The Problem Operations Managers Don’t Talk About

The metric most important to Operations Managers is per unit cost.  This is the cost for the company to pick and pack one unit destined to an end customer.  For instance, when you order a t-shirt from a website, this cost represents the amount the company pays to grab it off the shelf, scan it, and put it into a box.

To simplify, the main drivers of unit costs are the amount of labor you use to fulfill an order and the amount of fixed costs required to operate.  There are smaller line items such as forklift leases, software licenses, and supplies, but labor and rent are really the areas most managers should focus to move the needle.

(Labor Costs + Rent Costs )/ # of Units Shipped = cost per unit

This is not a unique observation.  Operations managers are already obsessed with labor spend.  A good distribution center will have numerous concurrent projects going on focused on how to produce more shipments with less labor. These projects include time studies, trying to smooth out order peaks, and reorganizing where items are stored to minimize walking times.

Rent costs, however, rarely creep into the conversation of driving costs down.  This is mainly because Operations managers (I’m speaking from experience here) view the monthly rent payment as something that can’t be moved or changed.  It is perceived as being fixed.

The amount spent on warehouse rents is not trivial.  Warehouses can range in size from 5K sq ft to 1M sq ft.  Companies in Southern California are paying 60 cents to $1 per sq ft per month for warehouse space and rates will continue to rise.   Compounding the problem is that the amount of space required to run an ecommerce business will also grow.  In fact, one recent article suggests that warehouses are now 143% bigger than before due to the unique requirements of ecommerce fulfillment.

The problem is that as a business you are often not utilizing all of the space you have leased.  Warehouse leases are long (5 – 20 years) and companies lease the space they will grow into over time; they do not lease space for their business today.  This means there is often empty space at the beginning of these leases.  Similarly, sales forecasts are seasonal or volatile, which means warehouses operate at max capacity for a few months but have idle space throughout the year.  A traditional sublease does not work in these situations.

In the face of rising rents on larger amounts of space, not considering rent as something to be optimized is the equivalent of leaving money on the table.

Simply put, it’s time to start talking about this and there are tools, such as Flowspace, now to help businesses turn warehouse space into a variable cost and monetize empty space in their buildings.

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