It's not unusual for someone to visit a convenience store for some candy, beef jerky or a sweet roll. But where do such stores get those items?
The answer is a distributor, which is another name for the middle man.
“We provide more than 16,000 products to more than 4,500 outlets,” said Andy Plummer, chief financial officer of AMCON Distributing Company, which has its headquarters and a warehouse on Irvington Road in northwest Omaha.
Listed as the nation's seventh-largest distributor in the September 2013 issue of Convenience Store News, AMCON is a one-stop shop for convenience stores and groceries in 23 states.
According to the National Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, the trade association for convenience stores, the United States has more than 149,000 convenience stores. Some are large chains that have their own distribution systems, such as Casey's General Stores, which has 1,772 locations.
Others belong to smaller chains or are independently owned. These rely on distributors such as AMCON.
“Everyone needs a distributor,” Plummer said. “Either themselves or us.”
He said orders may come from individual stores or from a small chain's headquarters. Most orders come via the Internet. “A few still call or fax us,” he said.
Most stores place an order once a week, though some order more often. Usually the goods are delivered the day after an order is placed.
When an order arrives at AMCON, it generates a list that is given to one of many people who pick items in AMCON's warehouses, located in Omaha; Quincy, Ill.; Rapid City, S.D.; Bismarck, N.D.; Springfield, Mo.; and Crossville, Tenn.
On each picker's forearm is a smartphone-sized computer terminal that shows the list on its display screen.
The picker then sets out in one of AMCON's warehouses — the one in Omaha covers 100,000 square feet — to hand-pick the items and put them into a red plastic basket that rolls along a roller conveyor. Pickers sometimes go through the aisles in the company's large walk-through refrigerated units and freezers that hold perishable goods.
As each item is located, the picker scans its bar code to note it has been picked up, and the arm monitor shows the next item to be found. When the order is complete, it is boxed, placed in an AMCON truck and delivered.
Besides those who fill orders, other employees meet the trucks that bring supplies to the warehouses to replenish the stocks, an operation that has lots of people ensuring that each product goes into its particular niche in the warehouse.
The items seem endless — Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, paper towels, ChapStick moisturizer, Rand McNally maps, duct tape, Oreo cookies, chips of every sort and more.
“Pistachios are selling more now,” Plummer said. “And e-cigarettes are, too.”
He said AMCON also supplies foods for convenience stores that offer made-to-order items such as sandwiches, salads and pizzas.
Compared with AMCON, which brings in supplies and sorts them to ship to its customers, Warren Distribution makes many of the items it distributes.
Founded in 1922, Warren originally just distributed oil-based products.
“In the 1970s, Warren started manufacturing items including the containers that hold them,” said Jim Douglas, the company's senior vice president.
Now, most of the company's revenue comes from the production of its products. However, it is still heavily involved in distribution of chemicals and lubricants, accessories and aftermarket repair parts for auto supply shops, convenience stores, car dealerships, large chain retailers and farm-supply stores, to name a few types of Warren's customers.
Among Warren's products are anti- freeze/coolants, various motor oils, de-icers, oils for two-cycle engines, automatic transmission fluids, power-steering fluids, brake parts cleaners and hand cleaners.
“We have 3,000 SKUs,” Douglas said. Each SKU, or stock keeping unit, is associated with a bar code that represents a specific type of item.
Warren makes products under many labels, including Accel, Mag 1 and Polar.
Warren's headquarters are on South 13th Street near the Old Market, but its main manufacturing plant and distribution center are in Council Bluffs. Other manufacturing and distribution centers are in Glen Dale, W.Va., and Guntersville, Ala.
“We ship primarily to other companies' warehouses, some direct to stores,” Douglas said. “Most of what we ship in terms of volume is in truckload increments.”
At Warren's warehouse, which has 37 truck-loading bays, workers use a couple of systems when filling orders.
In the voice-pick system, workers wearing headsets listen to computer-generated orders that direct them to where an item is stored and how many units of that item are needed. The system also understands what workers say in response as they pick up the items.
Pick-to-light is a system that uses lights to direct employees how to fill orders.
To help move goods, the workers use a variety of vehicles, from small Walkie-Riders to regular forklifts to order-pickers that can rise up to fetch heavy loads from tall metal racks.
Once an order is filled, a worker places the pallet near the loading docks, where a machine spins around the pallet, wrapping the order in layers of clear plastic. The plastic waterproofs the items and serves as a tamper-proof covering, said Jeff Patterson, shipping operations supervisor.