Here’s How Fulfillment Centers Make Shipping Stupid By Making It Smart

underfilledboxWe received a letter from J., who designs order fulfillment systems for a living. We would call him a “Stupid Shipping Gang Kingpin,” but that’s not really fair: he says that he does his best to make the system less stupid. The problem, J. explains, is that “sometimes the smart way to do things and the common sense way to do things seem at odds with each other.”

Now, my mother always taught me that common sense was the only kind of sense you need, but that’s apparently not so in shipping fulfillment. What seems like comical, wasteful overpackaging to you or me is how things are supposed to work on J’s end. Why’s that?

Many warehouses aren’t designed to send you just one of something. Look at yesterday’s post about Sears shipping a mini wrench in a box that could have fit dozens more. There’s a very good reason for that enormous box: rollers.


J. writes:

For a box to roll on a conveyor, it has to be over at least 3 rollers at all times or it will get stuck. So if you take the spacing between two rollers and double it, you get something very important in warehouse language, minimum conveyable box size, usually 2″ or 3″ centers depending on the industry. If you’ve ever noticed that all of the tiny things shipped in boxes way too big seem to have boxes that are about 6″ by 8″ on the bottom, now you know why. If you sent that wrench from the article around the warehouse in a padded envelope or smaller box, it never would have made it

If you can’t picture what he’s talking about, here are some images.

The brains behind the Stupid Shipping Gang are computers. Even if the person packing a box knows better, the computer doesn’t. In this case of a cat toy in a massive box, J. notes that the feather on a stick is so long that it would be difficult to find any box in the proper size.


“That cat toy looks like it is probably 28″ long, which is pretty long. You need something with at least one dimension that length to fit it,” he notes.

The computers can be really stupid. Well, okay, but what about the unfathomably stupid case where a vendor shipped a cardboard box that contained only a paper coupon?

Inside the Box

This makes perfect sense, J. says, as long as you are a shipping fulfillment computer.

There are some instances of the stupid shipping gang that are unexcused, and I’ll bet you thought this was one. However, it actually makes perfect sense. I’ll bet those whiteboards are shippable [in their original packaging]. So when the computer gets the order, it goes, I need whiteboards that can ship by themselves and one box to hold the rest of the stuff on the order, which in this case is only the [coupon].

It’s only obnoxious because he didn’t buy anything that would go in a “packed” box. If he had it would have just been thrown in with everything else and never would have made it to [Consumerist].

Worse, maybe the person packing the boxes couldn’t spare the time to ask a supervisor whether this was such a great idea because it would affect their quotas.

It’s easier to trace a lost item in its own box. Regarding our 2013 post that featured 93 iPads shipped in separate boxes, J. says that there’s a very good reason for this madness: when each separate item has its own tracking number, it’s a lot easier to research what went wrong if one iPad goes missing.


“There are a lot of people out there who will try to say that you short shipped them and not pay,” he writes. “This gives Apple something to fall back on.” Compared to the cost of a new iPad, even before Apple’s own markup, the few dollars it would cost for a box and shipping is “cheap insurance,” he says.

Okay, but there’s still no excuse for shipping 50 boxes of crayons in separate boxes.

This is just one of the 50 boxes, each containing a single pack of crayons that awaited a customer. Scroll down to see all the boxes. (Reddit)

This is just one of the 50 boxes, each containing a single pack of crayons that awaited a customer. (Reddit)

Yes, the Stupid Shipping Gang is still stupid, but it does help us to understand why comical overpackaging happens.

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