Warehouse Order Picking Guide
Warehouse picking is a key component of a successful fulfilment operation. While it might seem straightforward, the picking process is nuanced. From choosing which picking system will work best for your business to learning how to measure picking efficiency, there are many considerations.
In this article, we’ll dive into how warehouse picking plays a key role in fulfilment and how you can improve the picking process.
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What is warehouse order picking?
Warehouse order picking is the pulling of an item or items in a warehouse or fulfilment centre for the purpose of fulfilling an order placed by a customer. Successful warehouse picking is a critical step within the order fulfilment process that requires high-tech equipment and labour focused processes to maintain high order accuracy rates across all orders leaving the warehouse.
Why is a warehouse order picking system important?
Finding the right order 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 labour-intensive nature, especially in larger facilities. Warehouse management systems keep track of customer orders and generate automated pickinglists 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 fulfilment, some customers will not be pleased with late deliveries and delivery exceptions. 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 optimised 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 optimised warehousing (e.g., having a warehouse that is organised, utilizes space efficiently, and has items that are commonly ordered together close by one another).
The 9 top warehouse picking strategies
Implementing warehouse picking improvements are one of the most effective ways to optimise 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 organise 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 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 fulfil complicated orders with many units or at least a combination of complicated and simple orders.
The warehouse itself must be organised 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 labour, 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.
5. Pallet picking
Pallet picking takes place when a pallet of items is selected and prepared for storage or shipment. This form of picking is used to transport items in bulk and move them from the warehouse to the dock, where it receives a shipping label. Once correctly labelled, pallets are moved to a trailer that will transport them to their final destination.
Because of their size, pallets are picked using forklifts or other heavy machinery.
6. Single order picking
Single order picking a more manual form of picking compared to other strategies. Employees will pick items for an individual order, fulfilling a single order before moving on to the next. This form of picking is best suited for small warehouses with simple orders and low order volume.
7. Cluster picking
Unlike single order picking, cluster picking is the process of fulfilling multiple orders at the same time. Employees move through the warehouse, choosing SKUs for numerous orders and placing them in separate bins that coincide with each order.
This is an efficient form of picking for businesses that have a warehouse management system and high order volume.
Pick-and-pass is a strategy in which warehouse employees are assigned different zones within the warehouse where they pick all of the items a customer ordered within that zone then pass the order onto a picker in the next zone so they can do the same.
This pack method helps boost efficiency while reducing the likelihood for errors.
9. Combined warehouse picking
Some warehouses may opt to utilise two or more of the picking strategies outlined above. This is done to improve efficiency and streamline fulfilment.
For example, a warehouse might use a combined zone and batch picking strategy in which employees are separated into zones within the warehouse where they batch pick items from their respective zones. Once all of the orders are picked, the carts are taken to packing stations to be prepared for transit.
Warehouse picking efficiency 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 minimise 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 fulfilment 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 labour.
2. Use the right warehouse equipment
- Strong forklifts that transport large containers and rows of high warehouse racks to stack pallets,
- Conveyor systems for sorting orders.
- Barcodes and inventory scanners for improving tracking.
- Wearable devices to eliminate paper or bulky laptops
3. Optimise your warehouse
With so many stages of the overall order fulfilment process happening simultaneously, you will need to continuously optimise 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 fulfilment to a 3PL
Outsourcing fulfilment 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 fulfilment, outsourcing certain aspects (e.g., only direct-to-consumer fulfilment) 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 fulfilment 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 fulfilment from their own large warehouse to ShipBob here.
“We see outsourcing fulfilment 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 fulfilment, 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 fulfilment shifts, ordering boxes and shipping labels, and dealing with the extra headaches of running logistics.”
Gerard Ecker, Founder & CEO of Ocean & Co.
How to measure the efficiency of your order picking process
So now you’re aware of the different ways to efficiently pick items in your warehouse, but how do you measure picking efficiency? Use these KPIs to track how efficient your picking process is.
Pick accuracy is the total amount of correct picks made prior to shipment. To calculate pick accuracy, you’ll take the total number of orders picks and confirmed to be accurate and divide that by the total number of orders shipped out.
Pick accuracy = Total number of correct picks / Total number of orders shipped out
Order cycle time
To track how long it takes to ship out an order from the time it was placed, you’ll want to consider order cycle time. This metric helps you understand how long it takes to pick, pack, and ship an order after the order is received.
Order cycle time does not take transit time into consideration.
Order Cycle Time = (Delivery Date – Order Date) / Total number of orders shipped
Units per hour (UPH)
The units per hour metric measures how many units are picked in a 60 minute period. UPH measures the productivity of pickers and helps determine warehouse throughput.
Units per hour can be measured by taking the number of units picked by the number of hours. UPH can be calculated on the employee level or at the team level.
Units per hour = Number of units picked / Hours worked
Given the size of your warehouse, employees could be walking several miles per day while picking orders. And all of the time spent walking means less time they can spend completing other tasks. Measuring travel distance can help you optimise employees’ routes and warehouse configuration.
While there isn’t a set formula for how to calculate your travel distance, using a warehouse management system can help you measure and improve your travel distance using warehouse layout optimisation and route optimisation algorithms.
Fill rate, or fulfilment rate, is the percent of orders that are immediately fulfilled and shipped from available stock. This metric helps you understand your brand’s fulfilment efficiency and ability to meet customer demand.
To calculate fill rate, you’ll divide the number of orders that were shipped by the total orders placed and multiply that number by 100.
Fill rate = Total orders that were shipped / Total orders placed X 100
Turnaround time is the amount of time it takes to complete the fulfilment process – from receiving an order all the way through the order being sent out for transit. You’ll want to measure turnaround time to ensure your order fulfilment occurs in a timely manner. If a brand has slow turnaround times, they will likely experience a decline in customer satisfaction and decreased revenue.
Turnaround time = Time an order is received – Time an order is completed
Common challenges with order picking
As with anything, you may face some obstacles when it comes to order picking. Read on to learn more about common order picking challenges and how you can avoid them in your warehouse.
High volume orders
If you’re picking orders for a warehouse that does a high order volume, you may run into some challenges. Due to the fast-paced nature and needing to get many orders out on time, your employees might feel overwhelmed, rushed, and could be prone to making mistakes. Under pressure, your pick accuracy rate could decline.
To avoid this, you might want to consider implementing a warehouse management system. A WMS can help your pickers stay on track and make the right selections.
Inaccurate inventory counts
When you have discrepancies in your inventory count and available inventory, customers may place orders for items that are actually out of stock. As a result, orders cannot be picked and processed properly. This leads to stockouts, reduced picking efficiency, and dissatisfied customers.
Utilising a warehouse management system that has real-time data and analytics can help you better understand how much available inventory you have so you don’t run out. Additionally, depending on the WMS, you can set reorder points to know when exactly to order more of the products you’re running low on.
Sometimes you may encounter slow moving products – whether it’s due to seasonality or a certain product not resonating with customers. When that occurs, the stagnation affects your warehouse. These products take up valuable shelf space, increase holding costs, and can cause picking efficiencies.
For example, pickers may not be familiar with products that have been sitting in the warehouse for an extended period of time, so when they’re ordered, pickers might not know where the item is located or even what the item looks like.
A warehouse management system can help your pickers remain efficient, even when they aren’t familiar with the product or the product’s location.
Complexity of products
Products come in various shapes, sizes, weights, and materials. Depending on what your brand sells, you might face obstacles during the picking process.
If you’re dealing with large or heavy products, you’ll need to take extra safety measures to ensure workers don’t sustain injuries while picking. Adding handles to large and heavy objects, training employees on safe lifting techniques, using a team of 2 or more employees to lift heavy objects, and utilising machinery and equipment like pallet jacks and forklifts are all ways to ensure you’re creating a safe environment.
If you sell dangerous goods or HAZMAT materials, you’ll want to make sure you train employees on proper handling. That way they can take any necessary handling precautions and be prepared for what to do in the event of a spill or leak.
Similarly, if you sell fragile items, be sure to train employees for how to handle delicate items during the picking process because they require extra care.
Peak season requires proper demand and labour forecasting. Not only do you want to have plenty of inventory on the shelf to ensure customers get their orders, you also want to have enough pickers and warehouse staff to complete fulfilment for the influx of orders.
Using a WMS can help you forecast demand and labour so you can better plan for peak season to make sure everything goes smoothly during the busiest part of the year.
Lack of automation
Many of the picking systems outlined above require some level of automation, whether its a warehouse management system or robotics. Without automation, your pickers are prone to mistakes which can lead to mispicks, inaccurate inventory counts, and dissatisfied customers.
Implementing a certain degree of automation in your warehouse sets you and your team up for success during the picking process.
It’s important for businesses to create a safe environment for all warehouse employees. In order to ensure warehouse associates are staying safe during the picking process, shelves and racks should be properly maintained to avoid collapse, items should be secured to prevent falling hazards, and heavy items should be placed on lower racks.
Additionally, aisles should be cleared so that pickers don’t trip over stray objects while picking orders.
To learn more about potential warehouse hazards and solutions, see resources on the OSHA website.
Safety precautions to take for a successful order picking
Worker safety should be prioritized in the warehouse. Businesses should take the following precautions to ensure pickers are safe in the facility.
In order to make sure all warehouse associates are aware of the potential hazards and safety protocols, warehouse managers should provide proper training for all employees, not just pickers.
During training, employees should be taught how to use commonly used warehouse equipment (and obtain necessary certifications) and safe ways to manually lift and handle various items, especially heavy ones.
Training is a time to set expectations and clearly define rules so all warehouse employees are prepared.
Not only will labelling ensure your workers are more productive, it also ensures a safe work environment. HAZMAT and dangerous goods should be clearly marked so employees know how to properly handle them during picking. Additionally, if items are heavy, it should be indicated that more than one person is required to lift and move it during the picking process.
It’s important that businesses properly maintain their equipment and machinery to keep pickers safe during use. Forklifts, pallet jacks, walkie stackers, and other equipment should be inspected regularly. To help you stay on top of the maintenance required for your warehouse machinery, OSHA has a guide that outlines the necessary steps to stay compliant.
Routine maintenance prevents accidents, ensuring a smooth fulfilment process.
Improve warehouse picking efficiency with a WMS
Outsourced fulfilment isn’t for every brand. That’s why we offer ShipBob WMS to businesses that want to utilise ShipBob’s proprietary technology in their own facility.
By using ShipBob’s best-in-class warehouse management system, you’re able to improve picking efficiency, improve order accuracy, and speed up the fulfilment process.
Proprietary WMS system
ShipBob has created our own WMS system that’s used in our entire network of fulfilment centers. Our warehouse management system helps brands make the picking process more efficient and gives a transparent view of their inventory, orders, and warehouse operations.
“With ShipBob, you see exactly what is picked. You can outsource your fulfilment while still maintaining full control. ShipBob owns the entire stack: inventory and order management system, warehouse management system, and their fulfilment centers.”
Gerard Ecker, Founder & CEO of Ocean & Co.
Manage inventory (better)
Using a warehouse management system can help you better manage your inventory to gain real-time access to your inventory counts so you don’t have to worry about overstocking or stocking out. In addition to improved visibility, with ShipBob’s WMS you access fulfilment metrics and can see order counts at the picked status (as well as packed and labelled).
“One of our biggest concerns was errors we’d face due to similar-looking products and a large SKU range. With ShipBob, there are so many checks and balances, so we don’t screw up picking. It’s been great. We can track our inventory in real time now, knowing the number of units we have for each product and where they all are in our warehouse.”Rick Corbridge, COO at Infuze Hydration
Pick & fulfil faster with ShipBob’s cloud-based WMS
By using ShipBob’s WMS you’re able to generate pick lists with the most efficient picking route to reduce travel distance and times. The WMS will produce batch picking or cluster picking lists, depending on what is needed.
Plus, when onboarding with ShipBob’s WMS, an implementation specialist will work closely with you to optimise your warehouse layout so you and your team are set up and ready for efficient picking.
“We went from 3-4 people spending all day packing orders, and now we have our manager doing everything herself. She picks and packs orders from 7:00 am to noon, and then she’s done with DTC orders for the day. And now our team doesn’t have to rely on tribal knowledge for anything! We can rely on the automated system. All we have to do is scan the order, go where the system tells us, pick the item, then pack it. It’s way less stressful than our previous system. ShipBob has saved us time and labour costs.” – Adam LaGesse, Global Warehousing Director at Spikeball
Reduce shipping errors
ShipBob’s WMS has checks and balances to ensure pickers are selecting the right items for each order. Equipped with touchscreen scanners, pickers scan the item barcode and bin to ensure pick accuracy. By using ShipBob’s WMS, you’re able to minimze mispicks, save time, and make sure customers receive the products they ordered.
“For us, one of the greatest benefits in using ShipBob’s WMS has been reducing mispicks with multiple checks from start to finish. Before we implemented ShipBob’s WMS, our order accuracy rate was around 92%. Now we’re at 99.7%, which equates to 2,100 less mispicks a year on average. We can even create the most efficient routes through the warehouse, which has cut down on an insane amount of time and made picking, packing, and shipping so much more efficient.” – Jourdan Davis, Operations Manager at Pit Viper
The bottom line is, as ecommerce continues to grow, the need for better warehouse picking systems has risen. Warehouse picking is an integral part of the ecommerce fulfilment 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 fulfilment, you can work with a logistic expert, grow into our fulfilment network over time, take advantage of economies of scale, utilise 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 order picking FAQs
Warehouse picking is an integral part of any ecommerce brand’s order fulfilment process. Some questions that arise frequently about warehouse picking include:
What is warehouse picking?
Warehouse picking is an order fulfilment process where item(s) from a customer order are retrieved from their inventory location(s) in a fulfilment or distribution centre such as in a bin or on a shelf or pallet. Warehouse picking is the step that occurs before products are packaged and shipped out to their destination.
How to do picking in warehouses?
There are many strategies for picking in warehouses, which include batch picking, wave picking, zone picking, and discrete picking. The best strategy for your warehouse picking setup will depend on the order volume running through your warehouse, the total number of SKUs in storage, your total number of pickers working at the same time, the type of facility you have, and the inventory management system or other technologies you have at your disposal. The different picking methods we’ve mentioned all have their own advantages and drawbacks; companies need to determine which picking strategy meets their specific needs.
What is voice picking in a warehouse?
Voice picking is a method of warehouse picking, where pickers are equipped with a headset and microphone so they can easily communicate with the warehouse manager about picking details. Some systems are connected with an automated management system, which eliminates the need of a human to be present on the other end of the line. Similar to other wearable warehouse picking options, voice picking has proven to be a time-efficient method and it also cuts down the likelihood of picking order error.