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WHSmith’s Quality of Service Through Innovation

July 5, 2012

WHSmith’s highly successful travel group comprises 210 outlets in airports, train stations, bus stations and hospitals throughout the UK, stocking everything from books, magazines, sweets and drinks, to travel essentials and high ticket items such as tobacco. Because these stores typically have very little space for spare stock, their deliveries need to be very accurate and on a JIT basis. In this way it sets standards that are carried through the entire group. The use of leading edge technologies is one such standard, which is why WHST’s warehouse in Holford, Birmingham installed voice directed picking via Voiteq’s Voiceman™ system.

The Solution:

Voice technology for order pickers.

In late March 2004 Voiteq completed a rollout of their VoiceMan™ voicedirected picking system which utilised Vocollect’s Talkman™ voice terminals for 50 WHSmith users on the warehouse floor. The voice system integrates seamlessly with the existing Dataware WMS (warehouse management system) via Voiteq’s VoiceMan™ software solution.

The belt worn voice terminals replaced paper picklists and allow order pickers to receive picking instructions via their headsets, confirming picks as they go by reading back the last three digits of the product EAN code to ensure accuracy. WHSmith especially relies upon the ‘description’ command for clarification within the book section, where several different titles share the same pickface location. This simple call for additional details prevents a mis-pick that might formerly have easily occurred. The Talkman™ T2 terminals also enable pickers to move around the warehouse with their hands and eyes free without interruption, as this new method of picking eliminates the need to return to base to collect a new list between jobs.

There are also valuable knock-on benefits. If a picker arrives at an empty location, the ‘short’ command advises the system that the shelves need to be replenished. This information is fed into the WMS and passed on to the replenishment team to action. The picker is sent back to that location at the end of the pick assignment to re-pick the short stock. Equally, safety is key. Voice was chosen above HHTs on the basis that users wouldn’t need to constantly look down at a screen or press buttons. “With forklifts and employees moving around together, it’s crucial to stay focussed”, expressed site manager Jim McCafferty. “With voice technology pickers can remain aware of their surroundings at all times.”

The Result:

Greater accuracy and efficiency in the warehouse.

The Result is a step up in the general pace of work, with the users themselves controlling the speed of the flow of instructions from their systems. Most notably, accuracy is up to around 99.9 percent with voice picking. “It is impossible to pick the wrong item,” said McCafferty.

“If a user provides an incorrect barcode, the system will not progress until the correct code is given. It also asks for quantity verification, to ensure the correct amount has been collected.”

Naturally, improved pick accuracy means that far less resources are spent on tracking down and verifying system and delivery errors.

Add to that the overall increase in profitability due to productivity levels going up and the financial case for voice is compelling. During the first month of operation at WHSmith, estimated daily pick levels rose per person from 561 to 701. Moreover, since accuracy levels at WHSmith are much higher, the retailer has been able to completely dispense with quality control staff within the Holford warehouses.

Those previously employed with on-the-spot order checks have been reintegrated into the picking team, providing valuable reinforcement in that area. There is also a lesser requirement for data processing staff than with manual picking methods, and the stores themselves no longer need to allocate resources to checking-in their deliveries.

WHSmith employ a large number of pickers of Eastern European origin with very strong accents, the Talkman™ terminals have no problem understanding them and training time is very short.

Back in the office, WHSmith staff have found themselves better equipped to deal with telephone enquiries from regional outlets since being able to track the progress of picks in real time via the VoiceMan™ screens.

Furthermore, owing to improved accuracy, incoming reports of delivery errors have fallen from around 100 per week to less than twenty; even those relating to matters other than mis-picks.

“We are delighted with this, as this project has always been about us finding a way to provide a better quality of service to the stores” stated MCafferty.

For the future WHSmith Travel plans to work with Voiteq on introducing a higher degree of automation into the replenishment and dispatch processes, of which voice will undoubtedly have a role to play. WHSmith’s voice installation shows that the ‘great British institution’ still has what it takes to be a leader!


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