Manifest Destiny

There is an adage in business that your receptionist is your most important employee. After all, he is the most prominent personality of your company, the first voice clients hear, and the person who matches inquiries with the most appropriate individual on your payroll.

But in addition to answering the phone, most receptionists are expected to open and distribute incoming mail, place the weekly order for office products, manage the employee kitchen, and at the end of the day, process the outgoing mail. In their spare time, they receive visitors and make them comfortable while they wait for their appointments.

It is a job to try the patience of a saint. And it is nearly impossible for anyone in the job to do any of the individual tasks well, since the receptionist’s working life is nothing more than an unending series of interruptions. It’s enough to make you wonder why the job description is so similar from company to company.

The reason is rooted in the nature of the tasks involved. In most cases, none of the individual tasks assigned to today’s receptionist constitutes a full-time assignment, so he ends up saddled with them all.

Buried in the receptionist’s pile of mini-jobs is “processing outgoing mail.” In the distribution center, “manifesting” is just that. It is likewise most frequently assigned to people with other responsibilities, since it takes less time to manifest a shipment than it does to receive, store, retrieve, or pack that same merchandise.


As any company grows, each step in the fulfillment chain receives repeated scrutiny from management to reduce the friction and drive out the waste of the process. The act of manifesting a package can start with a basic manual process of weighing, selecting a shipper, applying the appropriate address label, and recording the cost. A simple example resides on the desk of your receptionist, where collections of scales, postage meters, overnight envelopes, and forms await the daily onslaught of letters and packages. A veteran receptionist can complete a transaction in less than two minutes and knows the most cost-effective way to send any given parcel or letter. When the boss tries to do it himself, shipments will likely cost more than necessary and get sent to the wrong place at least once.

According to the dictionary, “manifest” is an old noun born at sea: “A detailed list of a ship’s cargo, required for presentation at a custom house.” (The Titanic‘s cargo manifest, incidentally, lists a vast array of items, including lace, cotton, linoleum, veil and scarf netting, rabbit hair, ostrich feathers, goat skins, briar pipes, orchids, gum, and opium.) Created at the point of origin, this document is now prepared by the vendor as a means of describing the day’s output, tracking its progress through the shipment process, and acting as the basis for the shipper’s remuneration.

Manifests were originally created by hand and became “bills of lading” in the hands of the shipper. There is nothing terribly romantic or mysterious about the process, but now that there are multiple shippers offering various pricing plans and incentives, the need to automate the procedure has created an industry of software and hardware to deal with it. Once your company hits an output level of more than 200 parcels a day, the necessity of using a manifesting system becomes inescapable.


There are three classes of manifesting systems: 1) PC-based packages provided by carriers for “free”; 2) stand-alone systems capable of automatic “rate shopping” among competing carriers; and 3) warehouse management system (WMS) modules that link your manifesting process with the enterprise management system that manages the inventory and tracks all the activity in your distribution center.

All three systems used to — and still can — create a paper record of all manifested items on a daily basis. This document would be copied to the driver of the truck as he pulled away from your loading dock. Inquiries on the whereabouts of any particular item were conducted by phone, and answers were slow to surface.

These days, virtually all manifests are bundled into data groups that are filed electronically with your various carriers, allowing you to accurately track individual packages online for an instantaneous read-out of location and anticipated delivery date, which is frequently provided down to the hour. And like everything else in the fulfillment business, manifesting systems come in various levels of sophistication that match increasing levels of volume.

United Parcel Service, FedEx, and increasingly, a host of other carriers seeking to capture your business can supply you with manifesting software packages. Each company can offer you the weighing, scanning, printing, and data handling equipment you need to inject a parcel into its system and have it assigned a tracking number as well as charged appropriately for its size, weight, and speed of delivery.

Given to you free of expense, these systems will handle only those parcels destined for the particular carrier that supplied the software. This leads many midsize companies to set up multiple “manifest stations” at the end of the fulfillment line, where experienced employees conduct a sorting process based on experience and training. This method works until management of various skill and training levels becomes an issue.

Another option is a free-standing, proprietary system that will cost you $25,000- $30,000 to acquire. This application does much of the rate shopping among the various shippers by comparing weight and required velocity with the schedules and incentives that each carrier offers. As with all proprietary software/hardware combinations, each manifesting system comes with features and benefits that are unique. The best way to make an informed selection is to ask your peers in like businesses what they use and what they might do differently if faced with a purchase decision today.

If your business is large enough to warrant the use of a WMS, keep in mind that the manifesting module is optional and may not have accompanied the system when it was purchased. If you add a free-standing manifesting system later on, you may encounter compatibility problems, so make sure that each system is fluent in the other’s logic.


Calculating your potential financial benefit from acquiring a manifesting system is a matter of simple multiplication. The average processing time for a nonautomated manifesting process is usually around two minutes. With a vendor-provided automated system, the time required to weigh, scan, and process a parcel will drop to less than 30 seconds.

Accuracy and reliability will also improve. It doesn’t take most managers long to figure out the superior return on investment that an automated system offers, especially after they go through a few nightmarish experiences of having ill-informed employees select the wrong shipment options.

The limitations of free-standing systems include lack of an automatic connection to your inventory management system; the need to periodically account for rate changes; the inability to account for special surcharges (last year’s big hit was fuel prices); and the lack of “eye appeal” on the address label. WMS modules can address these issues but at a cost commensurate with the benefits. Therefore, if you are buying or upgrading an existing stand-alone system, you must consult with the vendor to make sure that any expansion of its capabilities will be seamless and foolproof.

The “dirty little secret” of the mail order business used to be that you could give your product away at cost as long as you were making money on the shipping charges. Those days may be over, but cost reduction on the operations side of your business is still mandatory in order to remain profitable. To do that effectively requires human intervention. Remember that all shippers work from costs based on volume, making all rates subject to negotiation; hence, any automated manifesting system will struggle in the face of special deals or late-breaking agreements. Carriers provide rate updates on an approximately annual basis, but herein lies a potential trap that comes from overreliance on preprogrammed information. Just as good receptionists are hard to find, a good fulfillment operation needs care on the part of a vigilant manager to stay on top of the manifesting game.

Stephen Harris is a principal of Harris & Harris Consulting, based in Lincoln, VT. He specializes in distribution facility planning, design, and construction.

A selection of suppliers

Alternative Mailing & Shipping Systems, 2000 E. Randol Mill Rd., Suite 610
Arlington, TX 76011

Kewill Systems, 100 Nickerson Rd.
Marlborough, MA 01752

Malvern Systems, 81 Lancaster Ave., Suite 216
Malvern, PA 19355; 800-296-9642

Neopost USA, 30955 Huntwood Ave.
Hayward, CA 94544

ScanData Systems, 4420 Tuller Rd., Dublin, OH 43017; 614-766-6622

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