So how do you begin to find a product or pallet of products in a warehouse or distribution center the size of eighteen football fields? To begin with, each type of product that is unique because of some characteristic—say, because of its manufacturer, size, color, or model—must be stored and accounted for separate from other items. To help distinguish it, its manufacturer gives it its own identification number, called a SKU (stock-keeping unit). 1 When the product enters the warehouse, it is scanned and given an “address,” or location, in the warehouse where it is stored until it is plucked from its shelf and shipped.
Warehouses and distribution centers are also becoming increasingly automated and wired. As you learned in Chapter 8 "Using Marketing Channels to Create Value for Customers", some warehouses use robots to picks products from shelves. At other warehouses, employees use voice-enabled headsets to pick products. Via the headsets, the workers communicate with a computer that tells them where to go and what to grab off of shelves. As a result, the employees are able to pick products more accurately than they could by looking at a sheet of paper or computer screen.
The process we just described is an extremely simple explanation of a very complicated operation. The video below shows how one of Amazon.com’s distribution centers works.
It’s pretty amazing when you think about how the thousands of products that come in and out of Amazon’s distribution centers every day ultimately end up in the right customer’s hands. After all, how many times have you had to look really hard to find something you put in your own closet or garage? Processing orders—order fulfillment—is a key part of the job in supply chains. Why? Because delivering what was promised, when it was promised, and the way it was promised are key drivers of customer satisfaction. 2
One of the ways companies are improving their order fulfillment and other supply chain processes is by getting rid of paper systems and snail mail. So, for instance, instead of companies receiving paper orders and sending paper invoices to one another, they send and receive the documents via electronic data interchange (EDI). Electronic data interchange (EDI) is a special electronic format that companies use to exchange business documents from computer to computer. It also makes for greater visibility among supply chain partners because they can all check the status of orders electronically rather than having to fax or e-mail documents back and forth.
Another new trend is cross-docking. Products that are cross-docked spend little or no time in warehouses. As Figure 9.5 How Cross-Docking Works shows, a product being cross-docked will be delivered via truck to a dock at a warehouse where it is unloaded and put on other trucks bound for retail outlets.