John Lewis

Leading UK Retailer Deploys Zebra Mobile Printers to Improve Supply Chain Efficiency

Since John Lewis opened as a drapers' store on London's Oxford Street in 1864, this well known retail chain has launched 26 department stores across the UK. It houses one of the largest ranges of goods available under one roof. John Lewis is renowned for its partnership structure, where every employee or 'Partner' is a co-owner in the business and shares in the profits.

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The Story


Managing stock levels and warehouse operations for such a large retailer was never going to be an easy task, and in 2006 John Lewis implemented a new wireless warehouse management system designed to replace the existing paper-based system, using a combination of voice recognition technology, software and hardware.

Using the previous system, stock was getting lost in the distribution centre because labels fell off pallets and paperwork went missing. William Armitage, Distribution Systems Manager at John Lewis comments: "It is the nature of department stores that we have to carry a wide range of stocked items of different sizes, but a large number of stocked lines with small 'pick quantities' are sent to the stores. We needed a new system to manage this and make the picking operation as effective as possible."

The Solution

Right goods, right store, right time!
John Lewis' distribution centre in Northamptonshire covers more than 24,000 square meters, with over 12,000 product lines positioned around 100 aisles. The new system allows its employees to quickly and efficiently navigate their way around this site.

The system uses voice recognition technology to allow the picking staff to sign on at the distribution centre. This then directs users where to go to pick the stock. Pickers use 'cages' to hold products before shipping to its various UK stores. Once a cage is full, the picker uses Zebra® QL 420 Plus™ mobile wireless printers to print labels that show the contents of the cages and the John Lewis store they are destined for.

These labels then remain on the cages until they have been unloaded in the store warehouse. "Previously, fixed printers were installed in the distribution centre to label the cages, but we wanted a system that would save time and increase productivity," continued Armitage. "Printing the labels on-demand at the point of picking has helped us achieve this."

Using the QL 420 Plus, the media is easy to change and rarely gets stuck.

William Armitage, Distribution Systems Manager,
John Lewis


Moving onwards and outwards
"The initial roll-out was painless, and the support we have had from Zebra Technologies has been excellent. Using a wireless rather than wired printer to print the cage labels quickly paid dividends," continued Armitage. "It means the information can be printed on-demand by the pickers. This saves time walking to and from a printer as well as reducing the amount of mistakes being made. The biggest advantage of the Zebra printers is that they are hard wearing, and stand up extremely well to prolonged use. Where competitors' products break down, run out of media and lose battery power, the Zebra QL 420 Plus mobile printer is both rugged and resilient."

"Media is also traditionally a problem when it comes to hand held printers," Armitage continued. "There's nothing more frustrating than frequently running out of labels or clearing sticky label jams. Using the QL 420 Plus, the media is easy to change and rarely gets stuck."

Since the initial roll-out of 20 printers in its Northamptonshire distribution centre, John Lewis has implemented about 40 more mobile printers that have been used on-site in Stevenage with additional roll-out planned.

Armitage concluded: "It may be invisible to the customer, but the journey from distribution centre to store is a crucial part of the retail supply chain and vital to effective stock level management. Without it, we wouldn't be able to live up to our customer service reputation. The picking process is an important part of this journey, and the Zebra printers help the whole system to run a lot more smoothly."

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