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Links Unlimited Aims to Be the Master of Fulfillment

 Over the course of 20 years, Links Unlimited has grown to become one of the leading Master Fulfillment Companies specializing in the corporate incentive, recognition, loyalty, event and business gift market. RNN catches up with Links President Scott Kooken on the state of his business and the market.
Since RRN last checked in two years ago with Scott Kooken, President of Links Unlimited, the company has grown rapidly, moving from a 72,000-square-foot facility to one with more than 180,000 square feet, with a significant increase in sales, personnel and daily redemptions. Kooken attributes this impressive growth to a meticulous focus on the redemption experience; the rapid growth of the company’s experiential business; the addition of highly desirable brands; customization services for both promotional products and brands; and third-party logistics. 
He clearly takes pride in the company’s fulfillment capabilities, which he feels are a key differentiator. “We are continually increasing efficiencies in fulfilling orders by investing in warehouse technologies—we’re wireless—and following best practices in logistics, tracking quality and always looking for improvements—everything to make the process more efficient and always getting the right product to the right people and out the door within 24 hours.” For more on Links Unlimited’s use of technology, watch this video:
The investment in warehouse technology, Kooken says, is mission critical to gaining the confidence of leading lines such as Bang and Olufsen, a top brand it recently won. “The first thing companies want to see is our warehouse and our logistics capabilities. Our goal is to have the best brands, and state-of-the art logistics and a great redemption experience are major selling points. Our customers want to know that their winners can have an exceptional redemption experience that matches their highest retail expectations.” Kooken notes that he’s surprised many companies still tolerate 30-day fulfillment periods, when he believes an exceptional redemption experience enhances the impact of the program.   

Logistics and Customer Experience Are Key

“Our model is ease of engagement,” Kooken explains. “We want to make the process easy for our customers and their customers. We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. If someone comes to us with an idea, we go to the war room. What does the order experience, customer and fulfillment look like and how can we customize the entire process to support the program objectives? When you’re dealing with resellers and they’re dealing with their customer, we must make sure they get the information they need to deliver to their customers’ participants. Ideally, the recipient has a retail experience in that their shipping information arrives before they receive the reward instead of after, which is often the case in the incentive business.” 
Kooken believes that having the leading brands in the company’s catalog is key to creating an appealing experience for recipients of rewards and gifts, and that the potential for growth in customization and the reward experience is significant. That said, he admits that most customers still don’t want to pay extra for personalization and customization, despite the extensive research demonstrating the impact of selective use of rewards based on the organization’s culture and individuals, and the delivery of rewards and gifts in a thoughtful, personal manner. 
“Where we’re able to make progress on this point is usually with long-term clients,” says Kooken. “We’ve worked with them and so there’s trust, and we can go to them with opportunities to show how they can differentiate themselves.” He says that Links Unlimited handles all sorts of one-off type of requests in terms of personalization and customization, noting that the company has a procurement team dedicated to handling unique situations. He believes that when organizations review the extensive industry research, as well as examine gifting practices in their own lives, it becomes obvious that personal touches go a long way to extending the emotional value of the reward. “It’s so easy to put a special sticker on a box; to customize the packing slip with the company’s logo,” he notes.

The Overlooked Importance of the Redemption Experience

Kooken says he’s particularly surprised that so many loyalty and other points programs overlook the opportunity to differentiate themselves via the redemption and reward experience, whether through the way the redemption website is customized or how rewards are selected and personalized. “When I look at the true purpose of a loyalty or point-based program, which is to build a close bond with valued customers or top performers. I think it’s costing companies not to personalize the experience,” he says. “What’s the point of using what is essentially a cash equivalent, when the real opportunity is to bring winners to a website that supports the campaign, that enables them to quickly find what they are looking for, knowing when it will ship and arrive, and who to call if there is a problem? And, in the case of something like a golf club, which requires assistance, make someone available to assist the recipient. In most cases, the customers of our customers are using rewards to make an impression, and yet for the sake of saving a few dollars they overlook the long-term emotional impact. We have one customer that started sending personal letters with each award—you can imagine the logistics involved with that—and they’ve never stopped since. The feedback they have received is simply too compelling to ignore.” 
Not surprisingly, says Kooken, the greatest number of requests for sending out shipments with personal letters and gift wrapping come in the promotional products arena. He explains: “I think one of the biggest opportunities in the promotional products area is to educate distributors and their customers on the power of brands. If putting a logo on a non-branded product has value, imagine the impact when that logo appears on something like an Amazon Dot or some other valued brand-name product that people frequently enjoy. The brands you select make a statement about your own company and how you feel about the recipient that goes beyond the gift itself.” 
Kooken believes that the promotional product databases distributors use to find products should make it easier for distributors to locate the leading brand names. “Those brand names have value beyond the product itself,” he says. “They help companies tell a story.”

Customization and Personalization Are the Future 

Kooken believes that customization and personalization are the future of the business and says they’re “among the key factors that separate companies like ours from retailers. While big retailers focus on scale, we’re a business of exceptions. Our procurement team has taken on some of the toughest  international redemption challenges you can imagine, both in the U.S. and overseas.” 
Two years ago, Links Unlimited launched an event gifting program offering multiple leading brands of sunglasses, watches and headphones, depending on the group. Today Kooken says it’s  a business in the “millions of dollars” and growing. “This business is far more complex than people think. It requires a company with logistics, warehousing and people up to the task of creating an experience just about anywhere.” Almost all the customers, he says, are hosts of incentive travel programs, some of which have been held in Mexico, Italy and Switzerland, in addition to the United States. “It requires expertise, logistics and resources related to managing the setup of event experiences,” he says, “that, and product shipping few companies can provide.” A key to success, Kooken explains, is understanding not only the products but the brand names that will best appeal to people, as well as creativity in communication and presentation. “How about letting people select their sunglasses even before they leave?” he asks. It provides yet another opportunity, he says, to engage with the winner before the trip. 
Kooken notes that Links Unlimited sells almost exclusively through the reseller marketplace, including incentives, recognition, promotional products and gifts, and also handles warehousing and logistics for manufacturers. Its services include customizable redemption websites or direct feeds into client catalogs. 
Scott Kooken


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