Order picking is a critical step of the fulfillment process, and a pick list is the source of truth that kicks it off. Setting the direction for the order and everyone who contributes to it in a warehouse, picking lists must be followed to a T.
Get the pick list wrong and you send customers the wrong products, wasting packaging and shipping costs. Spend too much time on each picking list and you delay shipments to customers.
In this article, we’ll cover the picking list definition, common challenges with pick lists, and different ways to create a picking list that’s right for your business.
What is a picking list?
A pick list is the information sent to your warehouse pickers for each customer order to communicate the items they will need to retrieve from storage, including inventory quantities and locations. As soon as a pick list is generated, the order fulfillment process can begin.
A pick list allows warehouse management to keep the picking process organized by assigning orders to each picker so they always have the next set of orders queued up as soon as one is picked.
Types of pick lists
A pick list should look similar to what the cart looks like for your customer before checkout — a recap of the items they ordered. Any given pick list may contain a single item, or five of a certain SKU and three of another SKU. Pick lists should be clear and easy to understand. There are a couple ways to provide picking lists.
Physical pick lists
The old school way of generating pick lists is printing them. Before integrated software, mobile technology, and Wifi were ubiquitous, warehouses would use physical pick lists and hand each pick list on a piece of paper to a picker.
Digital pick lists
Digital pick lists are used when mobile devices, tablets, or laptops are used on the warehouse floor. Order details are automatically assigned and sent to each picker, where they can follow instructions on their device for a more efficient process. A digital picking list can more easily include additional information such as product images, serving as an additional quality control check and validation that the picker is grabbing the correct item.
Ecommerce-specific challenges of pick lists
Younger businesses or those with a low sales volume may be able to pick orders as they are placed due to the infrequency of orders. They typically sell a low number of products, store inventory in their home, and fulfill orders themselves.
Pick lists become even more important as the number of SKUs you sell, channels you sell on, volume of inventory you hold, and your average number of items per order increase, as the picking process becomes more complex, error-prone, and time-consuming.
If you lease your own warehouse, managing ecommerce fulfillment in-house will require a warehouse management system (WMS) that can generate pick lists for you. On the flip side, many businesses outsource fulfillment to a third-party logistics ( 3PL) company that will store inventory, pick orders, pack boxes, and ship packages for them.
Additionally, using fulfillment centers in multiple locations requires an extra step to route each order to the fulfillment center closest to the end customer to reduce shipping costs and transit times. Then, the pick list is generated based on where the inventory is stored in that specific facility.
The number of pick lists that can be completed per hour will vary based on the size, layout, and efficiency of the warehouse. Between the time spent walking in the warehouse between orders or even between retrieving two items in the same order, you may see the need for better inventory management and warehousing.
Pick lists may seem like a small part of the order fulfillment process, but how you implement them can have a major effect on your supply chain. Having a fully integrated way to connect your stores, orders, inventory, and warehouses can help fulfill customer orders more efficiently, accurately, and at scale.
How to create a pick list: 6 essential components
The exact elements of your pick list will depend on your warehouse, business, and products. If you aren’t using a WMS or outsourcing fulfillment, where pick lists are generated automatically, you’ll need to create a template. Below is a standard list from which you can use in your internal picking list document.
Note: You’ll only want to include information that’s needed to pick the right items. Anything more can be distracting and time-consuming to read through for the picker.
1. Information on the customer
If you’re not using a digital pick list and must rely on manual methods to share information, the picking list will need to include information that will be used later in the fulfillment process. Pickers don’t need customer information; however, packers or labelers will need the customer’s name and shipping address to validate the order details as a measure of quality assurance.
2. The date and time of the order
Many ecommerce businesses have service level agreements with their customers about shipping orders out the same day they are placed before a certain cutoff time. If you honor these commitments, your team will want to keep an eye on when orders were placed as there is a sense of urgency, in addition to if the order requires expedited shipping so a picker can bring the picked order directly to a packing station to be prioritized.
3. Order number
The order number that’s associated with each pick list may be referenced by the customer in case there are any issues that arise (e.g., an item that needs to be returned or a shipment that never arrived). The more digital this process is, the more transparency and visibility you’ll have into each step of the fulfillment process to understand where something may have gone wrong.
4. Product’s location in the warehouse
Picking can’t be a guessing game, so you must provide as much information about the location of a specific item as possible. In addition to providing clarity on the pick list itself, the warehouse should also have clear, visible signage and location names that are sequential and logical, so pickers can easily and quickly navigate through bins, shelves, and pallet racks in the warehouse.
5. Product SKUs
A SKU (stock keeping unit) is the unique identifier that represents a specific product. For example, if you sell shirts, you will need a different SKU for each size. Some orders will take more than one of a certain SKU, so you must pay attention to both the quantities and SKUs in every order. It’s easy to mix products up especially when the identifier is a long sequence of numbers.
Another consideration beyond the picking list is if there’s a barcode on the product itself, or if there is just a unique bin number, barcode, or sticker on the shelf containing the product. If you have products side by side or stacked on top of one another, can you tell if the bin number is for the units above or below it? Clear signage and organized shelves or racks help ensure you are picking products from the correct bin or shelf.
6. A description or photograph of the product
Some products look incredibly similar to one another, so having additional context such as a description or photo is another way to ensure your pickers are retrieving the correct products.
3 common methods for grouping your pick list
There are a few common ways to pick orders, all of which aim to optimize operational efficiencies and will vary depending on the layout of the warehouse, staff available, and volume of orders.
This is the most basic and common method for picking products in a warehouse. It’s straightforward to implement especially for a smaller operation with few products, because orders are simply sent to pickers as they come in. There is no logic needed to route certain orders or inventory to a specific person. Because of this, it may be less efficient in terms of orders picked per hour and staff productivity.
Batch picking works best for fulfilling a large number of the same orders at once. For example, having one person work on bulk orders for the same pledge level of backer rewards for a crowdfunding campaign. This has the picker performing the same picks on every order, so they don’t have to move back and forth as much. It can also reduce errors since every pick list uses the same inventory and quantities each time.
Zone picking is a method where picking lists are product-based or storage-based and pickers stick to certain areas of the warehouse. For example, 100 orders came in overnight containing products all stored in the same row(s) of bins. All of those orders will be assigned consecutively to the same picker, so they don’t have to walk back and forth as much across the warehouse. This way, different people are working in different zones of the warehouse to prevent overcrowding one area and spending more time on walking instead of picking.
ShipBob’s pick list technology — designed for ecommerce
ShipBob is a 3PL company with multiple fulfillment centers that stores inventory and picks, packs, and ships orders for ecommerce businesses. By automating the fulfillment process, orders are automatically sent from the ecommerce store to the ShipBob warehouse with inventory closest to the customer who ordered it.
Inside each ShipBob fulfillment center, pickers are wearing mobile devices that receive the pick list for each order containing information on what to pick, how many of each item, where it’s located, and a photo of the product.
For each SKU that is picked, the picker must scan the item, place it in the bag, and confirm that it’s been picked for ultimate quality control. Each bag or container holding the ordered items is also scanned on the digital pick list. The bag is scanned once again when it arrives at a packing station. At that point, the packer electronically pulls up the pick list and checks once again that the items picked are those on the picking list.
ShipBob’s proprietary software integrates with leading ecommerce platforms and also powers its network of fulfillment centers. Orders are assigned in a way that reduces the time any picker needs to spend on an order, also enabling batch picking and smart pick lists. This helps deliver fast, cheap, error-free shipping to ecommerce businesses and their customers.
In ecommerce, some may think that getting customers to place orders means the hard part is over. However, efficiently picking orders and managing fulfillment logistics is much more challenging than one may think. To meet customer expectations and keep warehouse labor and operating costs down, order management must be streamlined and optimized. While there are many variables that impact an operation’s success, it starts with pick lists.
If you want to learn more about how ShipBob can take over the order fulfillment process for you, request a pricing quote to get more information.