AN INSIDE LOOK AT WAREHOUSE FULFILLMENT What makes fulfillment different from other types of warehousing, and how can you use this to your advantage?
hough it happened more than two decades ago, the dot-com craze of the 1990s created significant misinformation about warehouse fulfillment. But one thing is true — it may be the fastest-growing type of specialized warehousing. As the handling of e-commerce transactions continues to grow, the fulfillment process creates curiosity and even excitement. Journalists have sometimes misinformed their readers by claiming that fulfillment was one of the great inventions of the 1990s. They either ignored — or were ignorant of — the facts about Sears and other mail-order companies.
BY KEN ACKERMAN
These firms were engaged in fulfillment operations in the early years of the 20th century. Within the warehouse, many processes were remarkably similar to those used today, although communications and transportation were different. Orders arrived by US mail, addressed simply to: "Sears Roebuck and Company, Chicago, Illinois." There were no ZIP Codes, and the postal people knew how to find Sears without a detailed address. Customer delivery was usually accomplished by parcel post. When Sears opened its giant mail-order plant on the west side of Chicago in 1906, that building was the largest commercial structure in the world. When Henry Ford was looking for fresh
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ideas to perfect his automobile assembly line, the Sears mail-order plant was one of the places that he visited. WHAT IS FULFILLMENT, EXACTLY? What features make fulfillment different from other types of warehousing? Unlike most operations, the warehousing people have direct contact with the consumers who order merchandise. Orders are much smaller than those handled by other warehouse operations. Information is always transmitted electronically. Because consumers are looking for quality service and fast delivery, customer service requirements are particularly challenging. Order complexity is often quite high, and precise inventory management is necessary to handle a fulfillment operation.