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Pallets of products are picked off staggeringly high shelves while hundreds of labels are scanned into complex tracking systems. Giant trucks wait outside warehouses to transport treasure troves of inventory to distribution centers, and some of it even gets loaded onto ocean liners and airplanes. A century ago, today’s process of getting your holiday orders delivered would have seemed as magical as Santa’s reindeer-driven sleigh! How does it all work?

A large part of the magic lies in the meticulous planning. This process gets into full force as early as August! Before you’ve even thought about what you’re going to give your friends for the holidays, retail stores have been perusing their records to predict which items will sell best and plan how to transport them. Warehouse automation systems keep operations running smoothly while appearing to teeter on the brink of chaos. You can probably guess what prevents the holidays from turning into a holy mess – it’s our good friend the barcode!

First off, major retailers mine through heaps of data from past sales to decide which products to feature during the holiday season. They give each new product a stock keeping unit (SKU) number that will eventually go on the product label in barcode form.

Product is then packed and organized in company warehouses while labels are read or scanned into warehouse management IT systems to keep track of what’s available. Warehouse employees or Omron Microscan technology also perform quality inspections.

When orders come in, product is picked off the shelves and read or scanned again to keep a record of its departure from the warehouse. Then it gets loaded onto a truck or other form of transportation for distribution.

Your holiday gifts could take several modes of transportation before they eventually reach the shelves of department stores or your own doorstep. At each distribution center, the packages will be read or scanned into a system so that their whereabouts can be looked up anytime.

Next time you open a beautifully wrapped gift, consider the elaborate tracking systems – bolstered by the indispensable barcode – that have facilitated its journey!

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