An Online Order's Journey to Your Door: Inside a World-Class Fulfillment Center
Online shopping is so easy! Or is it? Here is what goes into ecommerce order fulfillment.
We have all gotten so used to shopping online that we don't often think about what happens behind the scenes to make it possible. A visit to a fulfillment center is quite eye-opening, especially during peak shopping seasons. We're going to follow an online order on its journey to your door.
Let's say you want to order a couple of t-shirts and a hoodie from your favorite brand's website. Unfortunately, it's 2022 — there are international shipping issues, and the colors you wanted are "out of stock" on the website. The brand stores its inventory with a third-party logistics provider, or 3PL, that has multiple fulfillment centers across the country. If an item is unavailable, more than likely, it's sitting in a box inside a shipping container off the coast of California. When that container finally gets unloaded, that box of t-shirts and hoodies is loaded onto a large tractor-trailer and driven across the country to the designated fulfillment center location.
The truck pulls up to the receiving dock, it is unloaded, and the box is opened. Inside are individual cartons of t-shirts and hoodies in various colors and sizes, each identified by a barcode. The barcodes are scanned to record receipt of each carton. Depending on the fulfillment center, there might be a piece of impressive measurement technology where one of each item is pulled out of its carton, weighed, measured and photographed.
Next, a friendly face carries the cartons over to a designated shelf in the warehouse reserved especially for that size and color t-shirt. The barcode on the shelf is scanned to make sure it matches the item's pre-assigned location. Thanks to the seamlessly integrated technologies, the t-shirts and hoodies now become "available" on the brand's website.
At last, you can place your order! You decide on one red t-shirt, one yellow t-shirt and one gray hoodie.
Your order is just one of thousands of orders the warehouse gets per day during the peak shopping season. But don't worry, it doesn't get lost. All orders coming in that day are assigned to be picked and packed in waves, automatically prioritized by the type of order or the shipping speed you chose when you checked out. If you chose priority shipping, yours will be picked and packed first that day.
Picking is the process of pulling things off the shelves and placing them into separate totes, one for each order. Lucky for you, 25 other shoppers also ordered t-shirts and hoodies from the same brand that day. That means your order gets to go through an automated sorting machine! This miracle of modern innovation saves somebody from having to visit several locations in the warehouse to pick the same items 25 different times. Instead, one smiling face picks up the bulk cartons of hoodies and t-shirts and feeds them into the machine one at a time. The barcode is scanned by a flashing red light as it enters the machine. Inside, an iBot catches your red t-shirt and speeds it up, over, and down to one of 2,000 empty bins on a huge wall. Within minutes, the yellow t-shirt and gray hoodie land in the same bin. On the other side of the wall, a light goes on next to the bin, indicating that the order is complete. Another smiling face pulls the bin out and places it on a conveyor, where it whizzes off in a new direction. Your order is clearly having the time of its life.
The bin comes to a halt at the packing station. There, another friendly face pulls each item out of the bin, scans them again and wraps them in soft tissue paper secured with a branded sticker. Then, they are carefully placed into a beautiful box emblazoned with the brand's logo. The box is taped shut, and a shipping label with your address on it is applied. The smiling face then puts the box on yet another conveyor belt. As it whizzes away, you get that exciting email that says your order has shipped. Meanwhile, a squatty little robot takes your empty bin, along with 20 others, back to the sortation machine.
At the end of its last conveyor ride, your box goes through a machine that scans the shipping label. This sends it through a sharp left-hand turn and down a ramp, where it ends up on a pallet with a large UPS sign overhead. At some point later that day, a UPS truck backs up to the warehouse and picks up the pallet. Your order is off on its way to your house. It might change trucks a few times as it gets closer, but two or three days later, it arrives at your door, safe and sound.
That process, multiplied a billion times, is what goes on 24/7 in fulfillment centers all over the country. Of course, every order is different, and every fulfillment provider does things differently. As you place your orders, think about the hard-working employees, from dock workers to truck drivers to warehouse workers that make this fantastic voyage possible.
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