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Business LibreTexts

9.3: Warehousing and Transportation

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand the role warehouses and distribution centers play in the supply chain.
    2. Outline the transportation modes firms have to choose from and the advantages and disadvantages of each.


    At times, the demand and supply for products can be unusually high. At other times, it can be unusually low. That’s why companies generally maintain a certain amount of safety stock, oftentimes in warehouses. As a business owner, it would be great if you didn’t have excess inventory you had to store in a warehouse. In an ideal world, materials or products would arrive at your facility just in time for you to assemble or sell them. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.

    Toys are a good example. Most toymakers work year round to be sure they have enough toys available for sale during the holidays. However, retailers don’t want to buy a huge number of toys in July. They want to wait until November and December to buy large amounts of them.

    Consequently, toymakers warehouse them until that time. Likewise, during the holiday season, retailers don’t want to run out of toys, so they maintain a certain amount of safety stock in their warehouses.

    Some firms store products until their prices increase. Oil is an example. Speculators, including investment banks and hedge funds, have been known to buy, and hold, oil if they think its price is going to rapidly rise. Sometimes they go so far as to buy oil tankers and even entire oil fields (Winnett, 2004).


    Figure 9.9

    Oil storage in Cushing, Oklahoma

    You might not know where the tiny town of Cushing, Oklahoma, is. But oil producers and traders around the world do. Cushing is one of the largest oil storage areas in the United States. Storage tanks like these cover more than nine square miles on the outskirts of the town (Davis, 2009).

    Anthony Easton – More Oil Storage – CC BY 2.0.


    A distribution center is a warehouse or storage facility where the emphasis is on processing and moving goods on to wholesalers, retailers, or consumers1. A few years ago, companies were moving toward large, centralized warehouses to keep costs down. In 2005, Walmart opened a four-million-square-foot distribution center in Texas. (Four million square feet is about the size of eighteen football fields.)

    Today, however, the trend has shifted back to smaller warehouses. Using smaller warehouses is a change that’s being driven by customer considerations rather than costs. The long lead times that result when companies transport products from Asia, the Middle East, and South America are forcing international manufacturers and retailers to shorten delivery times to consumers (Specter, 2009). Warehousing products regionally, closer to consumers, can also help a company tailor its product selection to better match the needs of customers in different regions.

    How Warehouses and Distribution Centers Function

    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). Figure 9.10 “An Example of an SKU” shows an example of a SKU that appears on a box of products. 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.


    Figure 9.10 An Example of an SKU

    Scanning a barcode on an iPhone

    Brian Herzog – Scanning – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


    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 following video shows how one of’s distribution centers works.

    Video Clip

    Order Fulfillment at Amazon

    (click to see video)’s mission is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.” Watch the following video to see one of Amazon’s order-fulfillment centers in action.

    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 (Thirumalai & Sinha, 2005).

    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.

    Figure 9.11 How Cross-Docking Works

    How Cross-Docking Works

    Another new trend is cross-docking. Products that are cross-docked spend little or no time in warehouses. As Figure 9.11 “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.