Replenishment. It’s a problem. Every ecommerce company needs to do it, but very few have worked out a way that works well for them. Here’s how most companies tackle it:
They replenish from bulk to pick.
In most warehouses, this means using forklifts to get products down from the top of the racking to the bottom.
Unless you work in a fully automated warehouse, you have people working at the bottom side by side with the forklift trucks.
They essentially end up guessing how much stock they need to take down; whether they bring down enough stock to last the day, or to last a couple of days.
On paper, it seems to make sense. Utilise the space that you have and only bring down the stock that you’re actually going to use. In reality, it’s never that simple. Particularly if your company has a large number of different product types and if your pickers don’t like having to face the foreboding pincers of the forklift trucks as they try to do their jobs.
Fact: pickers don't like fighting with forklifts for floorspace
If you have 10,000 different products in your warehouse, and you sell 8,500 different items every day then you need to make decisions about which products are replenishment priorities and how much of each product should be brought down from bulk. When, exactly, should replenishment be triggered?
Getting it right with the long tail of ecommerce is near impossible; there’s only so much space on the warehouse floor.
The real problem with replenishment
Here's what typically starts to happen when replenishment isn't working like the well oiled beast that it should be:
You start replenishing part of the pallet from bulk.
Trying to be all things at all times, you end up with a load of mixed pallets…
And the forklifts are continually being driven back to the area where people are picking.
It’s non-stop. It’s a pain. It shouldn’t be like this.
There are ideal real world scenarios. I’ve seen replenishment work perfectly before. In one warehouse I’ve visited, they store small boxes (each containing enough stock of a single item type to last a few days) in bulk up high on bays. They had appropriate, non-invasive, machinery in place to retrieve the stock. Great. Worked well. Easy?
Replenishment is easy...if you have the money to spend on the high bays and the machinery. Most companies don’t have such a big pool of cash to play around with. But the problem still needs to be solved. It’s time to get creative.
We’ve tried playing around with solutions to this problem for a while. Here’s the one that I’m throwing my hat into the ring with...
Instead of having a warehouse where you’re replenishing from bulk to pick, work out how many different products you have and (if possible) establish as many different pick locations as possible. Rather than having the warehouse working so that everything at bottom is for pickers and everything stored up top is for the forklifts, mezzanine up. When you do that, you can put everything in a pick-face and use tried and tested zone picking techniques.
If you need bulk, you can have that to the side. So instead of replenishing from up high to down below, you replenish across the warehouse floor. This way, forklifts are kept separate to pickers and the replenishment process is far more streamlined.
And if goods need to be transported across different floors of the warehouse, you can take advantage of gravity and send boxes down chutes between floors. Thanks to Isaac Newton, there’s no immediate need for robotics.
So when you’re looking to sign a lease for a new warehouse, look up. Make sure that there’s enough space to install some mezzanine levels; it’s much easier and cheaper to grow up than it is to grow wide.
The solution to the replenishment problem can be relatively simple. Get mezzanines, zone pick, bring stock down, pack it. If you’re able to follow these four easy steps, then you’ll be on a good path. And if that means no more staring down the face of a forklift truck when you’re picking stock, then all the better.