Product storage problems

You may recall I went to Austin this past weekend to do some seminars at First Samples, more on that later. When I was there, Darien (long standing member of the FI community) invited us over to her new office. From here she runs her company including shipping and ordering processing, manufacturing is done at her contractor’s facility across town. Moving into a new space can be exciting but also challenging. If you’re just starting out, your thrills are often fabrics and trims but once you’ve been around awhile your priorities change and you become excited by the mundane. In this case, the cause of excitement was a shipping station which Darien got for free, even the delivery was free. Pictured below is the shipping station partially obscured by Darien (left) and Vesta (right). Vesta and Darien manufacture baby slings; they’re friends and competitors. I mention that because I wish more of you were aligned with your colleagues. Vesta is from Dallas; she came down to attend the seminars this past weekend.

Little things like an official shipping table with proper working height can dramatically improve the process of shipping, making you feel like you’ve arrived. Boring, I know but I think all of us either have or can identify with the frustration of having to ship on those fold up tables. I know I can. Between us, we agreed that a great resource for shipping tables is Uline; I get all my shipping stuff from there. Anyway, operational procedures are something we don’t discuss much on FI and Darien thought it’d be a great topic. Specifically, while Darien is happier with her streamlined shipping, product storage is still an issue. Here is a view of her inventory storage.


It is a narrow long room with shelving off to either side. Product is neatly stored in clear plastic bins. While product is readily located, I think we can agree the situation can be improved although we may lack precise solutions for it. Probably the best way to approach this is to define the problems with the existing set up. Below is a sample; a picture of product stored on two shelves.

I don’t know what your first impression will be but the first thing I notice is wasted space owing to the bin size. The bins are smaller than the available shelf space and there doesn’t seem to be much one can do about it. You can’t have the bins the same size as the shelves; you need room to move the bins off and on the shelves. Also, due to package sizing, individual packages can’t be stacked on the shelves without sliding off and falling on the floor. In addition, packers will need to select product from within the bins so it’s not likely that even with precisely sized shelving, presumably with packages stacked on top of each other, individual packages wouldn’t slip out. Below is a photo of one package so you can get an idea of the inventory problem.

Do you have any ideas of product storage solutions? I know a lot of you are doing similar things but maybe not as neatly, storing product in poly bags within cardboard boxes reduces visibility and makes for a lot of mixing of product. If one can store product on hangars, it’s easier but that is obviously not an option for Darien and a lot of other sewn product producers. I’m thinking Darien will need something custom, put together by a carpenter. Either that or she may want to look into retail store solutions. Maybe those shelving units stores use to hold stacks of jeans but then, accessibility near the floor will be a problem.

Ideas? Solutions? How do you manage the inventory storage problem? By all means, do tell.

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11 comments

  1. Eric H says:

    Ideas, yes:

    1) Lean Thinking (Womack et al) includes several case studies of the organization of shipping and receiving areas. Instead of organizing by size, organize primarily by frequency (put stuff used more often near the front).

    2) 5 Pillars of the Visual Workplace: The Sourcebook for 5s Implementation, by Hiroyuki Hirano. Never used boxes that you can’t see the interior: you don’t know how many are left. Never use shelves that are above your head: it’s dangerous, unergonomic (think about your back), and you can’t see what’s up there (ever lost anything on a high shelf). Try not to use lower shelves, either (your back again).

    3) Parts bins: for example, these (I haven’t worked with this company, these were just the first return on a search). From Hirano and Toyota: mark the storage bins for max and min points. Never allow the bin to be filled past the max point, re-order when it hits the min point. If possible, use the bin itself as a re-order mechanism (if it’s stout enough to use as a shipping container, you get to recycle every time you use it!).

  2. La BellaDonna says:

    Tragically enough, I’m still excited by the prospect of storage for the pre-product stage (the fabric, trims, etc.). I just scored some very sturdy shelving units from a fabric store lamentably going out of business, but their passage is my gain. At one point (back when I owned a house), I had invested in a bunch of those office utility cabinets from, I think, Office Depot – five of them, put together by yours truly, just to have some shelving. My reaction, these days, for my wardrobe (which is what happens when you move with No Furniture) is to go see what the professionals use, and buy that – that is, for storing my hats, I bought hatracks from hooksandracks.com; I will be buying a belt rack from them for storing my belts, and I will be buying a bag rack for storing my various bags; I’ll be coughing up for their heavy-duty mobile clothing racks for my clothes. Is it possible they would be useful in this instance?
    You said they couldn’t store their product on hangers; however, I’m looking at those handles and thinking they look as if they could be stored on bag hangers. Below are links to two different types of bag hangers: a floor unit, and grid-mounted (wall, etc.) units.

    http://www.garment-racks-slatwall-fixtures-gridwall-hooks-displays.com/cgi-bin/shop.pl/SID=1166462357.20216/page=8strack.htm or
    http://www.garment-racks-slatwall-fixtures-gridwall-hooks-displays.com/cgi-bin/shop.pl/SID=1166462357.20216/page=gridwall-hooks-brackets.htm ?

  3. Carissa says:

    What about having shelves built that provides shelves which are the exact height of the product? The shelves could be as shallow as one or two packages. They could line them up like books on a bookshelf and if they had a small sticker on the bottom side of the bag that gave size/style info or was color coded, they could find what they need at a glance.
    My husband and I have stuff made custom by carpenters all the time. The stuff turns out perfect for the job, although rough and ugly to save money. It’s actually very affordable- sometimes cheaper than buying something similar and definitely more sturdy.

    just a thought?

  4. jocole says:

    i use grid panels to make cube-shelving, (http://www.carlson-store-fixtures.com/catalog/default.php?cPath=31_168_177)

    i dont have a lot of inventory so it works for me right now, i cube for each size and color (the first column is for xs, the next for s, etc, and the top is for white, the second from top is for black, etc.) i dont have them too high, and the lower cubes i use for things that i dont need often (who wants to get down that low anyways?)

    they really are the perfect size for me, and you can build and make it bigger and smaller for your needs. it works for me.

    when i worked in a custom swimwear company, we used these and had 1 cube for every day (kinda set up like a calendar), so things that needed to be picked up by the 1st were in the first cube, etc. it made it easy to find what you were looking for. worked for a smaller company anyways.

  5. Babette says:

    I’m looking at the height of each individual shelf and thinking that a shelf in the middle would be closer to the product size. If it had a slide out drawer/bin this would still make for easy access.

  6. KV says:

    When I see those packages, I think of the (elasticated?) cargo nets that are found in back of minivans and SUVs. In order to avoid the jumble, one would have to have one type of product per individual netted area.

  7. Vesta says:

    Eric, I like the idea of organizing product by frequency. We currently organize alphabetically. When our pick list prints out, it’s organized alpha, and we walk up and down the aisles and shop in one pass. So one shipping session equals one complete walk of the inventory. We can all use the exercise, I suppose.

    Something occurred to me today while photographing our inventory to compare to Darien’s: her buckets are too tall for the shelves. If they were shorter, or the shelves were adjusted differently, someone could reach in and pick product without pulling the buckets out. For comparison, here are several pictures of our inventory, which comprises the same type of products:
    http://picasaweb.google.com/vestacious/EllarooOperations

    I sense that we are much happier with our setup than Darien is with hers. I think this may be why.

  8. I’m not a sewer, but a carpenter (sort of). I immediately thought about this IKEA product, the SORTERA box (ugly long URL made shorter):

    http://tinyurl.com/klj36

    It’s a stackable box, smaller that the ones pictured in the original post, but accessible without moving the box, because the lid sticks out. They hold small items pretty well end you don’t lose much space between the boxes and shelves. You can’t stack them too high, otherwise you can’t get stuff out, but you could have shelves above them with larger boxes with inventory to fill the plastic boxes when they run empty.

    You do need to live near an IKEA though, and especially in the U.S. that can be a problem.

  9. La BellaDonna says:

    In light of what Vesta mentioned, that Darien’s boxes are too tall, which is why the lids have to be taken off, what about the possibility of leaving the lids on (to cut down on dust accumulation), but cutting down the front parts of the existing boxes, on the same sort of plan as magazine storage bins? That way the stock would be visible and accessible.

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