Distributors, under increasing pressure to maximize warehouse space and operate more efficiently, are turning their attention to better ways to handle slow movers.
Racking systems capable of holding more slow-moving items in the same amount of space are one way retailers and wholesalers are seeking to maximize storage efficiency. Stock-picking machines and carousels, on the other hand, are playing a growing role in boosting access effectiveness.
Slow movers come from every category, including canned goods, cereal, paper products, specialty foods and spices, toothpaste and deodorants, among other areas.
While every company defines slow movers a little differently, they are often simply described in terms of number of cases picked per week or sales per week. The number of slow movers can range from 1,000 to 3,000 stockkeeping units, sources told SN.
The cost of handling these items and the challenge of making room for the burgeoning number of new items introduced is what's prompting many distributors to find better ways to store and easily access slow movers.
"You have to have a way to handle slow movers. You can't keep adding space to the building," said Renato Cellupica, vice president of distribution and transportation at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. "None of us in the industry have infinite space. In order to fit more product in, you have to become creative to store more items per linear foot."
Price Chopper recently installed a new racking system for slow movers in the frozen foods, deli/dairy and produce categories. The system is designed to accommodate a growing number of SKUs in the bays.
Cellupica explained that this particular racking system can handle multiple SKUs within a location that previously stored only one pallet.
Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla., adapted a limited amount of flow racking to accommodate slow-moving specialty deli and produce, as well as split case general merchandise, said Mark Stewart, vice president warehouse and distribution. The system allows the chain to store more slow movers in the same amount of space, he explained.
"Where we might have had two pallets in two items within a pallet bay, we can now put in up to 20 items in the same two pallet bays" using this system, he said. "And because they're slow movers and we don't carry a significant amount of inventory, this is a better utilization of space within the facility."
Ken Easton, director of distribution at Delchamps, Mobile, Ala., which has about 2,000 slow-moving items, primarily in the dry grocery category, said it is converting conventional pallet slots to flow racks for slow moving items, including baby food, ethnic condiments and spices and some gelatins and puddings.
The flow racks being used are eight feet deep and handle five times more slow-moving product than the conventional pallet slot. While the system is labor intensive in terms of stocking, it is beneficial in terms of saving space, according to Easton.
But other sources pointed out they need a less labor intensive way of handling slow movers than flow racks. While flow racks are effective, they require continual replenishment, which takes up time and labor resources, they said.
One alternative to flow racks is stock pickers, battery powered machines in which an operator straps himself. Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, uses a stock picker for its roughly 1,000 slow movers in dry grocery.
"With the stock picker, once we receive the product and we put it away, we don't touch it again until it's selected to be shipped out," said Marty Baker, director of warehousing at Hy-Vee. The retailer will be bringing in two more stock-picking machines in March.
"There's no replenishment to this system because once one slot empties out with the product, our inventory-control system automatically directs the person who picks the stock to the next slot that's in reserve on the same product and turns that into the select slot," Baker said. "The other slot that had become empty becomes open to any available product coming in."
Baker also noted the stock-picking machines eliminate the need for two-level picks. "We're trying to get away from that so that the selector doesn't have to reach up above 45 inches or higher and reach back into a slot," he said.
Beyond stock pickers, distribution executives pointed out there are many other ways to handle slow movers. Carousels, as one source pointed out, can be useful because one can pick for multiple stores at the same time, thereby saving time and increasing productivity.
A grocery executive for a Southwestern retailer said his company is intrigued by the potential for carousels to handle about 2,500 slow movers in nonfood categories such as health and beauty care.
"Typically, slow movers are in a pallet-rack system or product flow-pick module. We're looking at doing carousels for nonfood, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and deodorants, aspirin and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals," he said.
"There's some good technology out there in terms of how the carousels perform. The benefit of a carousel over a flow rack would be less handling and we estimate our productivity could increase 80%," he added.
The retailer explained that the carousel has bins, and that as products are received into the warehouse, they are placed in the appropriate bins. When stores place an order, they are processed via a computer system. The processed orders are then downloaded to a PC that operates the carousel and controls the light trees on the carousel.
The light trees identify quantity to be selected for a particular item. Using this system, the picker can select for several stores instead of one to two stores at a time "and that's the beauty of it."
He added, "I would have never thought about a carousel until I saw how it operated. I was impressed."