(This is a guest post from our friends at Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment service provider with warehouses across the United States.)
Since the end of June, warehouse managers and fulfillment company leaders have walked around looking much paler than usual, and it’s not just because we’re spending more hours than ever getting your eCommerce purchases to you on time.
On June 30, Last Week Tonight took a shot across the bow at warehouses, specifically the working conditions in eCommerce fulfillment centers. While they targeted the industry giant, it’s our business model too. The horrid working conditions that they described do exist, but they’re not the norm from our experience.
Since no one wants to be lumped in with a bad business, especially when things just aren’t true or standard practices, we wanted to take a moment and correct the record a little. Last Week Tonight didn’t get Red Stag Fulfilment right, and the show probably didn’t get your warehouse right either.
Some of our competitors are amazing too, so we expect the show shortchanged them as well. If you permit us, we want to talk about how fulfillment companies (especially us eCommerce brands) like to treat our staff, and why this is important to keep thinking about now. And, since we’re fair, we’ll even mention why John Oliver focusing on the industry can be a wonderful thing for many warehouse workers in the U.S.
Culture shapes action and activities
There are a lot of pieces out that talk about the conditions of warehouses, so right now we want to look a little higher than that.
Every business succeeds when it’s customers and employees are happy. It’s that simple of a concept, but its execution can be difficult. However, it’s worth the investment.
For us, specifically, a cultural commitment to both is fundamental. Red Stag pays our clients for any inaccurate, damaged, or late shipments, making our workforce a critical piece to successful operations. We push people to be accurate 99.9% of the time, meaning every step gets checked and rechecked before anything goes out the door.
That’s a complicated process, and hurrying people along inherently creates mistakes. By giving our team the time they need — and making it easy for them to let us know when they need more or less time for certain types of orders — we can help address it.
Other warehouses that prioritize speed above all else need complex returns policies and capabilities. For us, that doesn’t make sense because of the increased work in handling returns and the added costs we pay our clients when we make a mistake.
On top of that, our business model is to handle the eCommerce fulfillment for companies shipping large, heavy products. So, robots can’t run the show. Automation for us is about small processes and scanning, but not the main work of the warehouse. While businesses like Amazon can’t wait for the day when they can have robots handling every aspect of the fulfillment process, this will never be the case for Red Stag Fulfillment.
To be competitive for customers and make our business welcoming to employees, that means being reasonable and thankful for the demanding work our people will always do. Thankfully, they see it, and even our customers can see how much pride our staff takes in their work.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without great warehouse teams.
Employee Job Satisfaction Should Be an Industry Focus
Anyone running an eCommerce company knows that your people matter. We’ve all seen situations where low wages or stressful work environments lead to high turnover, low morale, and they can cause product loss in a variety of ways in some warehouses.
Unfortunately, there’s so much ongoing outsourcing in the eCommerce space; not every business looks at workers and thinks about how they’re treated. Companies going with the lowest up-front cost fulfillment options aren’t thinking about the warehouse staff being squeezed so that the fulfillment company’s razor-thin margins are possible.
Understaffed and overworked, they’re usually a cheap option, but never the best.
What’s heartening since Oliver’s June 30th show is the discussions we’re having and hearing about, concerning workers and how much fulfillment companies (and their staff) are fighting back against any type of broad characterization.
Red Stag was able to create a list of the best order fulfillment service companies based on the companies we refer customers too when they’re not a good fit for us. There are many, many options for companies to work with great fulfillment brands who are committed to their clients and their employees.
But no matter who you work with, it’s essential to take a minute and think about those fulfillment and warehouse teams. They’re working behind-the-scenes to keep other companies running smoothly and effectively. Most only think about them when something goes wrong. However, warehouse workers keep every eCommerce business running smoothly when things are going right.
If you’re an eCommerce seller, then your customers aren’t going to think much about warehouse staff, especially if you outsource. So, you’ve got to be the one who thinks about it and decides to work with companies who treat their employees well. At the same time, we fulfillment companies need to do the same for our partners and our staff. When everyone in the industry is taking time to choose partners who provide reliable wages and enjoyable working conditions, we can help avoid this type of negative coverage by making sure everyone knows it is the exception and not a rule.
Like many fulfillment companies around the U.S., the rise in eCommerce means we’re growing and hiring. If you’re looking for a new partner, we suggest you look at their hiring page. Check out things like this recruitment video to see how employees talk about the work. Seek referrals from your business partners. Ask around as much as you can.
Things you can use to vet a warehouse when visiting to see how its employees are treated include:
- Are their enough bathrooms? Are they accessible, and do you see people going into them during the trip?
- Peek inside and see if the bathrooms are clean. This shows a commitment to caring about the people that goes beyond words.
- Are workers moving at a brisk but not unreasonable pace? Warehouses get hot, and you should expect to see some sweat, but no one should look like they’re approaching heat stroke territory.
- Do the employees have time to pick up and clean? Not seeing this is dangerous for them walking around and can be a sign that no one feels like they have a moment to stop and breathe.
- Is the breakroom nice and are people using it to take a break?
- How are people talking about work when you’re around, especially if they’re speaking with each other?
Workers deserve dignity, and your 3PL partner should showcase that. Even if they’re not the right fit for your business or your final decision, it’s essential for us all to see it and demand it even during RFP periods.
Why we’re thankful for Last Week Tonight’s Coverage
In the immediate moments after the episode aired, there was a collect panic in warehouse operations around the U.S. Had we all just been called the bad guy and become the new group everyone would love to hate online?
If we’re honest, it took a bit for that feeling to go away. Then, something we would’ve never guessed happened: we were glad that his sarcastic focus was turned on the warehousing industry.
John Oliver and Last Week Tonight are popular. They’ve won a ridiculous number of awards, have millions tune in each weekend, and roughly 7.1 million subscribers on YouTube. The warehouse video alone has more than 5.6 million views. Vox says Oliver has taken the mantle of “chief comedy news influencer” and we’ve seen him directly impact policy in a variety of ways.
It is incredible for our industry that Oliver took a look at us. While we don’t think he’s right about our warehouse, we’ve all heard countless stories about warehouses for major eCommerce giants that put metrics above people. Many of the stories are too frustrating to talk about here, but they’re just a short Google away.
Oliver’s focus will likely lead to improvements at some locations with poor working conditions. They can also spur continued growth and investment in the space at large that will strengthen all eCommerce operations, and that’s something everyone can look forward to now.
We look forward to the next episode and hope we can lead to a future update about how the warehouse industry is putting its employees first.
About the Author
Jake Rheude is the Director of Business Development & Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment service provider with warehouses across the United States. Red Stag Fulfillment was born out of a successful eCommerce store when two entrepreneurs couldn’t find a high-quality fulfillment partner to handle the company’s growth. By taking an innovative approach to how an eCommerce fulfillment service should operate, Red Stag was born to meet the needs of other online stores aiming for world-class levels of customer satisfaction and retention.