With ecommerce booming around the world, we are witnessing an evolution of increasingly streamlined warehouse technologies and facilities. New warehouse management methods and automation are amplifying the efficiency and diversity of logistics operations and revolutionizing the order fulfillment process.
The integration of robotics, autonomous warehouse components, and better warehouse management systems (WMS) in the ecommerce sector are giving businesses a firmer grip on supply chain management.
But one common area of optimization remains: warehouse picking, which is a key component of a successful fulfillment operation.
In this article, we’ll dive into how warehouse picking plays a key role in fulfillment and how you can improve the picking process.
What is warehouse picking?
Warehouse picking is a stage in the order fulfillment process where items from a customer order are located and retrieved from a storage facility so that they can be packed and shipped.
Why is a warehouse order picking system important?
Finding the right warehouse order picking system is important because it can increase the efficiency of your picking operations, increase order accuracy, and ultimately boost customer satisfaction. A warehouse order picking system will provide the following benefits.
1. Reduces warehouse costs
The warehouse picking process can be expensive given its labor-intensive nature, especially in larger facilities. Warehouse management systems keep track of customer orders and generate automated picking lists that help guide your pickers.
Investing in a warehouse order picking system that can group similar orders with nearby inventory to a single picker will make the order picking process more accurate and efficient, saving on both costs and time.
2. Improves customer satisfaction
Warehouse picking can directly affect customer satisfaction, as it can be the difference between a shipment that arrives as expected or one that has missing or incorrect items.
Additionally, if it’s taking too much time to pick orders, leading to delayed order fulfillment, some customers will not be pleased with late deliveries. It’s important to get this stage of the ecommerce supply chain right, every time.
Your order accuracy rate is an important metric, as it can be tied to the number of customer support inquiries, bad reviews, and even ecommerce exchanges and returns you receive. It can even deter customers from purchasing from you a second time, decreasing your customer lifetime value and having customer loyalty take a hit.
3. Makes pickers’ jobs easier
The right warehouse picking system helps your warehouse workers do their jobs better with less room for human error. By automatically assigning pickers optimized routes with validations and photos to ensure they are picking the right items from the order, they can improve accuracy while spending less time on each pick.
It’s worth noting that the right picking strategies and technology must go hand in hand with an optimized warehouse (e.g., having a warehouse that is organized, utilizes space efficiently, and has items that are commonly ordered together close by one another).
The 4 top warehouse picking strategies
Implementing warehouse picking improvements are one of the most effective ways to optimize the supply chain. Depending on the warehouse size, number and types of products in it, and total staff count, one picking strategy may suit you better than others.
Be sure to understand how warehouse slotting works, so you can organize your warehouse the best way to accommodate your selected picking strategy.
Review the most common warehouse picking strategies below to better understand which option works best for you.
1. Batch picking
Batch picking (also known as cluster picking) works best when fulfilling many identical orders that use the same SKUs. This way, a picker can stay in the same area, rather than travel long distances across a warehouse just to go back to the same area they were just in. Batch picking aims to improve productivity as it reduces repeated trips, steps, and time.
2. Zone picking
Zone picking (also known as “pick and pass”) is similar to how zone defense works in sports — pickers are assigned to a physical area of the warehouse, where they only pick SKUs in that zone.
This means if an order has items in another zone, a different picker will pick that portion of the order, working like an assembly line. Zone picking is best suited for warehouses that fulfill complicated orders with many units or at least a combination of complicated and simple orders.
The warehouse itself must be organized in a way that makes this model work (e.g., keep fast-moving items with high inventory turnover in one zone and slow-moving SKUs in another zone).
The benefits are that a single picker can become familiar with the items in their zone and reduce errors rather than try to learn the ins and outs of the entire warehouse. The downside is that some zones will be much busier than others.
3. Wave picking
Wave picking is a variation of zone or batch picking that’s best for warehouses with large numbers of SKUs. It’s schedule-based throughout the day for better planning, taking labor, delivery times and ship dates, and carrier pick-ups into account, as well as the physical location of each product.
Rather than orders being assigned to pickers chronologically (in the order they are placed), they are all evaluated together to determine an optimal “wave” of orders that can be grouped and prioritized based on time and importance.
4. Discrete picking
Considered to be the simplest warehouse picking strategy, discrete order picking refers to when a picker works on one order at a time as each one is placed. The same picker retrieves all SKUs in the order, and can handle orders across the facility.
This method is best for small businesses with low SKU counts and/or small warehouses or storage facilities. Discrete picking requires a lot more movement than other picking strategies, but it makes sense to use until a business hits a certain scale that warrants one of the picking methods above.
Warehouse picking best practices
Anyone who runs a warehouse should be on the hunt for the best order picking methods and understand how to get the most out of them. The best strategies minimize picking times by making the frequently picked items more accessible through a quicker pick path. Below are some considerations to get the most out of warehouse picking.
1. Implement a WMS
Implementing warehouse management software can complement your warehouse and employees, and improve efficiency without compromising order fulfillment accuracy. A WMS should auto-generate pick lists, accurately display product availability, provide real-time insight into order status, help forecast when to replenish inventory through reorder point notifications, and even assist with planning staff labor.
2. Use the right warehouse equipment
Between forklifts that transport large containers and rows of high shelves to stack pallets, conveyor systems for sorting orders, barcodes and inventory scanners for improving tracking, and even wearable devices to eliminate paper or bulky laptops, there are continuous improvements that can be made and additional tools that can be used to improve the warehouse picking process.
3. Optimize your warehouse
With so many stages of the overall order fulfillment process happening simultaneously, you will need to continuously optimize your warehouse to improve the layout for more efficient picking routes, storage locations for each SKU and the handoff from picking to packing, and as you introduce new equipment.
4. Track your warehouse productivity
You’ll want to keep track of your warehouse productivity and understand how you can help your pickers. Distribution metrics ranging from inventory turnover, time to ship, total units in storage, average warehouse capacity used, and of course order picking accuracy should be monitored regularly with discussion had around how to improve upon each one.
5. Outsource fulfillment to a 3PL
Outsourcing fulfillment is the most hand-off way to improve warehouse picking as you don’t have to manage picking process improvements yourself. Even if you’re doing in-house fulfillment, outsourcing certain aspects (e.g., only direct-to-consumer fulfillment) while keeping other processes in-house (e.g., B2B ecommerce orders) lets you open up space in your warehouse without quickly outgrowing it.
“It’s a pain to pick, pack, and print the labels, and manage the storage. It would be a huge stress for us to do it ourselves, but the fact that ShipBob takes care of it all, both the savings in costs and time, is invaluable to our business.”
Nikolai Paloni, Co-Founder of Ombraz Sunglasses
Third-party logistics (3PL) providers like ShipBob are experts at fulfillment processes including warehouse picking and can let you store your ecommerce inventory in their warehouses, where their team takes care of the rest. Learn how one $20 million ecommerce brand scaled fulfillment from their own large warehouse to ShipBob here.
“We see outsourcing fulfillment as a cost-savings that will save you money in the long run. 3PLs negotiate rates, give you back all the time you’d spend on fulfillment, and reduce the errors you’d make. We looked into opening our own warehouses and hiring employees, but couldn’t come close with what 3PLs charge for picking, packing, and shipping. We’d also be worried about scheduling fulfillment shifts, ordering boxes and shipping labels, and dealing with the extra headaches of running logistics.”
Gerard Ecker, Founder & CEO of Ocean & Co.
How ShipBob’s warehouse picking methods improve order fulfillment
ShipBob is a leading 3PL that provides fulfillment services and software for ecommerce brands. As soon as an order is created or imported into your ShipBob dashboard, it is automatically sent to one of our fulfillment centers with your inventory to be fulfilled.
We assign orders to our picking team, who receive a picking list of the items, quantities, and storage locations at our facility to procure and count to complete their pick.
ShipBob customers can upload photos of their products for the picking and packing teams to see and validate upon fulfillment to reduce the possibility of an order being picked or shipped the wrong way. You can even edit an order in ShipBob until it is picked in the event that a customer wants to change something after they place their order.
ShipBob’s facilities are optimized to efficiently fulfill orders by using methods such as batch picking. The efficiencies we gain can be passed back on to the customer in the form of cost-savings.
Proprietary WMS system
ShipBob has created our own WMS system that’s used in our entire network of fulfillment centers. It helps us make picking operations more efficient and also lets customers have a transparent view of what is happening with their inventory in our warehouses.
“With ShipBob, you see exactly what is picked. You can outsource your fulfillment while still maintaining full control. ShipBob owns the entire stack: inventory and order management system, warehouse management system, and their fulfillment centers.”
Gerard Ecker, Founder & CEO of Ocean & Co.
As ecommerce continues to grow, the need for better warehouse picking systems has risen. Warehouse picking is an integral part of the ecommerce fulfillment process, and order accuracy is greatly dependent on the efficiency of warehouse picking, which in turn impacts your brand’s reputation and relationship with your customers.
One of the best ways to improve warehouse picking is to pair up with a reliable 3PL provider, like ShipBob, who can take on all of the work for you.
By partnering with ShipBob for fulfillment, you can work with a logistic expert, grow into our fulfillment network over time, take advantage of economies of scale, utilize our geographic footprint, gain deep insights into your retail supply chain using our analytics and reporting tools, and focus on growing your business.
Interested in seeing if ShipBob would be a good fit for your business? Request a quote below to start the conversation.
Warehouse picking FAQs
Warehouse picking is an integral part of any ecommerce brand’s order fulfillment process. Some questions that arise frequently about warehouse picking include: