During the past decade, advancements in warehousing and logistics have been nothing short of remarkable. It seems almost impossible these days to pick up any related industry publications without reading about the latest innovations in robotics, wearable scanning technologies and same-day delivery options. Warehousing for many big-box distributors, such as Amazon and Grainger, is quickly beginning to look a lot like something we have seen on the classic futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons.” In comparison, these trends are making many small and midsize distributors feel like our warehousing operations have a closer resemblance to what we would see on “The Flintstones.” Even if our operations are not exactly Stone Age, most typical distributors in our industry should probably go ahead and swallow one simple truth: It will be highly unlikely for us to “out-warehouse” our big-box competitors.
Fortunately, small and midsize distributors have other competitive advantages that will keep customers coming back for many years to come. The mega-distributors of the world will always have difficulty competing with the personal relationships and technical expertise their smaller competitors possess in the marketplace. With this being said, warehousing improvements cannot be something that many of us can afford to overlook in the future.
Here are four basic actions that small and midsize distributors should consider taking in order to keep their warehouses competitive:
1. Implement or Improve Barcoding Systems
If you have not already implemented barcoding into your organization, it is probably time to start. While automation and some of the other technologies available today are not always realistic for many distributors, barcoding technologies are a must if you want to close the gap between your warehouses and the big competition. Barcode scanning can dramatically reduce order picking errors in the warehouse and on the sales counter. Scanners can help track employee productivity and other metrics because they collect data each time an item is scanned.
2. Learn About Warehousing Metrics and Benchmarking
We’ve all heard the phrase, “What gets measured gets managed.” Unfortunately, warehousing metrics are not always on the radar for many sales-focused distributors. The lack of awareness and understanding of warehouse performance measures is a hurdle that will need to be overcome if improvement is going to happen. Each year, the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) publishes a research study called The DC Measures Survey. This study defines dozens of the most commonly used warehousing metrics and even gives performance benchmarks that allow you to see how your warehouses stack up against others across the country.
3. Improve Pre-Employment Screening Methods
Just like any other area of your business, your warehouses will only perform as well as the people you have working in them. Even though most of the work to be done will always be somewhat remedial, the warehouse team must possess strong attention to detail and a solid work ethic. Small and midsize distributors will need to invest in some programs that can better assess a candidate’s ability to perform well in a warehouse environment. If this type of screening is not an option in-house, ProLogistix is a warehousing and logistics staffing company that has developed some advanced screening procedures that will ensure you get the best possible candidates for the job.
4. Make Inventory Management Everyone’s Responsibility
When you walk into most wholesale distribution branches, you will generally see a very clear distinction between the counter sales team and the warehouse team. Even though these roles might look to be very different at first glance, they both handle inventory at some point in the sales process. Counter salespeople may not always physically touch the inventory that they sell to customers, but they still have a huge impact on the overall inventory picture as they input sales transactions into the computer system. It is critical to coach salespeople on the importance of properly maintaining inventory at the point of sale. A few incorrect keystrokes can eventually create customer service issues down the road if inventory becomes inaccurate due to data entry errors.
What’s at Stake
Even though small and midsize distributors do not necessarily need to have the latest warehousing innovations to remain competitive in the marketplace, they still need to understand that the mega-distributors are continuing to shape consumer expectations of what warehousing can do. Customers are becoming less and less tolerant of things like order-picking mistakes or slow delivery times. In fact, customer service is quickly becoming more than just friendly people handling a sales transaction. It is now friendly people handling a sales transaction combined with a warehouse facilitating perfect order delivery. In the future, it will be essential for distributors of all sizes to have a continued focus on keeping their warehouses competitive. If the latest technological innovations are not an option, the key to success might ultimately boil down to one thing — becoming great at the basics.