Making wishes come true

Making wishes come true

Gift site is balancing the best of manual and automatic fulfilment to keep to its business model.

By Alicia Camphuisen

Promising a wide enough range of gifts to suit any person, has become one of the most popular consumer e-commerce sites in Australia.

To further extend its reach to the online shopping public, the site has also established representation at portal sites ninemsn, Looksmart and Excite. With this emphasis on its front end exposure, the site now has to ensure its backend fulfilment will meet the flow of orders.

Melbourne-based wishlist processes hundreds of orders per day, and has developed its business model around timely delivery. As it has to gift wrap many of its orders, the company has also maintained a focus on value-added service such as presentation quality.

Wishlist's Dinh Truong, Huy Trong and Peter Stockdale (l-r) seek to combine speed of delivery with a personal touch. Photo:Les O'Rourke

"It is vital to have pick-and-pack in-house," said wishlist CEO Huy Truong. "It is as important to the customer to receive parcels on time as to have quality and personalisation."

Wishlist has opted to keep as much of its operations as possible in-house so that it can maintain this different customer-focused pick-and-pack culture, and so that fulfilment can be as seamless as possible.

"We have focused a lot of our resources on our front-end. We haven't put the necessary investment in the back yet, and this is something we're now developing," said Mr Truong.


While wishlist has been conscious of keeping the quality elements such as gift wrapping and card writing that a human touch affords, it has sought to automate the process as much as possible to maintain quick order processing.

"The biggest gains for our back end fulfilment are at the start and end of the process," said wishlist operations manager Peter Stockdale. "It is there that we can increase accuracy and gain time."

The backend process begins from the time a customer places an order. Wishlist's Microsoft SQL Server database acts as both the basis of the Web site and the content repository with item details and levels.

"If we automate too early, we run the risk of restricting what we can do with the site."

The site has stockkeeping and non-stockkeeping items, which are those that are kept in the warehouse and those sourced upon order. A line under each item description on the site specifies whether it is in wishlist's warehouse, according to whether it is available for delivery immediately or within a few days.

If an item is not at the warehouse, wishlist sources it from a distributor. The site also partnered with online department store dstore in November, in a deal that allows each to source products from each other's inventory as part of their backend fulfilment.

A Web message is sent to the warehouse and printed as a picking slip that contains a product description, quantity, barcode and location in the warehouse. If the ordered item is not in stock, the printout becomes a purchase order and is forwarded to the purchasing division.

Staff scan items before wrapping and packaging, and handwrite address labels and consignment notes. Scanned data is updated in the database, and database threshold switches change delivery availability when stock drops below a certain amount.

At the moment the company employs between 10 and fifteen pickers in its warehouse, but it did reach 100 in the leadup to Christmas, and Mr Truong expects to have this many warehouse staff normally in four to five months.

Although wishlist is keen to maintain its human touch, it is working with consulting group Deloitte Touche Tomahtsu to implement a warehouse management system.

"We need a scalable, flexible system capable of different ways of putting products together and different supply chain alternatives," said Mr Truong.

Mr Stockdale said wishlist also wanted a cross-stocking function that would immediately direct out-of-stock orders to the purchasing staff, so they can initiate orders up to three to five hours earlier.

He added that the company is also looking at introducing handheld Radio Frequency (RF) scanners so pickers can scan items as they fulfil orders, as well as trolleys that would hold several order buckets at a time and allow staff to complete five or six orders at once.

Wishlist executive producer Dinh Truong said that the company was also looking at management systems that would automatically update item levels and add new product descriptions and images in real time, so that the information would be current for customers.

"Another option is a batch approach, where at set intervals, say every half hour, information is uploaded to the site," said Ms Truong. "The advantage of this strategy is that we would not be slowing down the site all of the time by constantly revising the information on the database."

Mr Truong said that the company also wants to install an extranet for its suppliers to dial into daily and access stock levels for replenishment, to speed up the purchasing process.

While Mr Truong acknowledged that a more automated system will help wishlist cope with the growing traffic it expects, he said it needed to be applied thoughtfully to be of greatest benefit.

"The wishlist business model only allows for so much automation," he said. "If we automate our systems too early, we run the risk of restricting what we can do with the site."