Changing your Distribution Center to Meet the New Retail Paradigm

By Freddie Pierce
By Chris Castaldi,Director of Business Development atW&H Systems The retail landscape is changing as more and more brick and mortar stores offer co...

By Chris CastaldiDirector of Business Development at W&H Systems

The retail landscape is changing as more and more brick and mortar stores offer consumers the ability to order products on line; some even ship products on the same day. This boom in electronic commerce has squeezed distribution operations to the point that distribution networks must be revamped and expanded.

Current distribution models include:

  • Traditional Distribution– Vendors ship products to retail distribution centers where the products are stored until orders need fulfilled. Orders are then picked and delivered to the stores.
  • Crossdock Distribution Centers– Shipments from inbound suppliers are moved directly from the loading dock to outbound delivery trucks. Very little storage is needed, as products never touch a shelf or the floor.
  • Vendor Direct to Store Delivery– Vendors ship goods directly from their own facilities to retail stores, by passing retailers distribution center.
  • Hybrid Distribution– Mix of any of the above delivery methods.
  • Direct to Consumer– Many small orders sent to many consumers every day.

However, even these distribution models are changing as most retailers today are faced with shipping smaller quantities more frequently, either direct to stores or direct to customers.  Retailers that do not fully grasp this change and adjust their strategies will disappear, and the ones who do step up will see substantial value creation. 

Shipping individual orders to customers or retail stores requires speed and accuracy. Distribution operations management has realized that they must add new technology in order to meet customer delivery demands and to bring customers’ real benefits and value. These technologies include high-speed conveyors, high-speed sortation systems, robotic palletizers, picking & packing solutions, etc.

Choosing the right equipment

There are an almost unlimited number of conveyor systems designed for the retail distribution center. Choosing the right conveyor based on the operation and volume is key to success.

Outside of the standard transportation conveyor, there are several types of conveyors that offer special features for retail distribution, including: combiners, merges, spiral conveyors, sortation conveyor, etc. 

Handling and distributing retail apparel typically calls for specialized equipment, especially in the case of hanging garments. Called Garment On Hanger (GOH) systems, these specialized conveyors use overhead rail systems that move trolleys filled with apparel over great distances, through changing elevations, and along complex paths.

High-speed sortation systems

High-speed sortation systems are the key to the efficiency of state of the art retail distribution centers. Sorters can use pivot arms, diverters, pushers, etc. to sort the items on a conveyor. The right sortation solution depends on the product you’re moving and your need for speed. Sortation systems automatically sort products as they move through a facility. Sliding shoe sorters are designed to meet the growing demand for high shipping volume, increased accuracy and smaller order sizes. Sortation rates can go up to 450 cartons per minute. They reduce the manual labor needed to prepare for palletizing, packing, shipping and other industrial operations. Sortation systems can increase efficiency and provide more accurate fill rates, lower return rates and operating costs. All of these benefits add up to lower prices and faster delivery to the consumer.

Picking & Packing Equipment

Paperless picking & packing solutions can be either voice-directed or light directed. Pickers receive instructions via an audible voice system telling them which items to pick and where to put them. Voice-directed systems work best for slow-moving inventory and sequential transactions. Light-directed systems provide instructions via an illuminated light panel. These allow simultaneous transactions and work best for fast-moving inventory. Paperless picking & packing systems produce nearly 100% accuracy levels, increase productivity, lower distance travelled amounts, and reduce costs.

Print/Pack Equipment

Use print-and-apply labeling systems that print labels on the fly, and offer in-motion weighing and manifesting, as well as semi-automated or automated sealing/taping stations, all of which eliminate touches.


Palletizers make the stacking of cartons much easier, reducing labor costs, and providing a safer work environment. Palletizers are available to handle different types of containers, including cases, totes, bales, trays, etc. Robotic palletizers perform precise, repeatable patterns in a variety of rates, such as 100 cases/minute. 

Deploying this equipment in a distribution center requires a knowledgeable material handling systems integrator with years of experience in the retail environment. Typically, these integrators are non-biased about equipment and they know which works best in what environment. Look for an integrator that will perform needs assessments, systems design, engineering, installation, and support to meet the new retail landscape.


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