Supply houses will ship in their branded cartons.


Robert B. Footlik

1. Voice directed operations (VDO), with the staff, including the counter, online with the computer regardless of the task being performed. No scanning, no monitors or displays, just a noise-canceling headset with instructions in any language.

2. Coupled with VDO will be warehouse compensation programs based on output, not hours, and a true “Management by Exception” operating system. With a computer tracking every activity for start and completion times, it will become possible to establish standard times as well as incentive pay scales.

3. Onsite production of key products, especially slow-moving or specialty items. For example, why stock a 4-inch x 2-inch x 1-inch plastic tee when it can be produced by a tabletop machine in a few seconds? This is already available for spiral wound duct system piping.

4. Parts and fittings proliferation will require many more “fronts” (places where individual items are to be stored). With new piping systems, broader fixture lines and more colors available, the total SKU count will rise dramatically.

5. Countering the above trend will be a new class of focused sales organizations. These will be specialist supply houses along the lines of today’s stainless fittings distributors and master distributors. There will also be an increased reliance on these resources for the more exotic items, special order materials and slower moving materials.



Higher ceilings and vertical stacking will become the norm as land costs escalate.

6. Increased recycling of all packaging materials, with distributor vehicles bringing back empty cartons and plastic tote boxes from the customers and jobsites, will add to distributors’ costs while providing a possible value-added service.

7. Smaller air-conditioning condensers will replace the present oversized units as technology catches up with legislation. This is already in the works with aerodynamically shaped louvers and tubing cross sections to replace the traditional flat and round shapes.

8. Higher ceilings, triple-deck shelving and stacking to 35+ feet will become the norm for PHCP supply houses. As land costs escalate and the good sites disappear, this will be the only way to effectively afford new construction.

9. Air-conditioned warehouses will become more common. Thirty years ago one might still see a “Help Wanted” ad that touted “air-conditioned offices.” In the future the warehouse will run much cooler and with less humidity in the summer. This will protect both the products and the people.

10. More sophisticated forklifts and other materials handling equipment will be utilized. When Supply House Times started 50 years ago, even a hand pallet jack was viewed with suspicion. The next generation of forklifts will all have AC power, electronic monitoring of the driver’s performance and many semi-automatic safety features.



On-site production of slow-moving products will take place instead of stocking. (Courtesy of Industrial Valco)

11. Training programs and co-op educational opportunities that will build from warehouse-based experience. This is both to attract and train the new warehouse, operations and sales personnel. Traditionally the warehouse has always been the best place to start and this will continue.

12. Increased warehouse lighting levels using energy-efficient fluorescent and LED lamps will become more common. This will be coupled with simple, automatic controls to sense occupancy, ambient lighting (more windows and skylights) and special needs for an aging workforce.

13. Unmanned branch locations will become the norm. Using technology that already exists, a trailer, self-storage space, garage or small warehouse will function as a robotic distribution point. These locations will be replenished nightly and be customer usable 24/7/365.

14. 10-ft. pipe will become the norm in southern and western markets where slab-on-grade construction is most commonly employed for residential and light commercial customers. This mirrors what has always been utilized for electrical conduit.

15. Pallet racks will become increasingly customized to suit the products handled. This will lead to increased commingling of products from different families. For example, baseboard heating, boilers and controls are all used together, but are frequently stored in three or more locations in a warehouse.



Standard Plumbing Supply, Salt Lake City, regards its self-service operations as a competitive edge. Customers have unobstructed access to the entire store.

16. Product affinities will dictate the “slotting and profiling” (storage locations) in a supply house. Materials will no longer be stored strictly by vendor, but rather by how the customers order and install. With increased computer program sophistication, customer usage will then drive product storage.

17. Specialized forklifts, hydraulic booms and other equipment will be increasingly incorporated on delivery vehicles. This will lead to increased palletization of outbound shipments.

18. For large jobs, customers will expect the products to be packaged by specific unit or dwelling instead of full cases that force skilled tradesmen to act as mediocre material handlers.

19. Yard storage will become rare as municipalities increase beautification and zoning codes.

20. Using GPS technology, deliveries will be made to the customer’s truck (wherever he might be) instead of the specific jobsite.



Sophisticated forklifts and other material handling equipment will have electronic monitors and other automated features.

21. Deliveries will be more closely tracked and routes optimized by time, distance and fuel economy.

22. Plastic pallets will be increasingly used instead of wood and these will be tracked by RFID. Rental pallet pools currently utilized for groceries will expand to include all distributors.

23. What is today considered “extraordinary service” will become the norm. Customers will continue to demand faster and more reliable service.

24. Supply houses will ship in their own branded carton instead of reusing vendor cartons. With co-op advertising this will turn an expense into a profit center.

25. With standardized outbound packaging, pick/pack operations will be more feasible. This technique will eliminate the current multi-step operations of picking, staging, checking  and packing.



Product proliferation will force storage upward as space grows tight.

26. All counter orders will be entered into the system at the counter before being picked by individuals who will be wearing terminals or directed by computer-synthesized voice.

27. Pick paths will always be optimized and multiple order picking will be employed for the majority of orders, including counter picking.

28. Increased recycling will lead to baling of cardboard, chipboard and paper. Larger operations will install trash conveyors and semi-automatic balers to expedite this process.

29. Hand pallet jacks will be equipped with online scales and RFID devices to verify that the equipment is being used, who is moving it and how much product is being moved.

30. Standardized career apparel will be required to meet OSHA and NIOSH codes. Safety shoes, belts, specific fabrics and styles will be dictated by workman’s comp and insurance agencies.



Your Other Warehouse’s distribution center in Baton Rouge, LA, is a marvel of automated warehouse technology.

31. Comprehensive medical examinations and wellness screening will be a requirement of employment.

32. Product proliferation will lead to a shortage of “fronts” (places to put materials) in the warehouse. Bulk materials will be purchased more often to free up space for additional new lines and products. These “fronts” will be vertical into the height, not horizontal with more aisles.

33. Sprinkler codes will continue to become more stringent. Any construction permits will require enhancing the sprinkler protection.

34. Code officials will also require permits for any and all changes in every facility, not just in seismic zones.

35. Free-standing supply houses of less than 50,000 sq. ft. will be increasingly rare. Most distributors will be in much larger (250,000+ sq. ft.) space. Branches will tend to be in multi-tenant buildings with other, synergistic supply houses (electrical, work wear, tools, etc.).



Warehouses will make more use of natural daylight via skylights and more windows to reduce electricity costs.

36. RFID labeling will become standard for yard storage and spread to the warehouse.

37. Controlled facilities, without pickup counters and direct customer contact, will be able to use capital intensive materials handling equipment to bring the products to the stockers and pickers instead of the personnel to the products.

38. Management focus will slowly shift from “getting stuff out the door” to considerations of the “Total Delivered Cost.” This means adding a few cents in some areas to save major dollars in the total system.

39. For operations with active counters, their best customers will have increasing access to the warehouse and may do their own order picking under computer direction and supervision.

40. Warehouse security will become increasingly important from both an internal and external perspective. Much of this will be dictated by the Department of Homeland Security and immigration laws.



Warehouse ceiling heights in excess of 30-ft. clearance will become the norm for the industry.

41. With increased taxation on inventories (in more states), stock rotation and inventory control will take on new importance. This trend will push for more cycle counting and fewer year-end inventory counting parties.

42. Energy and resource conservation initiatives will continue to drive new warehouse programs for reducing waste.

43. Ergonomic standards will force lighter weight and more easily handled packaging. This will lead to more women in warehouse operations. For example, even a 10-foot piece of 1-1/2-inch Schedule 80 pipe will, by law, require two people to carry a single piece. Don’t even ask about lead ingots.

44. Warehouse ceiling heights in excess of 30-foot clearance will become the norm for the industry, with cameras on the forks of the lift trucks to enhance safety when placing pallets at the top of the racks.



Energy and conservation initiatives will continue to reduce waste.

45. Triple-deck shelving will be utilized for small objects in high spaces, with conveyors and vertical lifts to facilitate product handling.

46. Warehouses will make more use of available daylight through the use of clerestory windows, skylights and “light pipes” to bring in more natural light and supplement electrical lighting.

47. With increased direct importation of products, sea/land containers will become longer and wider (8-feet-6-inches wide instead of 8-feet-0-inches x 53 feet long instead of 40 feet). This will bring them in line with standard U.S. highway trailers. Also, this will increase the space required for docks and driveways.



Expect to see increased palletization of outbound shipments. (Courtesy of Smith-Cooper International)

48. Multi-story buildings will be used to conserve land and reduce construction expense in North America as well as the rest of the world. The difference between the future and the past will be the spacing between floors (30+ feet rather than 10 feet).

49. Stacker cranes and other automation will be used to tie the floors together operationally instead of manned elevators.

50. Robotic handling will be used on a limited basis for stocking and order picking in specific areas. People will still be used where more flexibility is required.



Housekeeping is extremely important to sound operations.

Operational Tips For Today

It’s been fun conjuring up what supply houses of the future will look like, as I do in the main article. But let’s not get so far ahead of ourselves that we overlook some smart things to do in the here and now. Low-tech solutions are usually better than expensive high-tech ones.  Optimize what you have before investing heavily in new technology, and heed the following.

  • Poor lighting causes accidents and errors. Energy savings and rebates alone can pay for new lighting in less than nine months.

  • Training must be a top priority. Trained individuals perform better and stay with you longer.

  • Housekeeping is extremely important. Poor housekeeping is far more expensive and sends the wrong message to both staff and customers.

  • Damaged goods should be closely monitored. This is the most obvious indication of both operational and morale problems.

  • Make theft difficult and constantly monitor to prevent it. Zero tolerance is the best deterrent.

  • Consider future growth before making any changes. Solving only current situations is counterproductive because it saps resources and hides root causes.

  • Measure employee productivity regularly. Everyone must know how they are performing before they can try to do better.

  • Employ the best warehouse manager you can find. Look in his car. If it is a rolling pigsty, retrain him or find someone who knows that neatness counts.


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