Quiet Logistics’ Robotics Service Grows As Luxury E-Commerce Booms

2/27/12Follow @xconomy

Not long ago I wrote about how luxury retailers’ increased willingness to sell online has helped foster a new generation of fashion-focused Internet startups (particularly from Harvard Business School).

But that categorical shift has also strengthened one local startup that customers wouldn’t necessarily notice when shopping online. Andover, MA-headquartered Quiet Logistics got its start in January 2009 as a service provider that gave small e-commerce companies access to the robotics order fulfillment technology developed by North Reading, MA-based startup Kiva Systems. The customer target was businesses that wanted to use Kiva’s bots—which replace humans in grabbing inventory off of shelves to ship to shoppers—but couldn’t afford the system in house.

Then that mission grew and evolved. “We came to find out that there was this tremendous opportunity, in a particular market segment, namely in premium branded apparel,” says senior vice president of sales Al Dekin. “Brands who have invested an incredible amount of time, energy, and creativity into building brand equity are looking for ways to maintain and strengthen that equity throughout the e-commerce experience.”

Think of it as the high-end version of the brown shipping box with the Amazon logo all over it. As more luxury brands have started selling online, they want to ship their inventory to customers in packaging with equal allure. Take the flash sales site Gilt Groupe (Quiet’s second customer, according to Dekin), which ships its luxury goods in a sleek black and gold box and tissue paper.

“When somebody goes online and orders a $300 dress, they expect it to show up in something more than 10 cent packaging,” Dekin says. “It should show up as if I just walked out of Barney’s or Neiman Marcus.”

Quiet still focuses on shipment accuracy and quick turnaround for e-tailers. But, in between receiving the inventory and orders in its warehouses and shipping them out to customers, employees specially trained in a company’s aesthetic carefully pack it to fit those branded standards—which can also include things like notecards, ribbons, or stickers. It’s a mix of “very high tech” and “very high touch” techniques, says Dekin, with Kiva robots and Quiet’s own software layer enabling the warehouse to push out orders at high volume, and humans carefully folding clothing and putting the final branding touches on a package before shipping.

This expansion to offer specialty branding as part of its services has helped Quiet’s employee base hit 400 people. And the company just nabbed a $2.5 million loan from MassDevelopment for the Devens, MA, warehouse it started leasing last year. That site currently employs 90 people and is expected to add a total of 300 jobs over the next few years.

“Gilt was a smaller customer when we started with them, and we grew right along with them,” says Dekin of the flash sales site, which has grown to have millions of loyal customers and reportedly an IPO in the works. “That certainly gave us the confidence to operate on a much bigger stage and with much bigger players.”

Those bigger players now include the growing men’s e-commerce site Bonobos and Inditex Group, the parent company of clothing brand Zara—whose U.S. e-commerce launch Quiet Logistics helped support last fall, Dekin says. Quiet Logistics now serves 28 brands, with about 80 percent of those requiring some sort of specialty, branded packaging, he says.

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