Build Your Business:

Key Traits for Your Shipping & Receiving Departments

May 13, 2013

It’s no secret how important the receiving and shipping departments are to apparel decorators. In smaller companies, this could be the same person handling everything; in larger firms, teams of people could work in either.  

Of the two, I’m not sure which is more stressful. Receiving has to count the inventory to double-check that the stock is correct for orders, stage the goods, and try keep everything organized and the production crews happy. They often also handle the company’s pre-purchased inventory. Shipping plays “beat the clock” daily with freight pickups, and has to deal with drop-ships, RAs and foreign freight paperwork hassles. Both are usually on the short end of the stick with customer service, sales and production folks alike.

This article aims to review the personnel traits that make up good teams in your receiving and shipping departments, and outline a few tricks along the way.

This probably is the most beneficial trait for both departments. In either receiving or shipping, everything must have its exact place. Precision is your friend. Workflow and efficiency should dictate where items are staged, and tools should be within an arm’s reach at all times. In staffing, try to find people who are exact in how they do things. Folks that are happy with standardization, regimentation and following (and writing) procedures will do well. If you are a slob, your days probably are numbered.

1. Good customer service starts in the warehouse. How you handle the inventory says a lot about how you care for your customers. Everything should be immediately accessible, with accurate counts the day the goods arrive and cartons properly labeled.

2. Documentation such as packing slips, forms and reference materials should be filed away and ready to retrieve at a moment’s notice. This is important, as your customer service relies on this information to help resolve challenges with your client’s orders. Having the information at your fingertips allows you to converse with your clients on a solid foundation on how you are handling their order. “It’s around here somewhere” or “We lost it,” or any variation of these, is a client killer.

3. Inventory is basically piles of money in a box. Good, organized receiving and shipping departments understand this and treat it as such. Goods should be neatly folded in cartons, lids closed and uniquely labeled with pertinent information in the same spot on each box. A good trick for preprinted inventory is to make a full-color label with an image of the design on the shirt color with all the order and client information on it. This keeps you from opening boxes to find out what’s inside.

4. Another great trick is to stage all inventory by the last digit of the work order in your shop. Receiving should have rows for each number 0-9, and any partially received orders staged in each. When the goods come in to make it complete, the entire stock for that order is staged in the production line that is similarly set up. By using this system, anyone in the company can easily locate something if it’s put away and labeled correctly. Staging by the production date, vendor, client or any other method is fine, but can lead to double the work if something changes.

Accuracy and Accountability
Having an affinity for numbers and being able to quickly and accurately check in and count orders is a great trait to have for your receiving department. In shipping, the ability to look ahead on the production schedule and understand what’s headed down to shipping on a daily basis are great traits to have. Both departments depend on getting the job handled correctly the first time, and every time.

1. Your receiving team is your first line of defense for production staging. There’s nothing worse than setting up a job in production, only to realize that you are short some pieces. Nobody wants to run a job twice, so it’s critical that the receiving department be on their toes and report any inventory challenges quickly so they can be resolved. Every day that slips by is one more day that production won’t have to get something decorated before the ship date. If you verify your counts on the day the goods arrive, you won’t short-change yourself in production when you have to get more product in to make up for inventory issues.  As we all know by experience, production turn times are getting smaller and each day counts.

2. If the receiving team is your first line of defense, your shipping team is your last. They are the last people to physically touch an order before it leaves the building and heads to your client. It’s crucial that your job sheet have the shipping information for the order well before it lands in the shipping area. Any changes should be followed up well in advance of production, changed on the paperwork and in your system.

3. If you are reusing boxes, please remember to cover up or mark through with a marker all other shipping labels, barcodes or other references from the original shipment. You don’t want the “boomerang” effect on your shipment.

Like the trail of breadcrumbs from a children’s fable, paperwork is the path that will lead you home. For both receiving and shipping, your staff’s ability to read, fill out and understand paperwork is the key to success. Your customers, apparel distributors and freight vendors will have their own ways of doing things. Some do a great job, and everything is exactly detailed and makes perfect sense. For others, you will be lucky to get a packing slip that you can read and it might even be a hand scribbled note on a torn napkin (I’ve seen it!).

1. Keep your receiving packing slips in a daily or weekly folder. Write your order number on the slips that they go with and record any notes. Make sure your team handles these the same way. If you circle the quantities to indicate they are all there, then everyone else should do it the same way. Don’t have one person use check marks and another use a circle. Standardize your processes.

2. For outbound items, every order must have a packing slip from you that matches perfectly with what’s shipping — even if it’s just one piece going out. No exceptions. The packing list should match what was produced on your order, and match specifically with each size, color and decorated item for the order. You can place these inside the box or fold them neatly in the clear envelope that goes on the outside of the box. As long as the packing slip is included, the method isn’t important. However, whatever you choose, do it the same way every time.

3. If you have good staff in your production area, they can make the packing slip for you when they record the production counts and mark the job complete in your system. This saves the shipping department valuable time, as they only have to worry about the actual freight end of shipping, not the actual counts.

Hustle and Work Rhythm
Both receiving and shipping have their daily work rhythms that they stick to on a daily basis. Good staff members adjust their collective effort and hustle when the workload increases or a complicated order arrives.

1. Receiving handles incoming freight all morning, and then gets everything counted and sorted before they go home. Rush orders or critical jobs need to be checked in first. Good staff members keep a mental note on what’s coming in and when something arrives for a key project, they will make sure it gets the attention it needs.

2. For shipping, RAs and other paperwork usually are handled in the morning and, as production finishes, job items are shipped and stacked for pickup. A well-oiled shipping department will know exactly what’s due to ship daily and be looking out for each order. If your team is proactive, they will communicate all day with your production staff regarding the status of orders and estimated times they will be ready. If they are doing their jobs correctly, there should be no surprises at the end of the day.

Really great receiving and shipping teams have awesome communication skills. They send e-mails, texts or place phone calls immediately when something isn’t right and have the ability to explain the situation clearly, succinctly and without drama.

1. Both teams have to talk to customers, vendors and your own staff constantly. Look for people who can get the message across in a friendly, direct manner. Humor and personality will go a long way. Both departments usually are under a lot of stress and have to manage situations for the good of your company.

2. Both departments have to do a good bit of writing. E-mails, notes, requests or other documentation are all forms of communication. Any misspelled words or other incorrect verbiage in your correspondence can be seen in a negative light. Remember these two words: “Spell Check.”

3. Regardless of the communication method used, the receiving and shipping departments need to include as much detail and information as possible. A good idea is to not only relay the information about the situation to the right person, but also to try to anticipate their questions and answer them, if possible. This saves a lot of valuable time and makes your team appear more professional.

Physically Fit and Smart in How They Move
Let’s face it: Both departments essentially move boxes all day, every day. The average apparel box weight is about 35 pounds. If you think about all the boxes each team picks up, moves, opens, closes and handles daily, it easily could add up to several tons per worker.

1. Smart team members know to let the equipment help with the lifting. Dollies, hand trucks, pallet jacks and forklifts should be used as much as possible. Many shops use roller systems to move boxes into and out of staging or shipping areas. Shipping a pallet? You can get a pallet scale and weigh the whole thing rather than weighing each box individually and then doing some math.

2. “Lift with your legs, not with your back” should be emphasized every day. If forklifts are being used, only certified personnel should be allowed to operate the equipment. This rule should not only apply to your staff, but to your vendors as well. This means truck drivers shouldn’t load or unload their trailers with your equipment; you should be doing this for them.

The best teams in these departments constantly have a “Let’s-get-it-done” attitude. They know from long experience that you never know what’s coming, and you’d better clear the work as quickly and accurately as possible.

1. A great attitude toward work, learning and being a professional is something to look for when hiring or cross training for these departments. Of any trait listed above, this one is the most important, as the others could possibly come with training. Look for bright people that are driven to accomplish things quickly, accurately and correctly.

2. Great teams aren’t composed of martyrs. They know to look ahead and to ask for help when needed. It’s a team effort and if everyone pulls together, the work will get accomplished.

In a nutshell, the receiving and shipping teams play extremely crucial roles in your company’s success. Attention to detail and handling routine tasks in a timely manner can keep your costs down and customers happy. Mistakes can quickly chew through a lot of money, so it’s imperative that your team understand their role and how important task execution can be.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.