Preparing Your Distribution Center For The Holiday Rush

Preparing for the holidays every year is challenging. This year, distribution center managers have to consider the role that COVID-19 plays in every aspect of operations.
Preparing for the holidays every year is challenging. This year, distribution center managers have to consider the role that COVID-19 plays in every aspect of operations.

Preparing Your Distribution Center For The Holiday Rush

Preparing for the holidays every year is challenging. This year, distribution center managers have to consider the role that COVID-19 plays in every aspect of operations.

Preparing Your Distribution Center For The Holiday Rush

By Jonathan Bodow and Jeff St. George

The COVID-19 pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. And for distribution center operators, it can feel like everyone else has had a chance to catch their breath while you’ve been running nonstop. Since the pandemic began, consumers have relied on online shopping to purchase many of the goods they need and want. With the holiday season approaching, e-commerce sales are expected to grow dramatically. Deloitte expects holiday retail e-commerce to increase by 25-35% compared to the same period in 2019.¹

Preparing for the holidays every year is challenging enough. This year, distribution center managers have to consider the role that COVID-19 plays in every aspect of operations. From hiring, to training, to day-to-day facility operations, distribution center operators have their hands full. Rely on best practices to address the new challenges you face.

distribution center
Photo: ABM

Reinforcing Your Safety Program

Safety is always an important concern in distribution centers and COVID-19 has made it more complex. You have to add physical distancing and disinfection practices on top of your existing safety program. Steel-toe boots and goggles are just as important as employee temperature screenings and regular disinfection. To effectively address these new challenges, you need a disinfection program that’s comprehensive in its scope. Periodically disinfecting surfaces is an important component, but there’s much more to consider.

If you haven’t had a chance to assess your facility to ensure you’re incorporating every aspect of an effective program, start now. An assessment will give you a chance to establish your plans for hand hygiene, routine disinfection of surfaces, and broader disinfection of the whole space. You can also use this time to identify HVAC maintenance practices that can further improve building health.

Facility services staff or vendors and your distribution center employees both play an important part in creating a healthy environment. Your existing staff has probably already adopted social distancing and healthy hand hygiene practices. Ideally, new employees should fall in lock-step with current employees. To ensure that everyone is consistent, consider providing training on reducing the spread of infection for all employees, whether it’s part of their onboarding or a refresher.

If you use signage to promote proper handwashing and social distancing, now’s a good time to replace any signs that have faded or become damaged. And if you don’t use signage, consider it. With an influx of new employees, the additional reinforcement of your training can’t hurt.

Diligence Beats Efficiency

As you plan for labor, keep in mind that you won’t necessarily have the same level of flexibility as you did in previous years. Many high-performing distribution centers utilize employee cross-training to improve operating efficiency. Cross-trained employees may pick orders for the first half of their shift and then perform cleaning tasks for the other half. As a result, facility management can prevent overstaffing and still have the flexibility to allocate resources where they’re needed.

Cross-training employees is still a smart, cost-saving strategy, but COVID-19 limits how much you’ll be able to cross-utilize cleaning employees. In the past, you may have been able to pull an employee away from a cleaning task to address a bottleneck somewhere else in the facility. Now, the risk associated with that choice is too great. An effective disinfection program is rigorous and visible. Even a task as simple as restroom stocking must be performed on schedule, every time. A well-stocked restroom promotes healthy hand hygiene and demonstrates to employees that you’re taking building wellness seriously.

Proactively Maintaining Labor Pipeline

Increased consumer demand and stricter maintenance protocols put intense pressure on your ability to attract and retain good employees. A high unemployment rate doesn’t necessarily make the hiring process easier. Distribution centers are under immense pressure this year, and many seasonal workers may not be qualified to meet the demands of your facility. Also, absenteeism is higher than usual due to employees having to quarantine when they’ve potentially been exposed to the virus or stay home to assist with their children’s distance learning.

The solution is to build a solid pipeline of candidates and actively maintain it throughout the holiday season. There are a number of best practices you can employ to keep up with labor pressures. For instance, you can start your recruitment efforts by identifying candidates seeking supplemental income. Employees who already have a primary source of income are more likely to accept shorter shifts that vary week to week.

Setting realistic expectations can also help ensure you attract the right employees. At the beginning of the application process, communicate clear timeframes with fixed and limited length assignments. Offer competitive pay, rewards, and acknowledgement upon successful completion of the assignment. This gives candidates the chance to make an informed choice about whether to continue the application process or look for a different opportunity.

A strong employee brand can make all the difference in your recruiting efforts right now. Build your visibility in the community by marketing yourself as a company with an attractive culture and compensation package. And since candidates are concerned about safety, include details on your disinfection program and social distancing practices to assuage their concerns. Recruiting and retention is a time-consuming task, and you may find that an external vendor has the bandwidth and existing bench to staff your facility adequately.

The Silver Lining

There’s no putting it mildly; this holiday season will be particularly challenging. But times like these often lead to lasting change. The new practices you implement this year will likely become a part of your permanent operations in 2021 and beyond. There’s a lot of talk about how uncertain these times are. The silver lining is that we’ll come out on the other side knowing a lot more than we did before.

By embracing best practices around safety, human resources, and disinfection, you may find your distribution center facility operates more effectively after this holiday season than it has in the past.


Bodow is an enterprise vice president, retail distribution at ABM, a leading provider of facility services, managing the company’s janitorial and warehouse support performance for a Fortune 100 e-commerce warehouse operator. He has extensive experience with janitorial, sustainability, and complex staffing projects.


St. George is director of enterprise solutions, retail distribution at ABM. He has 15 years of experience designing customized facilities services solutions for clients across multiple industries and nearly six years with specific focus on retail distribution clients. He has an understanding of the nuances, industry-specific needs, and criticality retail distribution clients face every day.

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