It’s holiday season, and one of the enduring images that returns to us around this time is that of Santa, a sleigh piled high with presents, hurtling across the country, and the world, to deliver gifts on Christmas. This classic tale raises some questions: How does he keep track of his inventory? Does he travel at light speed? Does he have to clear his flight plan with the FAA?
Let’s be honest: No one has ever been overly concerned with the logistics of such a feat. Like all good stories, it takes some stretching of the imagination.
Ironically enough, however, while we busied ourselves with the fantasy (don’t tell the kids!) of a man and his team of elves manufacturing and delivering millions of presents, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, real-life Santa workshops actually began to emerge.
We don’t call them that, of course, but the warehouses, supply chains and delivery services of massive retail companies like Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target are about as close as we’ll get to the Christmas miracle of old. They may not be as charitable as Santa’s workshop, of course—these are multi-national corporations with bottom lines and investors to consider—but the way they source, create and deliver holiday gifts is still impressive.
Imagine for a moment that these warehouses and plants are Santa’s workshops. The workers inside are the elves. And various third-party delivery services, including drivers and trucks, are Santa and his reindeer (they can’t be everywhere at once, you know). How do they go about successfully delivering the millions of gifts that make each holiday so memorable (or avoid slipups that can doom a holiday season)? How do they make Santa, oddly enough, real?
Preparing for the big trip involves one major tool: Inventory management software
In Santa’s workshop, some combination of hard work, dedication, good memory and magic combine to make sure every good child gets the gifts they deserve. As most business owners can tell you, it doesn’t really work that way in real life. The real trick is using inventory management software to keep track of inventory, from the time it arrives in the warehouse as raw materials to its eventual destination on the doorstep (or under the tree) of a customer.
Inventory management is how businesses make sure they have enough inventory in stock to meet the surge of demand that can threaten to overwhelm even behemoths like Amazon and UPS come December. Conversely, it limits companies from feeling like they have to flood their shelves with inventory in an attempt to always have supply on-hand—a practice that can lead to lots of unsold inventory, eventually sold marked down or for a loss. What would Santa do with a bunch of undelivered toys anyway?
Barcodes are the magic that help bring everything together
Some of the best inventory management systems in the world are barcode-based, and if anything is the “magic” that helped the elves know where everything is supposed to go and how to most efficiently pack Santa’s sleigh, it’s barcodes.
Barcode technology is used by the workshop to track the physical location of each package, as well as give the workshop greater data to work with when it comes to total inventory of a particular item, or how the elves can most effectively move through the warehouse, picking up seemingly random items and grouping them together for delivery (this is probably how big brothers and little sisters can ask for markedly different gifts and get them at the same time).
The magic wands here are barcode labels and scanners alike
Very often, the gifts are built in automated processes done by robots and other machines. The work of the elves is more often about using barcode labelers to apply newly made barcodes to products, and the scanners that input the information from each barcode into the larger database.
Barcode labels and the scanners that read them perform magic in a number of ways.
- Barcode labels can be custom designed to contain all kinds of data about the product they’re being applied to. Whether the barcodes are 1D or 2D, a barcode label maker can produce a big or small, tough or delicate, always readable barcode label that the elves, Santa, or the customers themselves can utilize to learn more.
- Barcode scanners read the information encoded in the pattern, and basically eliminate data entry errors that might plague elves who otherwise would handwrite all the serial numbers. This prevents customers from missing out on a delivery, or receiving 10 of the same product by accident, for example.
- Barcode scanners can connect to the cloud via Bluetooth or Wifi and constantly update the database, ensuring that any item that is low in inventory is reordered, or that the elves know that a delivery is already in progress or has been delivered safely.
The end result is a system that is both fast and accurate
Imagine if you had to deliver packages to millions of homes around the globe in a single night (or even over the course of a month, which is how Amazon and other companies begin to gear up for the holiday crush). The two most important things to you would be efficiency—not a single wasted motion or action—and precision, because even one messed up order can mean a sad Christmas morning for some little boy or girl.
Barcode-based inventory management systems are the solution. Printing, applying and scanning barcode labels may seem like something of a big upfront investment, but otherwise you’ll be asking your elves, reindeer and even Santa to remember massively complex orders off the top of their heads, or with the help of handwritten instructions. When talking about the holiday season, the workload is just too massive to not invest in a system that can be accessed from anywhere, updated seamlessly, and guarantees accuracy.
Santa himself, a big man in a red suit and a flying sleigh, may not be real. But for all intents and purposes, companies both big and small (from Amazon to Etsy shops) play the role of Santa for people every year. And if they’re not using inventory management, they’re probably not doing a very good job of it.
As for how the workshops keep track of all the assets that help create gift magic, such as computers, printers, vehicles (the sleigh itself!) and manufacturing units, and ensure they don’t break down during the holiday season? That’s a whole other story.