When you think about digital transformation, you probably think of multinational giants like McDonald’s or Sephora. But it’s the small to midsize companies that often reap the most rewards from such transformation. Case in point: Brook Furniture Rental has invested in new technologies to undertake a true digital evolution, significantly improving customer service and reducing operational costs along the way.
Brook Reimagines Furniture Rental
Brook Furniture Rental leases furniture, décor, and housewares in major metropolitan areas nationwide. The Lake Forest, Illinois-headquartered company serves direct-to-consumer (DTC) customers, individuals choosing to rent furniture out of their own pocket. Brook also serves business-to-business (B2B) customers in multiple industries. These include corporate housing, in which a company needs temporary furnished apartments while relocating or training employees, as well as insurance companies tasked with providing and outfitting an entire home for displaced policyholders.
Brook does more than just deliver furniture and housewares; they bring the furniture inside, set it up, and make sure everything is comfortably in its place. In short, they make the space move-in ready. To provide these services, Brook has 12 warehouses ranging in size from 20,000 to 100,000 square feet, and a leased fleet of 26-foot box vans.
The company takes care of everything in reverse, too, picking up rented pieces when the lease is up. Typically, furniture is reused 4-6 times. When it comes back to the warehouse, items are repaired, refurbished, cleaned, and sanitized.
A Digital Transformation is Born
The belief was that the company—acquired by private equity firm Agman Partners in 2014—could scale the business more effectively if it underwent a digital transformation. After a thorough executive search in 2019, Brook Furniture Rental brought Nathan Sanders to the helm as chief operations officer. Mr. Sanders has over 25 years of experience across various industries, including logistics and supply chain services. Prior to Brook, he led distribution and logistics efforts at Ashley Distribution Services and Bluestem Brands and served in senior leadership roles at third-party logistics (3PL) companies. Mr. Sanders is now president and CEO at Brook.
While the term “digital transformation” can mean many things, the most profound transformations are focused on improving the customer experience. That was certainly the focus at Brook.
“When I came in, I did not know what systems needed to be changed. But I knew the thought process,” Mr. Sanders explained. He started by touring the warehouses, observing the customer-facing team, and, most importantly, talking to customers.
The 40-year-old company only had manual processes for taking orders. “The home-grown systems made our reaction time painfully slow,” Mr. Sanders explained. “Customers would call us and ask: ‘Can you make a delivery on Tuesday?’ The customer success representative would write down Tuesday, make an estimate of how many rooms would need furniture and what kinds of pieces would be needed. Then the rep would look at what pieces were available either in the warehouse or coming in on trucks. The rep would have to click from one screen to another and write information down on a notepad that needed to be entered on subsequent screens. The customer success representative would then take the inventory information and contact the route planner to verify if there was capacity, and on what days.
“We could never give the customer a quick response with that manual process. Customers expect us to be the experts, so we needed to find a way to improve our operations to perform more nimbly.”
Further, customers didn’t want to sign a lease agreement if Brook wasn’t able to deliver on the day they wanted. If a potential customer couldn’t get an answer quickly enough, or if there wasn’t the truck capacity to move furniture on the desired day, Brook risked losing the order to a competitor.
Another frequently asked question among customers on delivery day:” Where’s my truck?” That led to a messy series of calls between the customer success team, fleet managers, and drivers.
“On a good day, answering this question took half an hour,” Mr. Sanders admitted. “And half an hour is way too long, considering the available technology.”
When Mr. Sanders talked to customers, they wanted faster answers to these questions. Often, the implication was that if they tweaked their existing manual processes, Brook could do better. “But what I heard was: ‘How can we automate this?’” Mr. Sanders said.
A Plan Comes Together
The company concluded it needed to be able to give customers the answers they sought —24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To do this, Brook needed a circular economy for furniture rental that would give the customer self-service capabilities. Similarly, self-service would allow for faster and better answers to “where’s my truck?”
Brook decided to build new web store fronts, and then tie those to systems that could answer customer questions in near real-time. The intelligence to answer these questions came from solutions offered by the Descartes Systems Group: Descartes Route Planner, Descartes Reservations, and Descartes MobileLink. Route Planner has the sophisticated math to understand the complex set of constraints that affect delivery availability. MobileLink is the smartphone app the drivers use to see the routes they have for the day; MobileLink also provides for GPS tracking of the truck. And Reservations is the solution that allows customers to see delivery options on the web store fronts.
Now, a customer can visit the Brook Furniture Rental portal, look for furniture, then pull up a calendar with every available delivery date. B2B customers can even look at delivery availability prior to entering a lease. When the customer selects a delivery date, that date is confirmed and locked—not recommendations that would be changed later by a batch-planning process. The point-of-sale user interface is updated every 15 minutes with a real-time capacity plan generated by Route Planner.
The Marvel of Modern Route Planning
Descartes Route Planner is a sophisticated solution to ensuring a truck is fully loaded. With furniture deliveries, a truck usually cubes out before it weighs out. The system understands the dimensions and weight of every stock keeping unit (SKU). Route planning also needs to understand a driver’s hours of service, start times, and a housing development’s operating hours. It’s cognizant of average travel times, based on average traffic, by day of the week and time of day.
Then, the route itself is optimized. For example, a truck might be scheduled to make three stops for customers A, B, and C, in that order. The SKUs are loaded with a last-on/first-off approach—customer A’s furniture goes to the back of the truck, and customer C’s furniture goes to the nose. The routing solution studies the GPS coordinates of all the deliveries planned for the day and groups orders together to minimize the fleet’s mileage and travel time. And trucks don’t just drop off furniture—they pick up as well. Those stops are also scheduled in the routing solution.
To understand the true capacity of the fleet to deliver and set up furniture, Brook conducted research on timing. How long should it take to load a truck based on the number of pieces and their dimensions? How long should unloading take? How much time does it take to assemble a bed, and then make that bed? How long should hanging towels take, or placing silverware in a kitchen drawer? There’s a proper set-up time for each SKU. Buffers were then added to assure delivery teams would not operate at peak efficiency all day, and to allow for variability in the time it takes to gain entry.
Mr. Sanders was involved in the time studies. “I was actively involved in meeting our customers,” he said. “This just made my visits more efficient.” Over time, and across repeated measurements, these parameters became tighter and more exact.
Where’s My Truck?
Descartes MobileLink, integrated with Route Planner, gives everyone—customers and employees—time back in their day. The day before delivery, a customer receives a 3-hour delivery window. The day of the delivery, drivers log onto MobileLink, and the GPS tracking is turned on. At this point, customers can “Track-My-Truck” via link to see their estimated time of arrival—at 2:05 p.m., perhaps. That might shift as the day unfolds, due to faster-than-expected deliveries or traffic obstacles, for example. Rather than lose half their day waiting and wondering, the customer can stay on top of these changes to their ETA by simply refreshing their link.
Brook Furniture Rental’s digital transformation was driven by the desire to improve the customer experience. And improve the customer experience, it did. Customers can now get 24/7 online answers to delivery date availability and place lease orders any time. Call time for customers has been cut in half, in part because “where’s my truck?” calls have decreased by 50 percent. And customers are getting time back in their day thanks to real-time ETAs.
Prior to the project, on-time deliveries (OTD) within the 3-hour delivery window was at 93 percent. Now, OTD averages 95 percent across the company. That, Mr. Sanders asserts, is best-in-class for the industry. And because truck productivity has doubled, there are now twice as many items being delivered and twice as many stops being made, boosting a customer’s odds of getting their ideal delivery date.
Because of changing demand patterns driven by COVID-19, which arrived just three months after Mr. Sanders joined the company, some might not have expected to see much growth. But Brook has seen growth in certain verticals even during the pandemic. Now that COVID is in the rearview window, the CEO is firmly convinced Brook will see increased growth across all its verticals, as “Speed equals growth.”