Imagine sending out over 80 million items a year a significant percentage of which is returned by the recipient. Sound like a nightmare for returns processing? Absolutely. But Bookspan, which does just that, has found a way to ease the returns process.


    Bookspan, a joint venture including both Book-of-the-Month Club and Doubleday Book Club, has direct-marketed books for 75 years. In 1999, the companys Book-of-the-Month Club alone included nine clubs and two continuity programs with members in the United States and more than 60 countries.


    Bookspans more than nine million members receive a monthly selection, which may be returned if the member does not want the pre-selected item. For Bookspan, tracking returns to ensure proper credit to the member and maintaining accurate inventories was a time-consuming task with the potential for keying errors.


    According to Tom Greenebaum, Bookspans senior vice president and general manager, Bookspan has highly efficient pick-pack-ship and distribution operations, handling over 40 million books, CDs and videocassettes in 1999 and bulk shipping to all the

    U.S. Postal Service bulk mail centers on a daily basis. Our returns processing was not up to the level of efficiency as the rest of our operation. We wanted to increase throughput and ensure complete accuracy without adding staff or complexity.


    Under the previous system, returns were entered into the system upon arrival by workers using handheld scanners. Address changes and other information had to be entered manually. Bookspans IBM 9672-R64 mainframe, which housed the main business software, was doing its job. The front-end system, however, was not Y2K compliant, nor was it up to its standards.


    In July 1999, Bookspan, working with Metrologic Instruments, a Blackwood, New Jersey manufacturer of high-performance barcode scanners, implemented a returns processing system in its 500,000- square-foot facility in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. This facility receives returns from the US and Canada. Returned selections move down a conveyor past nine integrated workstations.


    Workstations are integrated in a three-tier system that includes a Windows NT data collection network linked to an IBM RISC 6000 running an Oracle database that transmits real-time data to the IBM mainframe host. A HoloTrak scanner mounted over the workstation has an internal operating system that links to a touchscreen at the workstation. The scanners serial output connects directly to a data port on the RISC 6000 LAN. Scanner and touchscreen data are transmitted to the host database, updating and issuing a credit to the customers account.


    As employees take returned parcels from the belt, they pass under the scanner, which reads the Bookspan barcode symbol on the return label. This symbol contains a unique serial number, triggering the system to display  member information and shipment contents on the touchscreen display. For full returns, no further action is required on the part of the worker. For partial returns, workers simply touch the items not returned. Cancellations and address updates are also handled through the touchscreen.


    Since the installation of the new system, processed returns have increased more than 60% from 20,000 to 32,000 packages per day with the same number of workers. According to a rough estimate offered by Greenebaum, the new system saves Bookspan a couple hundred thousand dollars per year.


    Metrologic designed a single data stream that integrates easily with Bookspans systems. Although Metrologic does not ordinarily serve as an integrator, the company made an exception at the request of Bookspan, who wanted a single vendor on the project. In addition to providing the scanner, Metrologic sourced and integrated virtually every component Bookspan needed.


    The key to the system is the HoloTrak scanner, which utilizes Metrologics patented holographic technology. Inside the scanner is a rotating disk with holographic lenses that create an omnidirectional scan pattern with 5,250 scan lines per second. Different disks can provide a very concentrated scanning pattern, an extended depth-of-field and accommodate both very small and very large X-dimension symbols. Disks are field replaceable.


    Because of the scanners extended depth-of-field and dense scanning pattern, packages are read automatically as theyre removed from the belt. This makes the barcode scanning process virtually transparent to employees.


    The workstations operate with three shifts, six days a week. Greenebaum states, Originally wed planned to use two smaller laser scanners, but the single HoloTrak overhead scanner offered the depth of field and robustness we wanted, so we didnt need the backup. The overhead omni just made more sense for our application.


    Since the July 1999 installation, Bookspan has reported a high level of satisfaction. Greenebaum says, The system Metrologic installed has greatly improved the speed and accuracy of our returns processing operation, setting throughput records week after week, nearly eliminating human error and freeing us up to do other tasks. The Bookspan host system uses data from the scanned barcodes to record incoming returns, then later uses the data to determine product buying trends and customer preferences. The increased efficiency has come just in time since Bookspan has now begun to offer third-party fulfillment and returns processing.


    Joseph Milacci is vice president of Metrologics Industrial Automation. You may contact him at 856-228-8100 or on the Web at For more information on Bookspan, call 717-795-1284 or e-mail