Forklifts vs. Pallet Jacks: How To Know Which Your Warehouse Needs

Apps by Sellercloud, Skustack

When selecting, designing, staffing, and optimizing your e-commerce warehouse, you need to consider both your inventory and how you plan to move it. A big part of that planning needs to involve identifying your heavy equipment needs.

Lifting and moving palletized inventory is a constant occurrence in any retail warehouse. While palletizing is ideal for storing and shipping bulk inventory, moving and lifting palletized inventory requires specialized equipment. This is where forklifts and pallet jacks come in.

There are notable differences between these two types of heavy warehouse equipment. Making the correct choice for your business can lead to notable gains over the life of the equipment in terms of workflow efficiency, warehouse productivity, and inventory handling costs.


Forklifts are industrial vehicles with a powered front end designed to lift and lower cargo. The namesake forks are spaced to evenly fit into the open ends of standard pallets, making lifting and moving palletized inventory a breeze.

Forklifts come in many varieties, each suited to different use cases. Some of the most significant distinctions to pay attention to when assessing forklift purchase include:

  • Forklift motors – Forklifts are available with either combustion or electric motors. Combustion-powered forklifts are typically best suited for outdoor use (like in an open-air stock yard or on a loading dock) due to their fuel emissions and noise level. Electric-powered forklifts do not produce engine emissions and are available for both indoor and outdoor use. Electric motors are also substantially quieter than combustion motors. That said, regular maintenance is required for forklift motors regardless of how they are powered.
  • Forklift size – Some forklifts have taller masts (the front portion of the forklift that raises and lowers loads) than others. Likewise, the counterweight attached to the rear of a forklift will vary in proportion to the height of the mast and the maximum load rating of the vehicle. The heavier and taller the forklift, the higher energy usage you can anticipate.
  • Forklift operator position – Some forklifts are optimized for narrow spaces and require the operator to stand upright while driving them. Others are configured with seats for operators to drive like a more standard vehicle.
  • Forklift functions – Forklift technology is constantly improving and evolving. Modern advancements include the use of cameras and lasers to ensure accurate inventory handling and placement as well as touch-screen technology to provide operators with granular control over forklift loads. There are also specific forklifts optimized for moving unique items such as rolled products, furniture, and even entire shipping containers.

Pallet Jacks

Pallet jacks are similar to forklifts in that they have a pair of forks designed to fit into and lift palletized stock. Rather than being driven, pallet jacks are typically pulled or pushed on their wheels via a large handle.

Like forklifts, there are a number of different types of pallet jacks. Each model of pallet jack offers its own distinct differences in both form and function. The main differences fall into the following categories:

  • Manual or motorized pallet jacks – The most affordable and basic pallet jacks utilize manual pump handles to raise loads and pull them. More advanced pallet jacks use electric motors to reduce or eliminate workers’ required exertion.
  • Pallet jack size – Pallet jacks are available in both wide and narrow configurations to suit specific use cases.
  • “Walkie” or rider pallet jacks – Motorized pallet jacks are designed in ways that require the operator to either walk behind the equipment or ride it. Rider position can vary by model, but the operator is almost always handling the equipment from a standing position.
  • Pallet jacks with or without masts – Some pallet jacks come with forklift-style masts that allow loads to be lifted and stacked rather than simply lifted enough to move. Masted pallet jacks are commonly referred to as “stackers.”

Frequently Asked Questions When Deciding Between Forklifts and Pallet Jacks

When it comes to loading and unloading trucks, shelving and retrieving palletized inventory, or simply moving heavy items throughout the warehouse, both forklifts and pallet jacks are indispensable tools. The key is discerning what combination of forklifts and pallet jacks make the most sense for your particular warehouse and staff. Each piece of heavy equipment represents a sizable investment; you want to be sure to make the right choices. Failing to do so could not only hamstring your warehouse team’s ability to manage inventory and fulfill orders effectively, but it could lead to costly consequences.

What are the Primary Differences to Consider Between a Forklift and a Pallet Jack?

Below are some of the most critical differentiators to evaluate when choosing between forklifts and pallet jacks for your warehouse.

 ForkliftsPallet Jacks
Initial CostMore expensive (approx. $20,000-$50,000)*Less expensive (approx. $300-$3,000)*
MaintenanceMore frequent and costly maintenance requiredLess frequent and costly maintenance required
SizeTaller, typically larger in sizeShorter, typically smaller size
Maximum Load Weight Range3,000-50,000+ lbs.*1,500-5,000+ lbs.*
Maximum Lift Height8-30+ ft.*1-8 ft.*
ManeuverabilityEasier to maneuverCan be challenging to steer through tight aisles and around tight turns
Operator EfficiencyLess labor-intensive operationMore physical exertion required
Operational SpeedCan transport and lift more quicklySlower operational speeds
*depending on model


Are Forklifts or Pallet Jacks More Cost Effective for Your Warehouse?

Considering all the aforementioned differentiating factors together can help you determine the ideal heavy equipment purchases for your warehouse. That said, as with most decisions that come with running an e-commerce business, one of the leading considerations is likely cost.

When deciding between forklifts and pallet jacks, your cost-benefit analysis needs to include three key factors:

  • Pallet quantity How many pallets do you need to move over a given day? Month? Year? Consider loading and unloading shipments, fulfillment movements (like preparing and moving bulk shipments for FBA or WFS restocking).
  • Pallet-related labor costs – How much time is spent moving palletized and/or oversized inventory into, throughout, and out of your warehouse?
  • Heavy machinery costs – Consider the total annual fuelling and maintenance costs for the equipment you are considering. Also, be sure to divide the purchasing/financing costs of equipment by its life expectancy as part of this calculation.

With these data points and estimates, you should be able to identify the best value-based options for your warehouse needs. While forklifts may be more expensive to purchase and maintain, they likely result in lower labor costs and increased efficiency. Conversely, pallet jacks may provide similar benefits to forklifts in specific use cases at substantially lower costs.

It stands to reason that the person or team responsible for choosing between forklifts and pallet jacks (or some blend thereof) has to intimately understand your warehouse’s needs, budget, and workflows.

Thankfully, these big-ticket decisions don’t need to be made based on gut instinct alone. The combination of a powerful WMS like Skustack and a comprehensive warehouse visualization tool like Skustack Lens can make it simple to assess the efficiency and workrate of both your heavy equipment and the associates using it. As a result, you can make these types of equipment purchasing decisions driven by your business’s data and specific warehouse workflows.

What Training and Certifications Do Workers Need to Use Forklifts or Pallet Jacks?

From OSHA’s perspective, forklifts and pallet jacks are simply two different versions of the same type of tool – a “powered industrial truck.” As such, both forklifts and pallet jacks are subject to the same training and certification requirements. Of particular note is that all operators must be at least 18 years of age or older.

Thankfully, training is not incredibly expensive or time consuming. There are many OSHA-approved training courses available online – many of which offer discounts to employers wishing to train multiple staff members. Some even offer courses to train your own in-house trainers to help ease onboarding of future hires.

What are the Storage Considerations for Forklifts and Pallet Jacks?

First and foremost, you need to consider where your heavy equipment will be stored. These are considerations that must come into play when making purchasing decisions as well as when designing your optimal warehouse layout.

To get the optimal longevity out of your forklifts and/or pallet jacks, they need to be stored in dry, flat locations with masts and forks lowered to the ground. Most equipment will also come with parking brakes and other safety features to ensure that machines are securely stopped and present minimal tipping risk. Ultimately, you need to be sure to have space in your warehouse to accommodate these storage needs.

Power is another consideration when storing forklifts and pallet jacks. Electric equipment will need to have sufficient access to receptacles so they can charge when not in use. Similarly, combustion engine forklifts would likely benefit from being stored in proximity to refueling stations.

When storing a forklift or pallet jack for long periods of time, additional steps should be taken to protect your investment. Lubricate relevant components to prevent dry rot. Ensure batteries are disconnected (to prevent drain or possible electrical issues) and fuel tanks are drained. Release any remaining pressure stored in hydraulic components. While equipment is being stored for longer stretches, regular checks on tire pressure and engine function can ensure that your heavy equipment is ready to go when you need it.

Upgrading Your Warehouse Efficiency and Profitability Is All About Making the Right Choices

Running your own e-commerce warehouse can simultaneously improve both your omnichannel business workflows and bottom line. Just as it is important to make the right decisions about big-ticket purchases like forklifts and pallet jacks, it is also crucial to have the right tools to organize, manage, and monitor all the different moving parts of your warehouse operations.

Skustack, Sellercloud’s warehouse management platform, is built on patented technology that puts industry-leading WMS features at your fingertips. Using our fully integrated platform, you can ensure that your warehouses are delivering their maximum benefits and profitability.
Contact us directly for a free demo of Skustack to see for yourself why choosing the ideal WMS for your omnichannel e-commerce business doesn’t have to be a difficult one.

Avatar photo
The Sellercloud team is dedicated to providing you with insights and content that can help guide your business strategy in a meaningful way. With 10+ years in the e-commerce space, our goal is to share our knowledge and ideas with you to help you achieve your business goals.