Preface: Its Not As Simple As You Think!
Many Americans like cheap and fast shipping that bring the newest and greatest products directly to their doorstep, but few stop to wonder, "How does it get there?" Sure, most know their local mailman, but he's just one part of what is a complex network of various businesses, software, and processes that help your package get from your computer screen to your door.
Step 1: Placing Your Order
When you hit the checkout button on your online shopping cart, you begin a long and complicated fulfillment process. This simple action begins a countdown that online retailers and sellers to get their products from a warehouse shelf to your door. Some fulfillment centers have daily order cutoff times to deal with the volume of orders needed to ship same day.
Step 2: Order Compilation
Your information, such as the item you ordered, your address, phone number, and the expected delivery date is sent from the online retailer to the individual or company that sold the product. From here, your order is compiled often via software or spreadsheets with other orders from the day to be sent to the warehouse where your newly purchased item is stored.
Step 3: The Pick
When your order data arrives in the warehouse, your order is usually placed into a queue based on the estimated delivery date. When your item is next in the queue it appears on an electronic pick list to help a warehouse employee locate the item. Software will guide the employee through the pick process for maximum efficiency based upon the warehouse layout. When the employee locates the item, it is placed into a tote to separate your order from other orders that are also being picked. These totes are often on carts and will be transported to a packing station, or staging area, to be processed.
Step 4: The Pack
When the tote containing your item reaches the packing station, it is often placed on a conveyor belt or rollers to be placed in the queue for order processing. When the item reaches the packer, numerous tasks have to be completed. Your order has to be placed in a size appropriate box, envelope, or mailer and packed with bubble wrap or other packing supplies to prevent movement. The box is then sealed shut with any receipts, inserts, or marketing materials. The package is finally weighed and measured to ensure the proper postage is purchased to ensure your item arrives on time.
Step 5: SHIP!
Shipping is the final step handled in the initial warehouse. Your package is then sorted based on the carrier (e.g. FedEx, UPS, USPS, DHL, etc). Once sorted, the groups of packages are moved to a shipping dock(s) and are picked up by the corresponding carrier.
Step 6: Re-Sort & Transfer
When your package arrives at one of the carrier's distribution hubs, it is once again sorted, but this time based on destination. Packages are also reweighed and measured through special equipment. The package is loaded onto a truck and moved to a different hub closer to its final destination. There can be multiple transfers or sorts. This is most of the activity you see on the carrier's tracking lookup page.
Step 7: Your Door
When your item arrives at a hub near its final destination, it is loaded onto a local delivery vehicle to make the final leg of the trip to your door step. Your local delivery driver or mail person then delivers the package to your door and completes the shipping process. Sometimes, FedEx or UPS hands off packages to USPS to do the final delivery. Any delivery instructions, such as signature required, are handled by the final delivery driver.
While some of these processes are managed slightly different in fulfillment centers, the basics are the same!