Pallets: A Cinderella Story

In the course of interviewing sources for an upcoming (May 2004) story on pallets and unitizing, I heard an oft-used reference to pallets. Mike Hachtman, vice president of business development, IFCO Systems, and I were talking about the importance of this basic building block of material handling. He said words to the effect that in spite all the good it does, the pallet is still considered the stepchild of the logistics industry.

Not exactly a news flash. However, the more I thought about that term, stepchild, the more I wondered how it came to be, or, more to the point, why it came to be. Why is there a negative connotation attached to "stepchild?" Does it apply to pallets? Seems to me, in the cases of pallets, (and often fairy tales) any negative connotation would be better applied to the parent.

A bit of research makes me conclude that this proscribing term, stepchild, emanates from Charles Perrault's classic fairy tale, Cinderella. You can trace the basic story, or genre, back to 1570 when a similar story first made it into print.

Pallets parallel the role of that stepchild-protagonist, Cinderella if you will, quite well. The difference seems to be that in reality, our protagonist, be she made of wood, plastic, metal, corrugated or moon rock, never gets to ride off into the sunset with the handsome prince -- who in our story turns out to be a lift truck operator.

Just as the Land of Nod versions of Cinderella keep kids coming back for more, thus it is with transport packaging writers. We never seem to get enough of these pallet stories and probably for the same reasons. Pallets, like that other heroine, are good, kind, willing workers. Yet, they are treated unkindly by their owners and siblings. Work is rewarded with only more work. Will good ever triumph over evil? In the material handling version of the tale it's tough to tell who the evil-doer actually is. Time to write a new ending for this tale. Only through magical intervention, in our case an enlightened material handling manager, does our pallet get to go to the ball -- or in this case, a newly built distribution center somewhere along Interstate 70 in the Midwest.

Rather than taking the Western civilization approach to this fairy tale -- starting with "Once upon a time ..." -- let's use the Russian story-telling tactic -- "Someday there will be a land where ..." Unlike that courageous creature in the oft-told fairy tale, our paragon of virtue will be discovered by what she does not leave behind. No lost glass slippers or oak splinters. To make it to the big dance, pallets of the future will have to be neat and clean. No matter how she's treated she'll have to withstand the heat and noxious chemicals inflicted upon her. While rough handling by some of the less-skilled dancers might tatter her gown, she'll have to remain stalwart and unruffled.

Snide remarks about the texture of her skin, thickness of her blocks and strength of her deck boards will have to roll off her like water from a duck. And, since in our world beauty has to be more than skin deep, the pallet will have to be free from any phytosanitary problems -- particularly if she wants to visit the palaces of Europe or dance in the halls of Kubla Khan.

If she does all this, she's sure to turn the heads of royalty in the warehouse. Along the way she'll learn that royalty is most comfortable with what they already know and have paid for. They have risen to their lofty positions because they've learned an important lesson: Paying for something once is wiser, and more profitable, than paying for it over and over. She'll discover that getting invited back into the warehouse, time and time again is what she and managers of the future really want. Thus she will find true happiness and forever shuck the shackles of being the stepchild.

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