“It’s been an exciting few months…” Andy Burton laughed at his own understatement.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK in March, houseplant wholesaler Double H Nurseries saw demand for their products disappear overnight. Orchids, however, aren’t like other industrial products. They take a year to grow, and if left in a warehouse for too long, they’ll spoil.
So Burton, the Operations Manager at Double H, found himself in a tough spot. If he couldn’t sell his inventory, he’d be resigned to losing it.
With some quick thinking and resourcefulness, Burton and his team were able to stand up a new business line. In less than four weeks they supplemented their core B2B model with a new B2C channel. They found ways to digitize their processes to reduce administrative work and create a sustainable, scalable system.
Operations teams looking to build digital resilience can learn something from how Double H responded to a crisis.
From record-breaking sales to disappearing demand in a single week
In the last 60 years, family-owned Double H has grown the largest supplier of houseplants in the UK. Selling to supermarkets and other vendors across the UK, Double H has upwards of a million and a half orchids in production at any given time.
Double H keeps most of its operations in house. Meaning that, in addition to growing and raising plants, they design products, track trends and fashions, package, and dispatch their product.
2020 began on an auspicious note for Double H. In the first few weeks of March, Double H broke its record for single-week sales as retailers prepared for the Mother’s Day holiday (in March in the UK). “We sold more than 300 thousand orchids that weekend,” Burton noted.
Within days of breaking their sales record, however, the UK announced sweeping lockdowns. Supermarkets shifted their stocks from gifts to paper goods and flowers. Shopping patterns changed. In short, the floor dropped out.
Rather than accept their fate, Double H looked for opportunities.
From B2B to B2C – growing pains
Burton and his team decided that the best way to move their existing inventory would be to create an online shop.
They moved quickly. Within five days they’d set up an eCommerce storefront with Shopify. Orders followed almost immediately.
“We didn’t know how we were going to fulfill the orders. But we knew we needed to try,” Burton noted of their first experiments selling directly to consumers, “Orders came in. We were basically packing plants and driving them in our cars to the shipment places.”
While the team got a boost from the success of their new process, the manual work associated quickly caught up with them. Burton recalls the attitude in their facilities was, “For the first couple of days we thought ‘Yea, okay, we can do this.’”
Then demand increased.
On the first day, Double H sold 20 boxes. By day 6 they sold 600. Then local news outlets picked up their story, and orders poured in. “Suddenly we were in a bit of trouble.” Soon it was up to 3500 orders a day through the new channel. For Burton and his team, it was a real struggle to process every order. “There were .CSV files everywhere.”
Burton and his team reached an inflection point. Either find a way to reduce the administrative burden of their new channel, or miss the opportunity they created for themselves.
Digitizing an order process from end-to-end
The friction Double H experienced in their new order process came from the manual administrative work each order required.
For each order, they had to pull the relevant information from Shopify, create shipping labels and packing slips. They packed orders in chronological order because there wasn’t enough visibility to optimize sorting picking. Inefficiencies in scheduling followed.
“Back in the old system, we were giving operators a bundle of shipping labels in one hand and a stack of packing slips in another and hope that they’d match up,” Burton recalled of their initial processes, “Depending on how the CSV was sorted they could be in entirely different orders.”
So Burton and his team looked for a way to digitize this process.
The early search didn’t turn anything up. “We didn’t find anything that was fit for purpose without spending tens of thousands of pounds.”
Burton connected with an old friend at Tulip, and began a free trial to see if the cloud-based application platform could fit their needs.
Within two weeks, Burton and his team had rolled out a set of applications they eliminated administrative work, and allowed data to flow seamlessly across the different systems involved in their order process.
Here’s how it works.
When an order comes in through Shopify, the data is directly pulled into Tulip. Supervisors have a terminal, where they can select which orders they need to process and schedule them out fulfillment to members of the team.
At this point, orders are filtered and sorted into batches, and operators proceed to pack according to a freshly generated pick list. Operators interact with a single screen that consolidates all of the information they need to process an order. “Now Tulip just sorts them for us… There’s no paperwork floating around.”
From the same application screen the operator can print labels for each order, with Tulip pulling shipping information from FedEx. During the process, Tulip automatically sends inventory updates to SAP.
All together, Double H integrated Tulip with Shopify, FedEx, and SAP. They were also able to connect Tulip to their label printers. “When it came to interactions with hardware, we wouldn’t even know where to start. With Tulip it was easy.” Tulip effectively functioned as the glue between these disparate systems.
“I set the target for zero admin,” Burton Said, “And I think it’s fair to say we’ve achieved it now.”
Double H stood up a new business line in two weeks. With Tulip, they were able to digitize the process from end-to-end and reduce time consuming admin work.
Burton stated that Double H is a company that gives is employees room to innovate. “Innovation a big part of our culture. We encourage people to solve problems every day. If someone can think of a way to solve a problem, we let them try it.”
Now, they’re seeing how the team can use the data collected by Tulip to create new efficiencies.
The data from Tulip helps them calculate cycle times, giving them a sense of where workers are losing time as they process orders. The integrations also give them a better picture of the operation’s financials. By pulling actual cost of order through fedex back into SAP, they now have a clear way to calculate margins on an order.
Ultimately, the first experiments digitizing manual processes have opened up new avenues for continuous improvement.
Smaller businesses often face a dilemma when it comes to digital innovation. They know its necessary, but it can be hard to justify the risks.
With Tulip, Double H were able to build applications and prove the value of the platform without spending a cent.
Tulip helped them standardize a new process, integrate with their existing systems, and it empowered to do it all themselves.
We’ve been thrilled to see what Burton and his team have done with Tulip, and we’re excited to see what comes next.
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