BRADENTON -- Christmas-time at Bealls' distribution centers means conveyor belts full of merchandise-stuffed containers, pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped boxes and workers busy keeping everything running smoothly.
It's a good time of year for the Bradenton-based retailer and the 700 employees who work two, 10-hour shifts at the two distribution centers in South Manatee. About 100 million units representing everything from jeans to blenders will be shipped this year from the massive 600,000-square-foot warehouse for Bealls Outlets and a smaller, 350,000-square-foot warehouse for the department stores.
Another 80,000-square-foot remote facility in Lakeland is contracted to ship home goods and toys.
Mike Perkins, senior vice president of distribution and transportation, left his job at L.L. Bean a month ago to oversee the distribution operations.
His goal is to expand Bealls' foray into online sales, which have been growing. Cyber Monday sales this year increased 40 percent from last year.
"Bealls has been mostly brick-and-mortar stores and getting into e-commerce, while L.L. Bean is just the opposite," Perkins said. "Our intention is for e-commerce to become more developed. It's not a revolution, it's an evolution."
Bealls, founded in 1915, has 471 outlet stores and 76 department stores in 17
states. Robert M. Beall Sr. opened a dry goods store in Bradenton and, because the store sold products for nothing more than $1, he named the store The Dollar Limit. It was later changed to Bealls in the 1940s.
Products in all the stores come from the distribution centers in Bradenton and Lakeland.
Perkins believes it will be another five years before another center will be needed.
"We'll use these buildings to their fullest capacity and won't build until we are forced to," he said.
Bealls is now using its retail stores to ship most online-ordered items, but Perkins thinks eventually that will be centralized at the warehouses.
An estimated 30 to 35 semi-tractor trailers a day arrive at the center to unload goods brought from all over the country via truck, boat and rail. The peak work periods are November, January and February.
"Right through Easter, it's very busy around here," he said.
Employees do everything from operating forklifts to packing and unpacking trucks in the warehouses.
"We probably have two dozen different kinds of work going on here," Perkins said, looking around the warehouse.
Bealls has its own fleet of 38 trucks for shipping to instate stores, and it contracts out-of-state companies to provide service to stores in 16 other states. Four shipping lines are used to move product, with most coming through ports in Savannah and Tampa.
With the recent threat of an East Coast port workers strike, Bealls has rerouted some of its shipments to avoid problems, said Bill Webster, Bealls spokesman.
"We haven't suffered any disruption of service from either coast to date, but because transports take so long, we have rerouted as insurance policy," Perkins said.
To prevent loss, an inventory audit is done periodically which involves randomly checking loaded cartons and pallets, said Kathy Miller, division vice president for outlet supervision. Tags are used on bins and pallets and when scanned can provide information on what is in a container, where it came from and where it is going.
"Our goal is to deliver to outlets once a week, so we always have new merchandise coming in," she said.
With lots of human activity around moving automated equipment, Miller says safety is a top priority.
Workers are required to wear closed-toe shoes with no loosely fitting clothing.
The company recently received a top safety award from Florida's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"We've had 2 million work hours without a loss time accident," she said.
The company is now testing the option of hiring seasonal workers to supplement its workforce during peak times.
"It is a reaction to the fact we promote products in stores and online, and when we advertise and during holidays volumes go up," Perkins said.
Bealls expects to do its initial testing by hiring about 25 people this spring.