Retailers' and wholesalers' increasing emphasis on customer service is having an effect on distribution-center design. In this competitive market, warehouses must be built from the ground up with speed and accuracy in mind.
With more product categories being cross docked, for example, warehouse docks need to be wider than before. Docks that used to average 40 to 60 feet in width are now constructed 80 to 100 feet wide to allow for expanded prestaging of products, industry experts told SN. A warehouse expansion at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, features an 80-foot dock as part of a series of design and technology improvements.
As retailers and wholesalers carry larger numbers of products, new distribution centers are also growing vertically. One industry source told SN that retailers should construct warehouses that are about 38 to 40 feet high, as high as the new generation of forklifts can reach. New facilities built by Piggly Wiggly, Carolina Co., Charleston Heights, S.C., and Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., that are coming on line this year both have ceiling heights in this range.
Newer DCs, such as the Safeway facility, also require a wider range of refrigeration options, as distributors are being called on to deliver higher-quality perishables on a just-in-time basis. Five or six refrigerated rooms set at different temperatures and humidity levels are not uncommon in today's warehouse, sources told SN, compared with three refrigerated rooms all set at the same temperature in traditional DCs.
Ergonomics, inventory reduction, lighting levels, ventilation, rack configuration, air conditioning (in dry grocery warehouses) and break rooms are also topics being addressed when retailers design and construct new warehouses. In addition, more sophisticated distribution center technologies have led to the need for modern training rooms, where workers can learn about using warehouse management systems and radio frequency technology.
Piggly Wiggly is one retailer that has implemented many up-to-date design changes for its new, 543,000-square-foot distribution center in Jedburg, S.C.
"I wanted three things [for the new warehouse] -- a good flat roof, a flat floor and good ventilation," said Ronald Sauls, vice president of distribution for Piggly Wiggly.
With the Southern climate making for hot and humid summers, Piggly Wiggly has installed 54 exhaust fans at the new facility, which should circulate the air in the warehouse about six times per hour. "We hope to create a draft," said Sauls.
Without such a system, summer productivity at the warehouse suffers tremendously, he added. "It drops 10% to 15%."
The facility, set to open on a limited basis May 15 and to be fully operational by June 1, will eventually take over the operations of the retailer's much smaller, 225,000-square-foot Charleston, S.C., warehouse.
The Jedburg facility offers 38 feet of vertical space, allowing products to be stacked up to 35 feet high. At the Charleston facility, the 22-foot ceiling only allows products to be stacked 18 feet high.
"We didn't have the height to work with [in Charleston]," Sauls said, adding that with the new space the retailer is looking to add about 2,000 to 2,500 new items to its inventory, bringing the total number of items available at the warehouse to 19,000 to 19,500 items.
"We have to add the new items, our competition has them," Sauls said.
At one and two racks deep, the Jedburg facility slots are ergonomically friendly compared with traditional four- and five-deep racks, which can cause physical strain and injury on warehouse workers when they reach into the deeper racks. The warehouse is also equipped with a new slotting software program that optimizes the product stacks in an ergonomic manner.
"Heavy stuff goes on the bottom and small stuff on the top, and there is some family grouping," Sauls said.
For its Eastern division, Safeway recently completed a new distribution center from scratch that will service the Maryland, Virginia and Washington areas.
The $91 million, 750,000-square-foot distribution center in Upper Marlboro, Md., became fully operational in January. It replaced the retailer's 46-year-old Landover, Md., facility, said Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway's Eastern division.
"The product quality was paramount in our minds [when constructing the new warehouse]," he added, noting that there is marked improvement in the quality of the retailer's perishables at the new facility. The warehouse contains several refrigerated rooms set at optimum temperatures and humidity levels to accommodate all types of produce.
"Perishables come into the warehouse, are stored and pulled, put on a refrigerated truck and the temperature never varies more than a couple of degrees," TenEyck told SN. The facility also features new banana-ripening rooms.
The warehouse contains 380,000 square feet for grocery and 297,000 square feet for perishable, as well as salvage warehouse space and a truck-maintenance area. The Landover facility offered 815,000 square feet for grocery and perishables, but although the new warehouse has less square footage, it measures 26 million cubic feet, compared with Landover's 17 million cubic feet, due to higher ceilings.
New stacking heights at the Upper Marlboro facility measure 32 feet in grocery and 35 feet in perishables, compared with 19 feet for grocery and 14 feet for perishables in the older facility. TenEyck said the vertical growth at the DC is the result of advancements made in forklift technology.
The new DC has 187 bay doors with a prestaging area that is twice the size of its predecessor, TenEyck said.
Although it's too early to measure, Safeway is hoping to increase productivity. "It will probably be a while before the facility reaches its full potential," TenEyck said. "[The Upper Marlboro warehouse] is the largest single capital investment in the history of Safeway.
"The facility was built on 164 acres of land [with the future in mind]," TenEyck told SN. Currently, the retailer outsources its frozen distribution, but Safeway could potentially add a frozen facility at the Upper Marlboro location.
Even distributors renovating existing facilities are taking advantage of newer distribution center design trends.
Associated Grocers of Florida, Miami, purchased a 696,000 square-foot distribution center last May and made only a few modifications to the 22-year-old Ocala, Fla., facility, said Jack Hunter, senior vice president of operations for Associated. One modification, however, maximized vertical space in the 40,000-square-foot refrigerated cooler.
In order to increase the room's cube, racks that had only reached 12 feet in height now go to 18 feet. The height increase is more striking because the warehouse overall has a relatively low ceiling at 28 feet.
"In Florida, you don't find a lot of height," Hunter said, although he added that it is cheaper to build up then build out.
The Ocala refrigerated room also uses an ammonia system to keep the room cool. "Basically, it [the ammonia system] is a better energy-efficient unit," Hunter told SN.
Like Piggly Wiggly, Associated also depends on exhaust fans to keep ventilation satisfactory in the warehouse.
"We have about two dozen exhaust fans that run all the time," Hunter said, adding that the temperature in Ocala sometimes tops 100 degrees in the summer months.
Minyard Food Stores has seen productivity rise 15% to 20% since it added 280,000 square feet of dry grocery space and a warehouse management system to its 243,000-square-foot distribution center in Coppell last year, said Prudencio Pineda, senior vice president of logistics for the retailer.
One significant improvement was the addition of a 40-foot ceiling, with products stacked 32 feet high. Prior to the expansion, he added, the DC could not efficiently handle the volume of products it was receiving.
Minyard is planning further improvements to the facility, seeking to improve inventory control at the 523,000-square-foot warehouse with a radio frequency system. The system should be up and running by June, said Pineda, adding that the retailer is also considering a paperless order selection system.
To capitalize on the expanded facility, "I'm looking to bigger and better things," Pineda told SN. One of those bigger and better things includes cross docking through widened warehouse docks that measure 80 feet.
Currently, Pineda said, the retailer has a small cross-docking program with one of its vendors, but a larger cross-docking program with Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, is being discussed by the two trading partners.