Amazon Supply still is not selling china or fiberglass, but it does offer more than 54,000 fittings, valves, tubing, pumps and meters. It also offers 5,300 HVAC supplies, tools and meters, but no equipment.

Grainger sells only a few commercial bathroom fixtures, but claims more than 31,000 pipe, valves, fittings, water heaters, toilets, replacement parts and faucets and repair kits. And it claims an additional 30,000 HVAC SKUs including equipment, parts and supplies.

MSC Industrial’s website lists some 4,600 PHCP items, including mini-water heaters, pumps, plumbing tools, lavatory faucets and sinks, flush valves and repair parts. And it lists some 3,600 HVAC items other than equipment.

These giants seldom make warehouse mistakes, so warehouse mistakes made by traditional PHCP, PVF and HVAC distributors can result in losing sales to the giants; maybe even losing customers. Here are some measures traditional distributors can take to ensure their warehouses are not hurting customer service.



In the warehouse there must be adequate heating during cold weather and adequate ventilation during hot weather. Many of the giant competitors operate out of modern warehouses that are ventilated and heated to make life comfortable for warehouse employees.

Heating should not be accomplished with salamander-type heaters that generate intense heat that radiates out only a few feet, but with hot-air-style heaters. And cooling does not require air conditioning; fans with safety cages can move a lot of air and reduce the heat load on employees. Comfortable warehouse workers are motivated to perform their jobs with accuracy.

For every product on the property, each storage location and the quantity stored there must be tracked at all times; even before a product is put away and after it is loaded on a delivery/shipping truck.

If power tools are stored in a secure cage or separate room, they must be tracked like products stored in the main warehouse. With more and more sales orders coming via the Web at all hours of the day and night, filling an order can involve picking an item from a location other than where it will be stored, including picking from the receiving area if there is no stock in the warehouse.

Every storage location, including floor locations (such as for water heaters), must be labeled with a unique location ID code. And if location ID barcodes are being scanned, a barcode version of the location ID must be next to the readable location ID. Furthermore, the ERP system must enable the real-time tracking of the quantity stored at each location and employees must capture data for every product movement.



Receiving:  Mistakes made here flow downstream and often are not detected until items are picked; sometimes not until customers get the wrong items/quantities. Almost invariably, every receipt of product is proofed against its corresponding PO data (or physical PO), but receiving personnel sometimes assume quantities on the packing list are correct unless data on the vendor’s packing list differs from PO data.

This mistake can result in customers not getting the quantities they ordered or not getting the items at all. The warehouse manager should inform the people who do the receiving to not hesitate to open shrink wrap and count what has actually been received. If inventory is tracked by piece but purchased in cartons (e.g., small copper fittings), the number of cases received must be counted, multiplied by the quantity per case and the result recorded as received.

Put away:  No item can be picked if its location is unknown, so a very high rate of fulfillment requires recording the storage location as soon as possible. If there is no permanently assigned storage location because its location is determined after it is received,  the person doing the put away must record the selected location on any document taken along during put away (e.g., copy of PO) or a form created solely for this purpose or via barcode scanning of the location ID code.

If paper is used, the new location ID must be entered into the system ASAP. If there is a problem finding a location into which to store an item, the person doing the put away should immediately contact a supervisor. An example is a kitchen sink stored on the floor; the exact storage location may not be known until the sink is positioned in an available storage location.

Picking:  Items must be picked in a sequence that minimizes picking time. However, listing all items on one pick ticket or RF display may not minimize picking time. Minimizing picking time clearly maximizes the likelihood of getting all orders loaded by the end of a normal shift and counter/will-call orders quickly filled. Timely order filling is one way to compete with the giants whose modern, heavily-automated warehouses allow rapid fulfillment.

But depending on the storage pattern in the warehouse, having one person pick all the lines for an order may take more time than splitting the order into two or more tickets or RF-displays. For example, using the same person to pick pipe and pipe fittings can take longer than generating one pick ticket for the pipe and one for the fittings (then bringing them together in a staging area or on a truck).

Packing:  On a packing list, line items should be sequenced as data was originally entered for the order, or for customers who request it, sequenced by department, then as entered. If possible, lines on the order invoice should be sequenced the same way. This makes life easier for customer personnel who visually compare packing lists to data in the PO that was faxed, mailed or transmitted.

The same holds true for personnel who proof the invoice to receiving data recorded by other customer personnel. Customer-requested sequencing can be a selling point against new competitors. An example is fixtures to be delivered to different locations of the same large residential complex such as several apartments and a restroom off a common area.

Loading and delivery:  If a customer has several orders to be delivered on the same day, all such orders should be consolidated and delivered together. As with sequencing line items on a packing list, this makes life easier for customer personnel who receive the products and it reduces delivery costs.

An example is multiple orders received on the same day that must be delivered to the same building the same day. A supervisor should arrange the packing lists by delivery address, then any department or building number, and ensure all products for the orders are loaded on the same truck and grouped by any department or building. There are exceptions; a very heavy product (e.g., a toilet) may have to be loaded first and secured to the truck body.

The giant competitors may have spent millions of dollars on their warehouses, but traditional PHCP, PVF and HVAC distributors still can compete by using these recommendations to make warehouse operations more accurate. 

 Warehouse mistakes can result in lost sales and even customers.