Football kit supplier scores big with warehouse automation

The UK's leading football teamwear supplier saves £200,000 on manpower, floorspace and labour in its first year of using an AutoStore solution from Element Logic.

A series of firsts

Based in Dundee, Scotland, Direct Soccer is a family-run business and one of the UK’s leading football teamwear suppliers that offers in-house personalised printing and embroidery. By switching to online trading as early as 2002, it became the first company in Britain to take fully personalised orders on mobile devices.

Direct Soccer achieved another first nearly 20 years later – it became the first AutoStore user in Scotland and the second in the UK, placing it at the forefront of advanced warehousing. In its first year of using AutoStore, the company has saved approximately £200,000 in manpower, floor space, and energy savings.

The sportswear business’ growing customer base prompted its owners, husband-and-wife team Bryce and Joyce Gibson, to triple the floor size of the company’s warehouse in 2019.

“While our racking system worked well up to that time, we knew we had to find a warehouse solution to optimise the floor space fully and improve the overall efficiency of our operations,” explained Bryce.

Joyce continued: “Our online business caters for both clubs and individuals, so when the taps got turned off on the club side during the initial Covid-19 lockdown, we shifted our marketing focus to the individual. Using the mantra ‘stay safe, stay home, keep training’, we started supplying more leisurewear to this market through Express Football Kits, the sister site of Direct Soccer. The site offers next-day delivery with limited personalisation and grew quickly.”

Bryce added that they initially considered a mezzanine system for the additional warehouse space, “but the number of floors made it impractical for our needs at the time.”

The road to automation

Bryce and Joyce discovered Element Logic after searching for warehouse automation solutions on YouTube.

“We contacted the UK sales team, who came through the very next day,” says Bryce. “They assessed our needs and setup, and a week or two later, we went to Norway to see the AutoStore solution they specialise in, in action. We were thoroughly impressed with how straightforward the system was and how it could integrate with our current warehouse management system.”

Element Logic’s proposed solution appealed to Direct Soccer in several ways. The AutoStore system could utilise both height and floor space, and it would meet the company’s objectives of reducing lead times and increasing throughput. The system design also allowed for easy scaling in terms of performance and capacity.

Direct Soccer and Element Logic signed the contract in July 2020, and 16 weeks later, the system went live with seven robots and 8,000 bins, just in time for Christmas.

“The implementation process was well organised and took the concern out of what was a massive investment for us. The implications of it going wrong were immense, but we had complete trust in the Element Logic team from the outset,” Joyce emphasised.

“The team were knowledgeable, transparent, and quick to make and act upon their decisions. We couldn’t have asked for a better partner. The implementation took place in the extended section of the warehouse, so there was no interruption to existing operations.”

With an entirely manual operation, Direct Soccer needed to use approximately 1,133m2 of floor space, but with an AutoStore solution just 210m2 – or less than a quarter of the existing space – is required. The company plans to expand the system to 16,000 bins in the future, which will be made easier due to the floor space savings. 

Direct Soccer's AutoStore solution
With an AutoStore solution, Direct Soccer is able to use less than a quarter of its existing floorspace.

High productivity and ease of use

“A major plus point of the system is its ease of use,” added Bryce. “We currently have 40 staff and regularly increase headcount – training can become a major problem when you’re scaling up. However, because of the systems seamless integration with our WMS, there’s a short training window. Everyone knows where to go and what to pick.”

Prior to the installation of AutoStore, order pickers in the Direct Soccer warehouse averaged 10 orders despatches per hour. Now, they achieve 40 order despatches per hour.

Apart from building a multi-skilled work team for added flexibility during peak times, Direct Soccer also has five AutoStore superusers to do fault-finding if there are any issues with the system. However, regular services and strong remote support from Element Logic’s UK team ensure high reliability, so there had been little to no need to use the superuser backup.

“The peak period for Direct Soccer is July to September when the new football season gets underway,” said Joyce. “The automated solution allows us to manage these peaks, even with added stock volumes. It also enables us to introduce more stock-keeping units (SKUs) and reduce turnaround times.

“Currently, we have two conveyor ports and one carousel port, with most of the picking done from the latter. Sometimes we pick dispatch from the carousel port and production stock from a conveyor port. This flexibility means we can do jobs simultaneously, whereas before, we could only do it back-to-back.”    

Picking orders at Direct Soccer with an AutoStore solution
With AutoStore, Direct Soccer’s staff can despatch orders four times faster.

Enhanced customer experience

For the owners, the high throughput and ability to clear orders quickly are significant strategic benefits, since better customer service drives more sales.

“We no longer have to put several people on orders. One operator can set up the whole process. And now we’re fulfilling 100% of fulfilment of in-stock orders for next day delivery,” explained Joyce.

In fact, because Direct Soccer are shipping orders direct from the AutoStore system, it has eliminated the need for these picks to move to a dispatch area. Plus, the putaway process is significantly faster and can match the pace of online orders, eliminating a build-up of stock waiting to be put away. This has saved the business the need to hire two additional staff members.

Direct Soccer employee operates the AutoStore solution
With an AutoStore solution from Element Logic, Direct Soccer has saved £200,000 in its first year.

The speed and ease of use have encouraged Bryce and Joyce to look forward to the next stage of their automation journey. Currently, they’re considering automating the bagging machines in the dispatch area.

“We can now focus on other parts of the business that need improving. Every evening around five or six, I get excited when I hear the robots getting jobs ready to go out the next morning. It’s tremendously reassuring to know the operation keeps running while everyone else goes home,” Bryce concluded.

Key stats:

  • Installed in December 2020
  • Seven robots and 8,000 bins
  • £200,000 savings on manpower, floorspace and energy in the first year
  • AutoStore system uses less than a quarter of available floorspace (210m2)
  • Average of 40 order despatches per hour compared to a previous target of 10 per hour
  • Saved the need to hire two additional staff members