A Checklist for Assessing Ecommerce Fulfillment Center Candidates

As we assist ecommerce and multichannel companies in planning their ecommerce fulfillment center expansion, we often see managers prematurely jump at the first building they see and talk about costs. In our opinion the most productive process involves outlining your requirements first, then creating a checklist to see how various facilities stack up.

Warehouse design and function vary widely. Having a requirements checklist helps you make sure the building you’re looking at has everything you need.

Below is a standard checklist as a starting point; you can tailor it to suit your particular situation.

Strategic Plan and Space Required 

Start by determining your rough square footage requirements. This includes storage, dock areas, office and employee areas, customer pickup and counter sales window. 

The largest portion of your ecommerce fulfillment center is devoted to storage. Often facilities don’t last as long as originally planned because product assortment – and therefore bulk storage, picking and floor locations – grows faster than anticipated.

Working with senior management and the merchandise team, plan out how the number of SKUs, types of product and storage media will grow. For example, an apparel business may decide over time to sell home décor. A home décor SKU generally requires more area and may not be conveyable like flat-bagged apparel. Or they decide to sell shoes which means dozens of SKUs (and therefore more pick faces) per base style. Have you determined the number of SKUs, the cubic feet of storage required for an average week vs. peak and extrapolated it forward for the planned life of the facility? This will require some serious number crunching which often doesn’t get done.

In your strategic planning by year, determine how the facility will need to expand its capacity to process orders, returns and value-added functions. This will give you data to plan needed square footage for staging pick carts, pack stations, returns processing and other services. Receiving and shipping are covered below.

Facility Footprint and Shape

Sometimes ecommerce fulfillment center space is odd shaped or uses mezzanines. Narrow and long buildings increase put-away and picking travel times. From a workflow perspective, trace how product would flow through the facility from inbound docks to picking and outbound shipping. Will this be efficient for your operations? What MHE will be used to move product and orders between mezzanines?

If there is racking, does it meet your needs? Is it installed in an efficient configuration considering product flow? Is it structurally sound or do uprights or beams need replacement?

Considering the facility’s construction and acreage, can it be expanded? How will that impact product flow and efficiency?

Ceiling Height and Clear Span 

Older facilities may have ceiling heights of 20 feet or less; more modern buildings go up to 34 feet or higher. Heights above this require specialized equipment. How many pallet levels high can you rack and operate forklifts without hitting any obstructions like sprinklers and beams?

Aisle Widths and Lengths 

Are aisle widths in sync with the type of forklift or order pickers you intend to use? Are there tunnels or cut-throughs in long aisles to reduce travel time? Are columns uniformly spaced to accommodate rack placement and fire suppression?

Docks and Doors

The number of dock doors and dock size is often where fulfillment centers can vary widely and are often undersized, so questions needing answers abound. Does the facility allow separate inbound and outbound docks? Are they optimally located to handle anticipated product and customer order flow? Are there sufficient inbound docks for current and future operations? Is the dock and staging area sufficient for holding product in quality control?

Do you require drive-in docks? Do the dock levelers work? What is the condition of the pavement at the dock doors? Are there enough outbound docks for loading trucks? Will carriers drop trailers? Do you zone skip, and is there sufficient space to meet those needs?

Size of Your Workforce

The number of employees during peak and average weeks determines the number of parking spaces, the size of the breakroom, bathrooms and number of lockers required. Are bathrooms located throughout the building to reduce walk time? Check the local zoning office for code requirements.

Acreage Requirements

Consider highway access and the truck traffic flow in and out of the facility. How big of a yard do you need for trailer storage? Is there enough space to allow for building expansion, and will this change traffic flow, the truck yard, docks and employee parking?

Building Condition 

Is the floor level throughout for pick carts, pallet jacks and forklifts? Is it sealed to reduce dust and dirt? Is there enough light throughout the facility? What are the temperature requirements and what is the condition and age of the HVAC system?

Various types of ecommerce fulfillment center have to adhere to various codes based on product type and the height of stacking and storage. Are the fire suppression and rack sprinkler systems up to code? Is there sufficient electrical capacity for forklift recharging?

Communications and cable requirements for radio frequency, data and voice communication often have to be upgraded to meet your needs. What are the security requirements for camera systems, employee entrances and exits and caged protection of high-value products?

Leasing or building an ecommerce fulfillment center is a major capital expenditure and a long-term project. Not all of them were built for the same function. Develop your future fulfillment requirements first. Then as you tour facilities you can see how they compare against this checklist.

Brian Barry is President of F. Curtis Barry & Company

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