By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
The catalogue and online store for the Smithsonian Institution have suspended their operations after the outside vendor that handled the business abruptly closed.
AB&C Group, a West Virginia-based subsidiary of BlueSky Brands, handled as many as 300,000 orders a year for the Smithsonian, according to the museum. The company closed its operations March 14 with only hours' notice to the Smithsonian.
"The telephone switch was turned off and there was no way to ship goods. They very abruptly dismissed their entire staff," said Jean Mombert, the vice president and general manager of the Smithsonian catalogue. "They essentially put us out of business."
Mombert said the Smithsonian is looking for a new vendor and aims to restore the businesses by the end of summer. The Smithsonian posted information about the suspension on its Web site and established a mini-call center to answer customers' questions. "Actually we were fortunate. We had a large shipment that Friday and our process was finished for the day. There was very little caught in the pipeline," Mombert said.
The shopping services were shut down during the slowest months of the year for the catalogue business, Mombert said. When the vendor closed, the Smithsonian decided not to send out the 2 million copies of its summer catalogue, she said. "We want to start to ramp up again with the fall and holiday issues," said Mombert.
The catalogue and online operations, which feature thousands of Smithsonian items, are divisions of Smithsonian Business Ventures and for years were handled by Smithsonian employees. After closing its distribution center in Chantilly, the museum started to outsource this work in June 2002.
The contract with AB&C started in May 2007, with the company taking the orders, receiving the inventory and shipping the packages.
The closure of AB&C affected several other organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation.
It also affected 400 employees of its distribution centers in West Virginia. No one answered the phone at BlueSky's Rhode Island headquarters. "We have had quite a difficult time gaining any access or information at AB&C and their parent company, BlueSky," Mombert said.