For six weeks each year, I have to transform Arena Flowers into one that delivers 40 to 50 times its usual volume to cope with the surge in orders for Valentine Flowers and Mother's Day.
This is how we cope with this extra demand...
Most managing directors and CEOs will spend their time contemplating how to grow their business. How to generate more demand, greater profits or better margins.
Others in retail concentrate their mind on ramping their operations up a gentle slope towards the climax of the Christmas shopping season. But not many business people have our challenge.
I run Arena Flowers, a healthy business that ships around a thousand orders a day and has a turnover of several million a year. But I'm in the flowers and gifts business and our steady Dr Jekyll business has a Mr Hyde.
Twice a year, our Mr Hyde business emerges – crazy, manic, demanding and unstoppable.
The two days that make or break our business are Valentine's Day on 14th February and Mother's Day, which falls on the Sunday 10th March in 2013. On these days, and the weeks running up to them, we have to transform ArenaFlowers.com into a monster capable of delivering more than 50 times what it will do on a normal day.
Demand goes through the roof and everything must go as clockwork. That's the thing about flowers for a special occasion: they're perishable, so you can't sit on stock for weeks. And they have to arrive on the right day.
We've spilt blood, sweat and tears over the years to bring you these tips:
1. Up sticks
For the six weeks or so that we do battle for Valentine's and Mothering Sunday, we decamp to an entirely separate premises to cope with the deluge of orders.
It's vital to have adequate space and scrimping on the size of the premises can be a false economy. I prefer a big open area that we can customise. That way we can lay things out properly and everything's in the open. One year, we hired the next door warehouse for convenience. It was made up of dozens of little rooms and I discovered one day that two temps had been sleeping on the job in there.
Get an agent on board who knows what they're doing and totally understands what you want. A good agent knows that there can be council rate advantages for taking short lets of business premises and will also ensure you're protected.
Make sure you have a watertight Schedule of Condition before you enter to show clearly what state the place should be in when you leave.
One pesky landlord came to us six months after we'd vacated and tried to claim that £40k of repairs were needed. He was trying it on. He got nothing.
2. Fit for purpose
The benefit of taking on specific premises and moving for a period, is to get somewhere that's completely suited to the task in hand.
For instance, we will need to load several thousand boxes an hour so we look for properties with multiple loading bays. This means we save time loading, and don't have to wait for the next truck to get lined up.
We have also optimised our boxes so we can get as many as we can, efficiently, into our trucks. We've even designed the boxes so they keep the flowers safe when they're loaded in upside down: we're the only people who do that. Little tweaks add up.
You could automate everything in the warehouse but that would be fantastically expensive. Rather it's a case of mixing and matching people with machines. We've analysed the tasks - packing, box making, box closing, cross-sell, production, balloon fulfilment and the rest – and worked out the best way to maximise efficiency.
The key is not doing too much at once. Take achievable steps each year and before you know it you're running a top-notch system with half the staff fulfilling twice the volume.
For instance, this year 10 machines will make and close our boxes. This has only been possible because we redesigned the boxes. We'll also have hundreds of meters of conveyor belt to move products and boxes to people rather than moving people.
With this equipment, make the right decisions on whether it should be bought or rented. We simply don't have the space or need for much of this kit year round so we rent most of it. You can rent just about anything if you look hard enough. That said, there are tax breaks for buying equipment so if you need it year round, that can make great sense.
3. Temporary staff control
The key to making sure the army of temps we need to hire can do their job effectively lies with having the right skills and people available in the permanent team at Arena Flowers. At the busy times of the year, they're going to be vital and essentially doing a totally different job, so you'll need to support them.
Mark them out with different colour hi-vis jackets, provide them with a very clear job spec and tool them up with walkie-talkies. A strong core team is vital and definitely something you need to consider when you're hiring.
We also establish a “command and control” war room. Here we can monitor webcams around the warehouse and leap into action if need be. It's vital to monitor these screens 24/7. This way we can monitor the patient without interfering with the operation. The point is not to ensure that the machine is moving at full tilt but rather to remove the pauses.
We're working 24hrs a day at the busiest times and delays are magnified as they pass down the chains and that mean idle hands and that means wasted money.
4. It's a year round challenge
Needless to say, in those peak months we don't get much sleep, never go on holiday, sacrifice our personal lifes and generally turn into flower delivery-obsessed freaks.
But the flipside is that, often during the middle part of the year we have a lot more time to enjoy personally and also to think about the business and develop it.
After all, turning out hundreds of despatches a day is a doddle compared to what we do on Valentine's Day. It's in those quieter periods that the majority of planning and preparation for the next peak period can be effectively executed.
Right. I'm off to pore over our operations plan for the 20th time. Wish us luck!