Hello. I’m Kokumai and I handle product management for Tokyo Otaku Mode’s global ecommerce platform.
Picking up where I left off in my previous blog post, I’d like to introduce our Japan fulfillment center—the heart of our global ecommerce platform—in further detail.
My last post was photo-centric, focusing on conveying the atmosphere of the workplace. This time I will be featuring an interview with the manager of the Japan fulfillment center, Mr. Suematsu.
This is a photo of Mr. Suematsu taken for our recruit page. He’s trying a little too hard to look cool here, isn’t he.
——TOM’s distribution center is publicly known as the Japan fulfillment center, but within the company it is referred to as “factory”. It’s a warehouse, but why is it called “factory”?
Suematsu: TOM’s global ecommerce platform has a slogan which advocates delivering happiness to fans. We started out operating on a consignment basis, utilizing the warehouse space of outside companies, but to provide better distribution services, the necessity for a warehouse of our own arose. When we established our warehouse, we wanted to give it a name that expressed the productive nature of the warehouse in a way that appropriately portrayed the creativity of our company. The name “factory” came from the name of Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory. The term warehouse conjures up the image of a place where goods are simply brought in and sent out, but we position our warehouse as a place where we “imagine and create” the happiness of our customers (whom we refer to as our fans). We think of our warehouse as a factory that produces happiness. It took about a month to finalize this name for the warehouse. Coming up with this nickname might actually have been the most time-consuming task in the establishment of our warehouse.
——Does factory function on any fundamental rules or policies?
Suematsu: When working in the warehouse, carelessness could result in injuries and accidents. We follow a set principles laid out in our Key Square, which is printed large and clear in the warehouse so that everyone can check and refer to it daily. It outlines that when working in the warehouse, members should place safety, cleanliness, and the creativity required in a factory that produces happiness above work efficiency. I am proud to say that thanks to these principles, not a single accident has occurred since the day our warehouse was established.
We keep our boxes and packing materials thoroughly organized, as well. During busy times especially, everyone makes sure to stay aware of precision and safety whilst working.
——What systems do TOM use for its global ecommerce service?
Suematsu: Actually, from our order management system (OMS) to our warehouse management system (WMS), all of our systems were created from scratch by our engineers. We also have a North American warehouse in Portland, Oregon which uses the same systems, so we made sure that our systems function in both English and Japanese. Our systems are easily accessible through any browser, meaning that as long as there is internet connection and space, we can build a warehouse anywhere in the world.
In addition, instead of conventional handheld terminals, we use an advanced setup involving a mobile device connected to a barcode reader via Bluetooth. This has huge cost advantages. While an average handheld terminal costs almost 2,000 USD, our Android mobile device (about 100 USD) and barcode reader (about 200 USD) add up to about 300 USD and serve the same function as a conventional handheld terminal.
Going off on a bit of a tangent, we call this system “suma pochi” (Smart Pochi). In Japanese, “pochi” is the sound of clicking (or tapping) a button, and the name “Smart Pochi” refers to the act of operating the system by simply tapping your smartphone. However, the engineer who designed this system is a member of our development team with the nickname Pochi, so this system name also represents our respect to him. (laughs)
We manage all of our products via barcode. Sometimes we receive products without barcodes as well, and in those cases we generate our own barcodes to keep our products organized. More specifically, to create a barcode sticker for a product, we input the product’s data, a unique barcode for the product appears on screen, and we then scan that barcode to print the barcode sticker. This system was also handmade by our in-house engineers.
——Please tell us about the management of the warehouse.
Suematsu: Just as our order management system and Smart Pochi system were developed in-house, our warehouse management system was developed and is operated by us as well. We were not originally professionals in warehouse management, but we decided that in order to keep up with the rapidly growing diversity of products and services our company handles, it would be best to design a customized system by ourselves. The way our warehouse currently runs is the result of our efforts.
Recently, we’ve begun handling shipping fulfillment for successful crowdfunding projects of other companies as well. Our warehouse constantly accumulates new know-how whenever the occasion arises.
All of our shelves are numbered. Here is an example of a typical shelf.
It is hard to fit large plush toys onto shelves, so we stock plush toys in a designated wider area.
Each numbered shelf houses various products. The product’s barcode is affixed to the shelve, and it serves as the product’s “home address”.
Aisles also have their own “addresses”. Location management in the warehouse follows a matrix structure. Thanks to this idea, we were able to drastically decrease the amount of work required when relocating products.
I’ll skip the nitty-gritty details during this interview, but if you are interested in finding out more, feel free to contact us via our contact form.
We periodically conduct warehouse observation trips as well, where we visit other companies’ warehouses and allow them to visit ours to learn from each other’s methods.
——Please tell us about the packaging process. What aspects require extra attention?
Suematsu: The high cost of international shipping poses a constant challenge for us as a global ecommerce platform. Just think: a mere 500-gram difference in weight can result in a 1,000 JPY difference in shipping costs. In comparison to domestic shipping, international shipping is much more demanding in regards to keeping boxes as compact and lightweight as possible. At the same time, to ensure that the products are not damaged during shipping, durability is extremely important as well. We adjust the level of durability of each box size based on feedback from our fans (customers).
Here are our flat boxes before they’ve been built. Our boxes are organized by size.
When our fans make purchases, a “picking list” is generated for each order that is placed. This list contains all the items in the fan’s order, and our warehouse staff reference this list when picking items from our warehouse shelves. Automatically generated along with the “picking list” is the recommended box size for that order.
Each item is carefully packed into the optimal sized box.
We offer a gift wrapping option for $3. This is the instruction manual for packaging orders with gift wrapping.
In order to create the best experience possible for our customers when they receive and open their packages, our manual features step-by-step instructions on how to package items, complete with images.
——Are there any particularly busy days for the warehouse?
Suematsu: As a large percentage of our customers are from the United States, our busiest times of the year coincide with large US sales, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when we receive an overwhelming number of orders from the US. Every year, that period of time is like a seasonal event leading up to Christmas for us.
We also have an online store for the Chinese market on Alibaba’s T-mall (天猫国際). In China, November 11th (Singles’ Day) is a huge day for shopping, and we receive an enormous number of orders on that one day. Our popular plushies generate 5 times the amount of revenue they usually generate in an entire month in a single day. On the day before and after Singles’ Day, factory operates 24 hours to package and ship out orders.
Below is the banner for the Black Friday sale held on our global ecommerce site in 2016.
And our banner for Cyber Monday.
On Singles’ Day, even staff from our Shibuya office rush over to the warehouse to offer their support. The photo below shows our staff singing “Sarai” together after surviving the hectic frenzy of Singles’ Day sales. As for why we were singing “Sarai”… take a guess from the color of our T-shirts. (laughs)
By the way, our most popular products in the Chinese market are plushies.
——What sort of employees work at the warehouse?
Suematsu: About 90% of the employees at the warehouse are either part- or full-time employees, and many of them have worked for us long-term. Our employees span a broad age range, from late teens to 50’s, and during break time everyone sits together and chats with each other in the office break area.
Every morning, we have a meeting to confirm and allocate the workload for that day, and the entire warehouse gets together for the meeting and for radio calisthenics (warm-up exercises).
——Are there any challenges that you expect factory to take on in the near future?
Suematsu: There is still so much more we can do to improve the efficiency and creativity of our work. One example is the product picking process—I’d like to optimize the process by minimizing the distance the person needs to walk when picking all the different products in a fan’s order from the shelves and gathering them in one place. I’d also like to upgrade our Smart Pochi devices to the latest model. I’d also like to improve the process of checking newly received stock for defects and make it smoother. We will be expanding the range of services we offer in the future, and with that comes an increased number of returned shipments, domestic shipments, and so on. It’s only been a minute and I’ve already listed so many things we can improve on.
As our systems here at TOM were all developed by our in-house engineers, we can ask them to develop new features or tweak existing ones whenever the need arises.
——Thank you for your time and all your answers!
This has been Part 2 of our introduction to the Japan Fulfillment Center. I hope this post had given you a good understanding of TOM’s passion toward our global ecommerce service and our constant efforts to improve and enhance.
We are currently recruiting members to help us in our mission to deliver otaku culture to the world. If you are interested, please feel more than welcome to come ask us for more details!
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