What Is the Difference Between Racking and Shelving?

Any business with inventory storage needs knows the value of finding a smart solution. You only have so much floor space, and it needs to accommodate as much product as it can. Owners and managers of larger companies often invest in customized storage structures for their stock holding areas, intending to remain organized and highly productive.

When you’re looking for the right way to hold your goods, you have two options: racking or shelving. At first glance, you may not see much of a difference between the two options. However, if you choose a system that doesn’t adequately fulfill your purposes, you may end up limiting your team’s potential for efficiency. With that in mind, here is a guide to understanding rack and shelf difference.

What Is Industrial Shelving?

Everyone knows what a shelf is. We reach in and out of cabinet shelves and grab books or other items from them all the time, so what makes any type of shelving industrial? The answers are material and durability. Industrial shelving is purpose-built for holding items in a store or warehouse setting, so it needs to stand up to heavy use and a wide variety of items that may or may not outweigh the average novel.

Industrial shelves are for storing items people can walk up and grab with their hands, rather than cartons or boxes of goods workers can move around in bulk. Shelving often comes with accessory options for any special applications. To fit your needs, you can add features like drawers, bins or dividers with relative ease. There are four types of industrial and commercial shelving to consider, each with unique benefits and potential drawbacks.

1. Steel Shelving

Steel shelving is the most obvious choice for many applications due to its strength and relatively low cost. As long as you put it together correctly — which is simple to do — you’ll get years of service from a steel shelving unit.

To further improve the affordability factor, steel shelving is available in different gauges. You can purchase shelves with higher weight capacity for storing cases of heavier items and save some money by getting a higher-gauge shelf setup for employees or customers to grab unboxed items. Choose between two main types of steel shelving.

  • Closed shelving: This type of shelf has panels that cover the sides and back of the unit. These shelves are more durable as well as more aesthetically pleasing than the alternative. They are best placed back to back or up against walls, rather than freestanding.
  • Open shelving: These shelves forego the panel backing in favor of braces that create needed stability. With this design, employees can access the items they need from any direction.

While closed shelving is more likely to come in standalone units, open shelving has the advantage of being somewhat modular. For example, you can connect multiple shelving units with extended support braces, creating one large shelving run.

Advantages of Steel Shelving

  • Easy assembly
  • Customization and availability of accessories
  • Suitable for high-density storage

2. Wire Shelving

When looks matter, wire shelving is the way to go. Wire shelves can accommodate a wide range of products in commercial and industrial applications, and they help facilitate airflow. Whether or not your employees are working with food or other sensitive products, more airflow is never a bad thing.

Wire shelving has some safety advantages, like the fact that they collect barely any dust and the open wiring will allow water from fire sprinklers to reach some of the product they hold. Wire shelves are also much easier to move than other types, since they are lighter-weight and offer straightforward assembly. The main disadvantage of wire racks is that they are less durable than the other industrial shelving options.

Advantages of Wire Racks

  • Lightweight and can become mobile if mounted on casters
  • Easy to keep clean due to lack of dust collection
  • Ideal for high-visibility products

3. Rivet Shelving

If budget is a significant concern, rivet shelving is a durable and cost-effective option. These are almost always the most economical shelving option, and they have the distinct advantage of being incredibly easy to assemble. Rivet shelves are sometimes called boltless shelves, since there are no bolts involved in their assembly.

All you need to put one of these together is a rubber mallet. Assembly consists of aligning rivets and sliding them into the frame at whatever intervals you’d like. Other than their utilitarian appearance, the primary downside to rivet shelves is that they are made of heavy-gauge steel. Their excessive weight can be a hindrance if you ever plan to reconfigure your storage space. Rivet shelving is not a great option if you need bells and whistles like drawers or dividers to get the most out of your shelves.

Advantages of Rivet Shelving

  • Budget-friendly
  • Quick, straightforward assembly
  • Suitable for stockrooms, warehouses and nearly any other industrial application

4. Widespan Shelving

This form of storage helps bridge the gap between racking and shelving solutions. Widespan shelves are broader and sturdier than other types of shelving, and are ideal for situations where you need to store a lot of heavy products, but don’t have access to automated material handling solutions. For instance, if you operate a warehouse with a vast range of products, but only sell them in small quantities, employees will need to hand-pick the items.

Widespan shelves have the highest load capacity of all your options, and can often hold up to 2,000 pounds on each shelf. This form of storage is best for bulky items, making it one of the best warehouse shelving racks, but is not suitable for pallets or compatible with forklifts.

Advantages of Widespan Shelving

  • Huge weight capacity
  • Ideal for storing large items
  • Front and back item accessibility

What Is Pallet Racking?

If you run a warehouse or a business that receives products on pallets, it makes sense to have a specialized storage system capable of handling them. After all, what is warehouse racking good for if it doesn’t match the format of your deliveries? Warehouse shelving racks are an essential part of keeping pallets organized and accessible when you need them. There are five main types of pallet racking to consider.

1. Selective Rack

This most common type of rack consists of two vertical frames with shelf beams in between. Almost any warehouse is likely to have at least a few selective racks. This type of pallet racking allows workers to stack one pallet deep. Companies that use this storage solution generally either place racks up against a wall, or arrange them back to back.

This racking is “selective” because every pallet in the system is accessible without having to move anything else out of the way. It’s an excellent solution for convenience, but not ideal if you need to store a high density of pallets.

These racks are either bolted or welded together. Welding by the manufacturer is the preferred assembly method, as it reduces liability and provides a more durable solution. Warehouses can use selective racks in almost any environment with any size and weight of product. If you have low turnover along with high differentiation among products, selective racks are a good option.

Advantages of Selective Racking

  • The most economical option
  • Easy reconfiguration
  • No need for specialized lift vehicles

2. Double-Deep Rack

This type of racking involves having two rows of selective racks placed one behind the other. Warehouses commonly use this configuration to rack two pallets with the same product in a single slot that spans both racks. Employees need a lift truck that has an attachment for double-deep handling, or a deep-reach lift truck to retrieve pallets from the back rack.

Although double-deep racking is technically one configuration of selective racking, it’s a form of high-density storage. The higher-density your racking is, the better you can optimize your warehouse space. You can store more pallets per cubic foot, but the system is less flexible than standard selective racking. You would not want to use this storage system if you didn’t have enough of the same product to fill both the front and back slots of a double-deep rack.

Advantages of Double-Deep Racking

  • Lowest cost per pallet position among high-density racking options
  • Greater use of available space
  • Easier access than other high-density options

3. Drive-In or Drive-Through Rack

As another form of high-density racking, drive-in or drive-through storage systems have a design that accommodates lift trucks. Rather than using a shelf beam between vertical frames, these systems employ rails that extend the full length of the rack. Lift trucks can drive right into the rack structure to drop off and pick up pallets. Depending on your needs, you can get drive-in or drive-through racking that can hold pallets two or three deep and sometimes more.

  • Drive-in racks: These have an entry point that doubles as the exit, so they work best for applications where inventory in last goes out first.
  • Drive-through racks: These racks have two entry points, making them ideal for first-in, first-out inventory applications.

One of the things to remember about this type of racking system is that lift trucks can cause the structure to sustain more impacts than racks that don’t need lift trucks. Whether it’s a new operator making mistakes due to inexperience, or a more senior crew member bumping into a rack by accident, you want to be sure you purchase a quality racking system that will stand up to everyday use.

Advantages of Drive-In and Drive-Through Racking

  • Takes up fewer aisles than selective racking
  • Allows storage of up to 75% more pallets than selective racking
  • Only marginally more expensive than double-deep racking

4. Pushback Rack

This system is more complex and has more moving parts than other forms of racking storage. It consists of a progression of carts that nest within each other and move back and forth on rails. When a worker has a new pallet to deposit, they will push the current pallets backward and load the new pallet in the next position. When it’s time to retrieve a pallet, the one behind it moves forward so it’s ready for extraction.

Pushback racks are excellent if you have a lot of different SKUs and require many pick faces to operate efficiently. If you do bulk storage and store many of your products in groups of five pallets or more, this is an excellent storage system choice.

Advantages of Pushback Racking

  • Offers storage density similar to drive-in racking, but with better selectivity
  • Can reduce picking time
  • Faster to unload and load than drive-through and drive-in racking

5. Flow Rack

Pallet flow or gravity flow racking is the best solution for first-in, first-out storage systems. This rack uses wheels or rollers that carry pallets down an incline, allowing workers to pick them up when they stop at the other end of the system.

Flow racking allows you to store loads back-to-back, removing the need for aisles. One of the benefits of this is that you don’t always need a forklift, so you can free up the equipment to do something else. Another pro of flow racking is that it operates on gravity, thereby reducing energy costs.

Advantages of Pallet Flow Racking

  • Eliminates the need for aisles, replacing them with lanes
  • Can go as deep as you need it to
  • Ideal for warehouses with high throughput

The Difference Between Racking and Shelving

The central difference between shelving and racking is that shelving involves putting products into the system and retrieving them by hand. With racking, warehouse employees carry out storage and retrieval with equipment like forklifts.

Shelving usually comes in smaller units than racking, since it stores items that are lightweight enough for people to carry them around by hand. The large size of racking is due, in part, to the fact that it is usually better to use it in large warehouse spaces, rather than smaller rooms in a building. Shelving is also generally weaker than racking, as it will not withstand much in the way of impact damage.

It’s possible for a smaller business to use shelving exclusively. However, businesses with a warehouse component almost always need a mixture of both shelving and racking to effectively manage storage.

Storage Solutions From T.P. Supply Co.

If you’re not sure about pallet racking vs. shelving, or you’re ready to make a move on a more efficient storage solution for your business, come to T.P. Supply Co. We pride ourselves on service and solutions that have resulted in more than 90% of our customers returning for repeat business, and we’re ready to provide the right storage for your needs.

Whether you’re in the market for just a couple of shelves and a rack or two, or are looking to save money by ordering in bulk, we are happy to meet your needs. For more significant projects that require innovative answers, our customized quote tool allows you to share your vision and get a quote for your ideal system. Tell us the details, and we can make it happen.

Brooke Cooper