and placed on the shelves where the books were stored.

Unfortunately, the scanners could read only the SKU barcodes, so the locator barcode information had to be entered manually. In addition, when space opened up on a shelf it had to be measured by hand to determine if the books waiting to be shelved would fit.

When the number of books of one title exceeded the space in which it was being stored, the surplus would have to be relocated manually with a new locator code. The warehouse has nearly 10,000 shelves, so if a book is misplaced or a locator code is incorrectly entered, there was no way to find it short of sheer luck.

When inventory cycle counting rolled around, staff members would have to scan each book individually, even if there were 30 copies of the same title. Wouldn’t it be nice, Ellingson thought, if the scanner could also measure those open spaces and streamline cycle counting?

Psion, almost literally, had the technology he was looking for. NEO, a handheld device made for use in retail contexts, can read 1-D and 2-D barcodes, says Mike McGuriman, vice president for Psion’s East region. It can also be adapted for high-frequency RFID.

“It’s a mobile computer with a Windows operating system, so it can use any web-based application,” McGuriman says. It’s also about half the size of most other such hand-held devices.

‘The best option’
The NEO, indeed, did come to Ellingson’s rescue. It could scan SKU barcodes and locator codes, assign locator codes, scan multiple copies of the same book and perform a cycle counting operation. All this, and integrate with existing software.

The new devices have been in use for more than a year and have performed through every kind of selling season and accounting cycles.

Since no inputting or measuring has to be done manually, “efficiencies have improved in so many ways,” Ellingson says. The system also reduced errors in data input, resulting in fewer books going “lost.”

Ellingson says that two or three hours a day have been saved by automating data entry; inventory redundancy has been reduced, and the cycle counting process is 20 to 30 percent faster.

“The Psion system has provided us with enhanced flexibility and efficiency throughout the warehouse,” he says. “The NEO not only has the ability to be programmed specifically to organize our plethora of books, but has proven to be effective, affordable and the best option that meets all our requirements.”

Equally important, Ellingson says, is the short learning curve. “The deployment of Psion NEO device was seamless for the entire staff,” he says. “The devices are compact, fit well in the hand and are incredibly user friendly.”

What’s next on his wish list? He’d like to make more use of wireless technology so the staff wouldn’t have to download files periodically at a docking station, as is the current practice.

“With a wireless system,” Ellingson says, “when we’re working on Internet orders, we could pull the books and scan them and get the pricing in there all in one process rather than perform those steps separately.”