General Warehousing and Storage

SIC 4225

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in the warehousing and storage of a general line of goods. The warehousing of goods at foreign trade zones is discussed under SIC 4226: Special Warehousing and Storage, Not Elsewhere Classified. Field warehousing is found under SIC 7389: Business Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

The U.S. Census Bureau reported 10,448 warehouse and storage facilities operating in the United States in 2008 with employment of 577,851 workers who earned annual wages of nearly $21 billion. California led the nation with 1,277 warehouse and storage facilities employing 63,379 workers followed by Texas with 889 warehouse and storage facilities employing 43,291 workers. Additionally, there were 14,835 miniwarehouses and self-storage units with industry-wide employment of 37,924 workers who earned annual wages of an estimated $924 million. The majority of operations were centered in California, Texas, and Florida.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 County Business Patterns, there were more than 9,000 warehouse establishments operating in the United States. The trend was toward providing additional "value-added" services besides storage, including kitting services (grouping individual items together for shipment), labeling, and returns management. As such, many warehouses became providers of logistics services. According to the research firm Armstrong & Associates, in 2004 there were 76 third-party logistics providers in the United States who operated 3,972 warehouses with a total of 477 million square feet. The U.S. commercial warehouse industry was valued at an estimated $25.7 billion. General warehousing generated approximately 65 percent of revenues, specialized goods warehousing 14 percent, refrigerated storage 10 percent, farm products 6 percent, and household goods 6 percent.

Operating between shippers and carriers, companies engaged in the general warehousing business were third parties in the transportation industry. These businesses provide a variety of transportation and distribution services in addition to storage. As the industry entered the new millennium, large general warehousing companies offered value-added services ranging from customer billing to salvage and scrap disposal, and were marketing themselves as logistics services providers rather than as storage companies. Logistics, a term the transportation industry borrowed from the military, refers to all phases of the distribution process. Logistics-related services were provided by various industries including public warehouses, parcel express, and freight transport.

The miniwarehouse and self-storage sector was highly diversified, with several national and regional chains such as Amerco's U-Haul Storage, Public Storage, Inc., Shurgard Storage Centers, Inc., and Storage USA. According to the Self-storage Association, which represents more than 6,000 member companies in the United States, the U.S. self-storage industry generates $22.6 billion in revenues and had more than 51,000 primary facilities in 2007 with 2.2 billion square feet of rentable space. During 2008 self-storage revenues fell to $20 billion with 16,000 employees, a direct result of the staggering economy. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a total of 46,000 primary facilities in the United States by 2009 years end with a total of 2.22 billion square feet of rentable space.

Organization and Structure

General warehousing companies received and shipped goods on behalf of their customers, serving as middlemen in the transportation process and a vital part of the logistics business. Although some of the large general warehousing companies operated their own trucking fleets, normally an independent carrier was used to transport the goods. The carrier was chosen either by the customer or by the warehouse operator, who then acted as the customer's agent.

Like most transportation-related businesses, the general warehouse industry was well organized on a national level. Four trade associations, Affiliated Warehouse Companies, Allied Distribution, American Chain of Warehouses, and American Warehouse Association, founded in 1953, 1933, 1911, and 1891, respectively, maintained national networks for marketing, sales, and industry lobbying. Because this industry operated between the vast manufacturing industry and the powerful transport industry, national organization was critical to the preservation of its own interests.

Competitive Structure.
Although a few multiregional companies dominated the general warehousing business, dozens of medium and small companies operated throughout the country. Entry into this industry was relatively easy for businesses proposing to operate locally; expanding demand and low start-up costs encouraged new entrants. In fact, from 1988 to 1993 the number of firms in the industry nearly tripled. In the mid-1990s warehouse expenditures declined because of lowered costs of data processing equipment, furniture, and overhead labor. Self-storage companies found the conditions particularly inviting. Public and contract warehouse operators involved in logistics, however, faced an increasingly competitive environment in which service and technology were critical to success.

Although expanding demand and relatively low barriers to entry encouraged new entrants, competition for national market share was strong. Once a shipper chose a warehouse operator, especially one that offered logistics support, a strong relationship developed, and the cost of switching to another warehouse operator was high. Expanding market share, therefore, was difficult. The largest firms faced competition from national trucking companies and specialized distribution services in the logistics sector. In the warehouse sector, these companies competed with manufacturers' in-house storage operations. To gain market share, the national operators invested heavily in technology to differentiate their services.

Background and Development

General warehouses have operated in the United States since colonial days. Located in major ports such as Boston, these early warehouses were used as repositories for goods being shipped to and from England. These warehouses served as temporary housing for the exports of raw materials, such as cotton, and imports such as finished goods like textiles.

It was not until the completion of the railroad trunk lines around 1860 that warehouses began to move from the port cities into the nation's interior. During this time, industry was developing in the northeastern states, and the western farmlands were producing corn and wheat for consumption in the East and for export.

General warehouses grew with the nation's economy. As production techniques became more efficient, finished goods were produced faster, allowing manufacturers to develop inventories that required storage. Manufacturers that could not afford to maintain a warehouse paid a public warehouse operator to store finished products and raw materials. Often, manufacturers would ship their products to and from warehouses at major railroad terminals.

From its inception, the primary function of the general warehouse industry was storage. During the twentieth century, however, the transportation industry became more complex. Manufacturers faced several regulations regarding interstate shipping and had to choose between hundreds of transport companies in the truck, rail, and airfreight transport business. Moreover, the deregulation of trucking in the early 1980s caused an explosion in the number of companies providing truck services. As the transportation landscape became more difficult to navigate, shippers turned to warehouse operators for more services including the arrangement of freight distribution.

The increased reliance on warehouse operators for services other than storage prompted some warehouses to diversify into different transportation areas. After deregulation of the truck business, for example, some warehouses operated private trucking fleets used for distribution. Others became involved in combining small shipments of freight from various shippers into truckload shipments. These types of services were more typical of freight forwarders or transport companies than of general warehouse operators. At the same time, however, freight forwarders and truckers were offering storage services in addition to their primary functions.

Such overlap in services resulted in the emergence of the logistics industry. In fact, the various industries already providing logistics-related services were involved in a cooperative marketing campaign called "Think Logistics." The marketing effort was developed in the wake of research indicating that, according to Michael Jenkins, president of the American Warehouse Association, the "traditional lines between freight transportation and warehousing, or brokerage and warehousing, or even manufacturing and warehousing were beginning to blur." By the mid-1990s, many warehouse operators had developed from temporary caretakers of raw materials and finished goods into logistics experts.

The precarious position of the general warehouse operator, between shippers and carriers, was illustrated in the legislative battle over "carrier undercharge." Carrier undercharge occurred when truck companies quoted shippers lower freight rates than were prescribed by the various rate bureaus throughout the country and then failed to file the discounted tariffs with the rate bureaus. An undercharge crisis occurred in the early 1990s when many truck companies went bankrupt. During the reorganization or failure of these truck companies, it became clear that some carriers had charged rates that did not match those on file at the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In the wake of these discoveries, shippers were receiving bills for "carrier undercharge" from the trustees of the bankrupt truck companies. Often the undercharge bill arrived months or years after the freight was shipped.

By 1992, undercharge claims exceeded $30 billion. In cases in which warehouse operators arranged the transportation of a manufacturer's goods, the warehouse operator received the undercharge bill. At this point, the warehouse operator had to either risk sabotaging a business relationship by trying to recover the undercharge costs from the true shipper, his client, or pay the bill himself.

The undercharge debate raged in Congress for years. In 1993, Congress passed the Negotiated Rates Act, legislation that set procedures for resolving claims involving unfiled, negotiated transportation rates. The legislation favored shipper interests and included a subsection allowing the public warehouse to settle for 5 percent of the claim, with any disputes settled by the ICC.

The fact that the public warehouse industry was mentioned specifically in this legislation attested to its lobbying skills and highlighted the industry's ability to defend its interests. Had this legislation not been passed, warehouses were in a position to lose millions of dollars in undercharge payments and court battles related to the payments.

In the mid-1990s, co-ops become the latest trend among suppliers and distributors, as companies combined their resources into one network to take advantage of economies in transportation and warehousing. Most of their arrangements were made by suppliers or shippers through third parties. These types of arrangements benefited companies by reducing inventories, extending buying power, saving costs, improving service, and producing less paperwork.

The general warehousing industry was the beneficiary of corporate America's strategic responses to the 1989-90 recession. Corporate downsizing, inventory management, and increased customer service all became important competitive priorities as manufacturers struggled to turn a profit in a weak economy. General warehouse operators provided the services necessary for companies to employ these strategies.

Corporate Downsizing.
Faced with an increasingly competitive business environment and a weak economy, many large corporations underwent major downsizing during the early 1990s. As a result, operations not related to the core business of the corporation were eliminated. Often, these operations were connected with in-house storage and distribution. Many large manufacturing companies such as Eveready Battery Corp. considered public warehousing to be a cheaper and more efficient alternative to operating company-owned warehouses. Eveready switched to 100 percent public warehousing in the early 1990s; as a result, in 1992 Eveready estimated that it saved $2.1 million, at a cost of $1.4 million.

Mothercare, a 200-store maternity retailer, also switched from private to public warehousing during the early 1990s. Mothercare hired DMSI to handle its logistics, from arranging transportation into DMSI warehouses to distributing merchandise by means of the DMSI fleet. In New Jersey, general warehouse storage was booming in 1999, with more than 60,000 people employed in the industry in that state. Volkswagen, Barnes & Noble, Tommy Hilfiger, and Howmedica all had built distribution centers in New Jersey in the latter 1990s.

Also affecting the evolution: increased competition from alternative formats, such as mass merchandisers and warehouse clubs, caused food distributors to rethink and re-engineer their distribution strategies. For Fleming Companies of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the nation's largest supermarket distributor, this meant fundamentally reinventing its business. For years, Fleming had served as the "middle man" between product manufacturers and grocery store retailers. By 1996, it operated as a major distributor and supplier of virtually every national brand and high-volume private label, as well as a variety of general merchandise and full lines of perishables, including meats, dairy and delicatessen products, frozen foods, and fresh produce. By incorporating "Efficient Consumer Response" (ECR), Fleming repositioned itself as a value-added marketing and distribution company providing goods and services. ECR made it possible for customers to pick and choose which services they wanted and pay for only those used. In 1996, Fleming's sales topped $17 billion. That same year, Fleming had 41 supply centers nationwide, and 44,000 employees servicing more than 3,500 supermarkets in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and several foreign countries. It operated approximately 370 company-owned stores.

Inventory Management.
In addition to corporate downsizing, American businesses were eager to increase inventory turnover as a means of streamlining operations. As a result, Just-in-Time (JIT) inventory management was being used by more companies than ever before. In fact, logistics expert Robert V. Delaney of Cass Logistics estimated that by 2000 most deliveries from warehouses would be completed in 37 hours or less.

However, the successful execution of JIT required constant monitoring of inventory levels and flexibility on the part of shippers. JIT generally required more frequent, but smaller shipments of goods to and from warehouses. Public and contract warehouses were often better equipped than in-house warehouses to execute time-based inventory management. A critical advantage held by public warehouses was their ability to create economies of scale in distribution. In 1992, public contract warehouses shipped nearly two trillion pounds of product from their warehouses. With this volume, the warehouses often had more leverage than a small manufacturer with suppliers and carriers. The warehouse operator, therefore, could dictate the size and frequency of the shipment to meet JIT inventory requirements.

Furthermore, public warehouses could dedicate more resources to inventory management than would be efficient for some manufacturers. Expensive technology such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), bar coding, radio-frequency technology, scanners and specialized logistics software was critical to the successful implementation of JIT and prohibitively costly to some companies. Public warehouses, however, were able to spread the cost of this technology over many customers. By 1996, transport and logistics industries had become the world leaders in the use of advanced technologies such as EDI. USCO Distribution Services, of Naugatuck, Connecticut, for example, repaired personal computers, printers, and monitors for IBM. Some companies stated that they used public warehouses for service rather than storage.

The 1999 Annual Report published by Logistics Management & Distribution confirmed the shift to fewer but larger warehouse facilities. Warehousing costs, as a percentage of sales, rose 3.72 percent between 1997 and 1998. To compensate, warehouses began adding assembly, prepackaging and special labeling "value-added services" for their customers.

Respondents to a 1998 WERC member survey indicated that companies had decreased the number of warehouses in their networks by more than 2.5 percent for 1998 and expected to do the same in 1999. Manufacturing companies led the greatest decline, projecting a 23 percent decrease in the number of warehouses used (wholesalers predicted a slight increase).

New facilities in 1999 were estimated at 40 to 80 percent larger than existing warehouses. While this was expected to contain some of the rising costs, other factors could not be controlled. According to the 600-member International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA), labor, information technology, and ISO 9000 certification compliance remained key budget expenses at the end of the 1990s.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century warehouse construction was one of busiest segments of new construction in the United States. Warehouses are growing in size and their roles are changing. Cindy Dubin noted in Food Logistics, "As the supply chain evolves, so does the warehouse. With the new demands placed on warehousing, there's one certainty: The warehouse won't exist just to store inventory." Companies are beginning to move such duties as light manufacturing and returns management to warehouse sites.

Trends that were dominating the way warehouses structured their businesses in the twenty-first century included compression of time and operations, increased automation, continuous flow, and customized warehousing. Compression of time and operations focused on quick response and efficiency. As warehouses became bigger but fewer, more orders were filled on a daily basis, requiring a flawless materials management and tracking system. Although widespread use of advanced automation, such as robotics, remained for the future, increased automation, including an effective conveyor belt system, were expected to allow warehouses to better manage labor costs. Continuous flow offered customers smaller, more frequent shipments. What was once supplied quarterly or monthly was increasingly shipped out weekly or even daily, allowing retailers to keep inventory costs and to keep shelves stocked and rapidly restocked. Customized warehousing involved meeting specific and unique customer needs for such services as labeling and ticketing to process floor-ready merchandise.

In the mid-2000s many customers expected warehouses to do much more than simply store and ship good. Thus, value-added services were the focus of most major warehousing firms. Sara Pearson Specter noted in Modern Materials Handling in October 2004 that there was "an across-the-board expansion of valued-added service offerings to meet demand for increased customization of orders." Value-added offerings included kitting and pick-and-pack service, light manufacturing or subassembly, hazmat services, reverse logistics, and returns management. Globalization of the marketplace was also affecting the industry as customers were increasing requesting international traffic management services.

According to Armstrong & Associates, while public warehouses generated 30 percent of their income from basic packaging and labeling and another 21 percent from sorting and palletization, kitting accounting for only 3 percent of revenues and inventory management, only 4.6 percent. On the other hand, kitting, pick-and-pack, and labeling services accounted for 19 percent contract-based warehousing of revenues and logistics-based functions such as customization, subassembly, reverse logistics, and returns accounted for about 40 percent of revenues.

By 2005 the top 25 North American commercial warehouse operations were owned by third-party logistics providers. These providers operated on a contract basis with their customers, with contracts normally averaging three to five years, although they could be as short a one year or as long as seven.

After suffering through the economic recession of the early 2000s, third-party commercial warehouses saw significant recovery beginning in 2003. According to the consulting firm Accenture, 83 percent of major U.S. manufacturers used third-party logistics services in 2003, up from 65 percent in the previous year. As a sign of increased manufacturing and commercial activity, vacancy rates at warehousing facilities declined.

With the warehouse and logistics industry so competitive, operators found themselves spending more money up front in building costs in the mid-2000s to make their facilities more efficient in addition to larger than previous versions. To increase flexibility, more facilities are incorporating convertible rooms even though it adds initial cost. For a room to handle a temperature range of 20 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, it needs larger evaporators and more complex compressors at substantial cost. Furthermore, facilities have opted for a greater number of dock doors to handle greater volume as well as to limit temperature variance, and shipping and receiving dock configurations have gotten deeper to allow for better staging and organizing areas. "Ten years ago, a 20-foot dock would be pretty common, but today we're seeing 50- and 60-foot docks," Chuck Taylor, senior vice president of the refrigeration division of The Stellar Group in Jacksonville, Florida, told Refrigerated & Frozen Foods in December 2006.

The self-storage sector, which suffered low demand and overcapacity during the early 2000s, remained highly diversified in the mid-2000s. Of the more than 51,000 self-storage units across the country in 2007, U-Haul, with about 1,000 units, was considered a major player. Although some of the demand had returned to the market, overbuilding had resulted in rental rate declines, which cut into profits. Many establishments ran specials, such as the first month rent-free promotion. Another concern in the industry was on the high price of steel, which nearly doubled during 2004, with high prices extending well into 2005.

One subsection of self-storage that was finding new opportunities for growth was the high-end storage centers. Once placed in out-of-the-way locations, self-storage owners began moving uptown. According to The New York Times, 60 percent of the users of self-storage space in 2006 were homeowners, with the other 40 percent made up of small businesses or individuals who lease space for commercial reasons. To catch the eye of these consumers, operators have sought locations near major highways and busy intersections to become visible from commuter trains and passing cars.

Current Conditions

Throughout the late 2000s, warehousing firms endured one of the worst global economic downturns in U.S. history. Total capacity of the leading 20 third-party logistics contract and public warehousing firms totaled 514 million square feet in 2010, 14 million less than the 528 million feet reported in 2009, a reflection of a stagnant economy. In fact, warehouse construction contracted as 8,000 commercial warehouses comprising 31 markets of available space sat idle as the economic downturn lingered. Thus, vacancy rates in the prime warehousing markets reached 11.1 percent in 2009, an increase over 6.5 percent in 2008. Phoenix, Arizona and Louisville, Kentucky had the highest vacancy rate with 17.1 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively.

In the meantime, warehouse firms put cost-cutting measures in place, such as trimming their workforce. "Many companies are doing more with less man hours and others are investing in automation to save on labor down the road" In fact, those firms with automation in place prior to the downturn were holding their own despite the rough business climate.

Following a difficult 2008 and 2009, the combined revenues for contract and public warehousing were projected to reach $50 billion in 2010, a two percent increase over 2008, according to Armstrong & Associates. Moreover, the combined contract and public warehousing market represent 45 percent of the overall U.S. warehousing market.

According to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan claimed "materials handling is now the fastest-growing application segment for the robotics industry, in an article published in Modern Materials Handling, in June 2010.

According to the Self Storage Association, the industry boasted revenues of $20 billion in 2008 and employed 160,000 workers. "The two big reasons behind the declining revenues are an overbuilt market of storage units, and the economic downturn, noted Brian Caster, chief executive at A-1 Self Storage in San Diego Business Journal in October of 2009. Overall self-storage construction declined 42 percent between 2005 and 2006 followed by 17 percent between 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, that trend continued on into 2010 with a mere 224 self-storage units slated to come online by June.

Industry Leaders

The United Kingdom's Exel plc, with $9.5 billion in total revenues in 2004, was the largest warehouse logistics provider in the world in the mid-2000s with 73.3 million square feet--almost three times the amount of its closest competitor. Exel expanded its global domination in 2004 with the purchase of Tibbett & Britten, a U.K.-based logistics provider that ranked third in the global warehousing market with $2.9 billion in revenues prior to absorption into Exel.

In December 2005 Deutsche Post World Net acquired Exel plc making it the largest air freight, ocean freight, and contract logistics provider worldwide. While integrating Exel into its Logistics division, Deutsche Post AG added its recognized DHL brand acquired with the purchase of DHL Express to form DHL Excel Supply Chain. The company dropped the branded Exel from the supply chain branding during 2009 changing its name to Deutsche Post DHL. Exel reported revenues of $2.3 billion in 2009 with a total of 491 warehouses or 94.6 million square feet of space.

In 2001 APL Logistics, Ltd., of Oakland, California, purchased GATX Logistics, the nation's second-largest general merchandise logistics company, from the GATX Corporation. APL Logistics, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines, reported 2005 revenues of $1.29 billion. In the late 2000s, APL Logistics operated more than 300 offices serving over 55 countries in Africa, the United States, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The company with 4,500 employees generated revenues of an estimated $1.3 billion in 2009.

AmeriCold Logistics, Inc., of Atlanta, Georgia, dominated the refrigerated warehousing sector with 545 million cubic feet of cold storage in about 100 facilities throughout the United States in 2006. It was larger than the combination of its three closest competitors: Atlas Cold Storage, P&O Cold Logistics, and United States Cold Storage. AmeriCold Logistics, subsidiary of AmeriCold Realty Trust reported revenues of more than $848 million in 2007 with 6,100 employees. The company was acquired by The Yucaipa Companies, an investment firm in 2008. In 2010, AmeriCold Realty Trust acquired VersaCold International Corporation, a leading temperature controlled warehousing provider with operations in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, including a Canadian subsidiary. AmeriCold posted revenues of $761 million in 2009 with a reported 104 warehouses equivalent to 25.0 million square feet of space.

The self-storage sector was led by Amerco's U-Haul, which had nearly 1,000 storage center across the nation in 2007, with 383,000 rentable storage rooms comprising some 33 million square feet. In fiscal 2007 Amerco reported total revenues of $2.1 billion. About 87 percent of sales is generated by truck and storage space rentals. During the late 2000s, the company was able to maintain its revenues with a reported $1.9 billion in 2009 and $2.0 billion in 2010 with 17,600 employees. Another top chain was Public Storage ($1.4 billion in 2006 revenues), which acquired Shurgard Storage in 2006. The company's revenues reached $1.8 billion in 2007 before trending down to $1.7 billion in 2008 and $1.6 billion in 2009 with 4,900 employees.

Research and Technology

Employing the latest standards in shipping and warehouse technology was an industry standard for general warehouse operators. Because so many of the companies marketed themselves as logistics experts and as purveyors of value-added services, having the latest technological innovations was necessary to meet customer expectations. Within the warehouse industry itself, moreover, flexibility and efficiency were necessary to the survival of a firm. Technology enabled businesses to maintain levels of productivity.

One type of technology that saw rapid acceptance throughout the transportation industry was electronic data interchange (EDI). Allowing shippers and receivers to transmit invoices electronically, this mainframe computer system greatly reduced the routine paperwork associated with distribution. EDI was used by many large companies throughout the nation, putting pressure on general warehouse operators to install the system if they wanted to do business with these large companies.

In addition to EDI, general warehouses used electronic devices such as bar coding and radio frequency monitoring. These innovations enhanced the productivity and efficiency of warehouse operations and simplified inventory tracking. As customer expectations became more stringent and competition in the general warehouse industry increased, more warehouses were forced to invest in technology to remain contenders.

Improved technology appeared to contribute to the growth of the general warehousing industry. As traditional in-house storage and management facilities became obsolete, and the cost of upgrading outweighed the benefits of maintaining the facility, manufacturers looked to general warehouses to provide the high-tech warehousing facilities necessary for survival.

In 2007 Next View Software was working to implement a warehouse management system that incorporated computer gaming technology Microsoft used to create 3D applications for the Xbox system to provide heightened visibility inside a facility. "You can actually see the forklifts, pickers and materials handling systems moving in real time," said Steve Simmerman, partner and business development leader at Next View Software.

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