Kent Co. firm fills the bill Orders: An astonishing melange of items goes out from a Kent County warehouse to thousands of consumers who place orders on an 800 number to USA Fulfillment.

March 08, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- They call here by the thousands. Enticed by advertising, empowered by a credit card, they pick up the phone and dial an 800 number seeking baseball videos, Barbie dolls, a rejuvenating skin-care system.

And from a nondescript 43,000-square foot warehouse on Morgnec Road in this Kent County town, an astonishingly diverse group of items is sent out across the country (if the credit card is good) -- thanks to Shanika Cooper, Betty Bolt, Bobbie Rittenhouse and about four dozen other employees of USA Fulfillment.

USA, a company that has been on the Eastern Shore for 13 years, is an unobtrusive center of consumerism with a volume any department store would envy. There are 199 Major League (( Baseball items, including videos of all the World Series back to 1943. There's the Little Debbie Barbie (she's wearing an apron and a blue gingham dress). There's the rebate program for Sony camcorders and other electronics. There's the Coty lipstick-for-a-dollar, and a new Canadian skin-care regimen called Cellex.

Hockey cards, Disney toys, Star Trek stuff, football and NASCAR shirts and hats, sweepstakes prizes -- it all comes through the USA warehouse.

"If you call on a Monday, in 90 to 95 percent of the cases, your order will be in the mail on Tuesday," says Keith Moore, USA president.

Since its release late last year, the 1996 World Series video has prompted 35,800 orders, he says. Those orders peaked at the end of the World Series, keeping Cooper and Johnson and their co-workers busy week in and week out -- "kind of like Cal Ripken," jokes Bolt, the telemarketing supervisor at USA.

However, Major League Baseball products are not the company's biggest item. They're about 10th on the list, says Moore. In sheer numbers, Coty's lipstick-for-a-dollar offer has been one of the company's biggest this year, with about 300,000 mailed, he says.

That kind of volume -- and the storage it required -- was the reason USA chose the Eastern Shore for its only site.

"We were looking for available warehouse space -- this was the only place we could find it at a reasonable rate," Moore says. The Western Shore was too expensive, he says -- so the company first located in Queen Anne's County for 11 years, then moved to Kent two years ago.

When a customer calls, be it for a Barbie or a video, it sets off a flurry of choreographed activity in USA's two buildings.

Shanika Cooper and about nine others in the telemarketing department -- housed in a nearby office park -- take the orders. Each is logged onto a computer screen. After a credit-card check, the order is sent by computer to the production center and warehouse a half-mile away on the other side of Morgnec Road.

The order is pulled up on a computer screen by supervisor Bobbie Rittenhouse, then printed out and taken to one of the 10 women on the production staff.

If the order is for one of the hundreds of sports videos USA handles, it goes to a group of four women in the middle of the

chilly, cavernous production room. Each woman has a stack of labels to her right, videos, flat cardboard mailers and a tape dispenser to her left -- and speedy, dextrous hands that even a Major League baseball player would envy.

They pack and label hundreds of tapes -- or dolls, or lipsticks or hats or Bibles -- each hour. The shop standard -- the minimum rate accepted for each worker -- is 160 videos an hour, Rittenhouse says. But most of the women are faster. The shop's top packer can move 240 videos in an hour -- four every minute.

There are peak times, say Moore and Rittenhouse. When a sports season ends, a national marketing blitz can cause a "spike" or sharp rise in the number of orders. But even between seasons, the pace in the warehouse is far from slow.

On a recent afternoon, four women worked to finish an order for nearly 16,000 National Football League videos. Nearby, another woman packed Bibles ordered from a prison-project ministry.

Rittenhouse, the supervisor, handled special orders that day, which included 1,000 erector sets, as well as a couple of thousand-item catalog orders. Ahead of her was a request for 4,000 sports bags.

The numbers are daunting. But no one at USA seemed to be in danger of collapsing under the mountain of merchandise. Phones rang, orders came in, computers hummed and printers sputtered as thousands of sports videotapes moved out across the country.

The company goal at USA, says Moore is zero -- a surprising number in a business where a thousand items is considered a mere half-day's work for one.

"Jobs in fulfillment are rated on a zero-to-10 scale," he says. "Nobody ever calls up and says 'Gee, it was great to get that

video.' " Instead, they call to complain, as in "Where's that World Series video from 1952?"

On those, he says, "We want to be a zero."

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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