Special Handling for Ecommerce Inventory & Order Fulfillment
An ecommerce fulfillment center must be flexible when it comes to storing and handling inventory — after all, no two SKUs are the same. A product’s dimensions and malleability will determine how much storage space it needs and how it is packaged for shipping. Other products require special handling due to their fragile nature, perishability or high value. Still others may be given special handling at the request of the ecommerce business, with branded packaging for instance.
Not all fulfillment centers have the bandwidth to meet special handling requirements, or even one-time special services. If your products need special treatment, look for a third-party logistics company (3PL) that can handle special handling. And while you’re here, you might as well look into ShipMonk’s special handling services. We don’t talk about them much, but it’s high time we did. What types of special handling are we talking about? Let’s dive in.
Identifying Products for Special Handling
The first step in making sure your products are stored, handled and shipped properly is identifying and flagging them by their attributes in our system. If you were one of the ecommerce brands we service, you might have a single product, a product line, or your entire inventory that requires special handling. At ShipMonk, we recommend that any products that need special handling be discussed during the initial meetings with a prospective new client or, if added later, before the products are received at one of our fulfillment centers. That way, we can build your expectations and requirements into our service level agreement and prepare our fulfillment centers for their arrival.
There are several different product attributes that we flag for various reasons at our 12 state-of-the-art fulfillment centers. Some simply help us pick the right size box for order fulfillment. Others indicate the need for special placement or handling within the warehouse.
Products without rigid dimensions, such as apparel, are designated as Soft while the product is being weighed and measured during the receiving process. The Soft attribute is used by our tech-first 3PL platform when assigning products to picking totes and packaging. It indicates that the product is malleable and will fit into a smaller package than its dimensions would indicate. Here’s an example of how this attribute can reduce shipping costs when using box packaging.
The Blacklist product attribute enables our ecommerce clients to designate products that might be included in an order but that we don’t need to ship. Most often these are digital “products” like gift cards or coupons, but they might also be a product like a bonus gift that is being shipped another way. The Blacklist attribute ensures that these mystery SKUs are removed from the order and don’t hold up the fulfillment process for the rest of the order.
Products that contain batteries, or that may be flammable or explosive must be flagged as Hazardous Materials (Hazmat). While ShipMonk is able to store and ship hazardous materials, we must follow the proper procedure established by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) when storing, handling and shipping. By marking a SKU as Hazmat, our software system recognizes that any order with one or more hazmat SKUs can only ship via certain shipping methods and must be flagged to the carrier. The Hazmat flag also prompts our warehouse packing team to properly label the package per hazmat regulations. To find out whether your product is Hazmat, check the SDS (Safety Data Sheet), formerly known as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), prepared by the manufacturer.
Because the USPS offers reduced rates for shipping specific types of products through its USPS Media Mail service, ShipMonk identifies eligible products with the Media attribute. To qualify as media, products must be educational in nature, and all SKUs within the order must be marked as Media to qualify for the reduced rate.
What Can You Ship?
High-value products that require tighter security are assigned the Verified Inventory attribute. Products of this nature should be identified as Verified Inventory during the client onboarding process, because arrangements must be made to store them in a secure area, separate from other products, with controlled access by operations management members only. The Verified Inventory attribute triggers the following extra operational processes to guarantee accurate inventory quantities at all times.
- Products are stored in secured area with limited access
- Products are counted during receiving to ensure no concealed shortages
- Products are picked and packed by members of the Operations management team
- Weekly cycle counts are conducted to confirm inventory levels.
According to federal regulations, certain FDA products must be stored under conditions that will preserve the products’ identity, purity, strength, and composition. Those products include food, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and medical devices. ShipMonk facilities are committed to adhering to our clients’ temperature needs. Three of our facilities, located in Nevada, New Jersey, and Texas, offer sophisticated climate control areas, so orders would need to be fulfilled from one of these specialized facilities.
Some special handling requirements have more to do with how the ecommerce brand wants its products to be physically handled than with any particular product attribute. These products may require different stocking or packing procedures, and should be identified in the SLA to ensure that requirements are met.
In many cases, an ecommerce business might want to track products by their expiration date or production lot as part of its quality control process. Lot Control is a special handling request that triggers a completely different process for storing and picking products within ShipMonk’s fulfillment centers. Each carton is identified by its lot or expiration date during the receiving process, and stored in a specific location. All the units within that carton are then associated with that lot or expiration date so they can be tracked throughout the system. When an order is filled, the lot or expiration date appears on the order, so the ecommerce business has complete visibility into inventory levels and expiration dates.
- Products are identified during receiving at the carton level
- Units with expiration dates & lots stored separately
- Inventory levels of each lot & expiration date available
- Orders list which lot/expiration date was shipped
SKUs designated as needing fragile packaging will be wrapped in bubble wrap or similar dunnage and placed in a box when being shipped. This is handled at a special packing station designed to handle these orders.
Custom packaging is a great way for brands to differentiate themselves and add another level of wow-factor to their unboxing experience. Custom Packaging is a special handling request that must be set up in advance. Once set up, the ShipMonk platform automatically assigns Custom Packaging to the designated SKUs. Products are picked just like any other product, and the system automatically determines the best type of custom packaging to use, in the smallest available size, based upon volume and dimensions of the order contents. Custom Packaging can be set for a specific group of SKUs or all products. It cannot be set for exclusive combinations of products.
In cases where an ecommerce business needs to track individual units by their serial numbers, such as electronics, ShipMonk offers Serialization handling. Each unit is identified and tracked by its serial number, and orders will indicate which specific unit was shipped.
Serialization is often used to verify product warranties or to be able to track defective units. Orders with SKUs that have Serialization enabled cannot be batched.
Other Special Services
In addition to these special handling services, the Happiness Engineers at ShipMonk go out of their way to meet the needs of growing ecommerce businesses. (Our management team has roots in ecommerce, so we get it.) If you need kitting or assembly services, we can do that. You need us to relabel a few hundred products? No problem. What if you need us to correct a mistake made by the manufacturer, such as replacing one part with another? We can do that, too. Hey, we’re here to help, and that means taking special handling to another level.
Contact ShipMonk today to learn more about our special handling capabilities and how we can take the stress out of ecommerce order fulfillment!