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Jaidyn Farar

How To Build the Perfect Order Picking Process

by Jaidyn Farar

Order picking is the most time-consuming and expensive warehouse activity, accounting for over half (55%)opens in new tab of operating costs. Finding ways to improve your picking process helps cut warehouse costs and streamline order fulfillment. 

In this article, we’ll talk about several order picking methods, along with strategies for optimizing your process. 

What is order picking?

Order picking is the process of retrieving products from a warehouse to fulfill customer orders. Warehouse workers known as pickers, usually assisted by technology, gather products from various storage locations, then send them to packing stations to be packaged and shipped. 

As the first stage of order fulfillment, order picking plays a crucial role in the overall delivery process. With effective picking methods, you’ll improve delivery speed and accuracy and increase customer satisfaction. 

While picking is one of the most important parts of order fulfillment, it also tends to be one of the most expensive warehouse activities. Fortunately, you have access to many automation tools and technologies to speed up the process, save labor, and decrease costs. 

Why is order picking important?

Order picking plays a pivotal role in delivery accuracy and speed, both of which have a major impact on customer satisfaction. 

  • Greater order accuracy. Accurate order picking ensures that the right products are selected and sent to customers. Increasing picking accuracy not only reduces the likelihood of returns but also fosters trust with customers. 
  • Greater delivery speed. The faster you pick orders, the faster you can ship them to customers. By minimizing the time between order placement and carrier pickup, you’ll avoid shipping delays and meet delivery deadlines.

Order picking methods and systems

The order picking method you choose depends on several factors: the size of your warehouse, monthly shipping volume, and average number of items in each order. This section will review some of the most popular order picking systems.

Discrete (single order)

When using the discrete picking method, sometimes known as single order picking, pickers gather items for one customer order at a time. Once all the items for a single order are gathered, they’re sent to the packing station. 

Because workers have to travel back and forth in the warehouse, discrete order picking tends to be time-consuming. Because of this, discrete picking works best for small warehouses with low shipping volumes. It tends to be very accurate, since each worker only focuses on one order at a time. 

Batch (multi-order)

Batch picking, also known as multi-order picking, involves picking multiple orders at a time. Workers are assigned to pick several orders, and they gather items for each order during one pass through the warehouse. Each item is placed into the same container, and they’re later sorted and packed.

This method minimizes back-and-forth travel through the warehouse, reducing the total distance traveled by pickers and minimizing the number of trips they need to make.

Cluster

Like batch picking, cluster picking involves gathering items for multiple orders simultaneously. But unlike batch picking, where items are all placed in the same container and sorted later, the cluster picking technique requires items to be sorted by order. Pickers place items into separate bins or packages, which saves time during packing and shipping.

Zone

With zone picking, you divide up a warehouse into separate zones, and each picker is assigned to a zone. Each picker only picks items from their zone, which minimizes travel time. Often, zone picking utilizes pick and pass (which is discussed below). 

Zone picking is particularly beneficial for warehouses with extensive floor space and diverse inventory. It also works well for high order volumes because it reduces congestion and bottlenecks, speeding up the pick and pack process

Pick and pass

Pick and pass is a picking method often combined with zone picking. This system uses conveyor belts to pass orders from zone to zone until all the items have been picked. A worker will pick items from their own zone, place them in a container on a conveyor belt, and send them to the next zone. 

Wave

Wave picking is a method where orders are grouped together by similar characteristics, such as shipping date, item type, order size, or location in the warehouse. Then, all the grouped orders are picked simultaneously. Picking waves are scheduled at specific times during the day to maximize efficiency. 

Consider combining multiple methods

You don’t just need to choose a single order picking method—often, businesses combine methods to take advantage of their warehouse layouts or specific processes. Consider the following combinations. 

  • Zone-batch. Zone-batch picking allows pickers to focus on specific areas of the warehouse while handling multiple orders.
  • Zone-wave. Zone-wave picking enables pickers to efficiently process orders within their assigned zones during designated waves, improving both productivity and order fulfillment accuracy.
  • Zone-batch-wave. With zone-batch-wave picking, pickers focus on specific zones, handle multiple orders simultaneously, and coordinate their activities within predefined waves.

How to choose the right order picking method for your business

The above sections list several order picking methods, each with its own pros and cons. How can you know which strategy to implement in your warehouse? The first step is determining your goals; after that, you’ll need to consider five factors. 

Goals for your order picking process 

When choosing a picking method, begin with your end goal in mind. What do you hope to accomplish by implementing this system? 

Below you’ll find some common order fulfillment goals, but you should also include goals specifically related to your business’s health and growth.

  • Minimize picking time. The ideal order picking process minimizes the distance your pickers have to walk, which in turn keeps picking time to a minimum. 
  • Maximize picking accuracy. Order accuracy has a huge impact on customer satisfaction. If someone opens their package to see that it contains something they didn’t order (or doesn’t contain something they did order), you’ll lose money and time on a tedious returns process. Technology and automation can help minimize human error and improve accuracy. 
  • Ensure picker safety. While you should definitely focus on efficiency, make sure to consider employees’ health and safety as well. Your picking method should allow for good ergonomics so that nobody gets hurt trying to reach or lift a product. Place items at safe heights and use conveyor belts and trolleys.

5 factors to consider when choosing an order picking method

You won’t find a one-size-fits-all order picking strategy out there. To select the right system for your business, you’ll need to spend time examining your logistics processes. These five factors will help you determine the most effective order picking method to use.

  1. Warehouse size and inventory volume. How large is your warehouse, and how much inventory do you keep in stock? In smaller warehouses, discrete picking is often the best method. On the other hand, in larger warehouses, zone picking or wave picking is usually more effective.
  2. Number of employees. Do you have enough employees to implement your picking method of choice? In warehouses with a limited workforce, methods such as batch picking or wave picking may be advantageous, as they enable a smaller team to fulfill a larger volume of orders efficiently. With sufficient staffing, methods like zone picking are often effective.
  3. Order volume. How many orders do you usually receive? Is your order volume increasing quickly? For high order volumes, wave picking or batch picking may be preferable, as they reduce overall processing time. In contrast, for low order volumes, discrete picking provides flexibility for handling orders as they come in without the need for extensive coordination.
  4. Number of items per order. On average, how many items does each order include? You can find this by analyzing historical sales data. For orders with a high number of items, batch picking or zone picking may be the most efficient picking method. For orders with fewer items, discrete picking may be more practical.
  5. Type of products. If products have specific storage or handling requirements, picking methods may need to be adapted accordingly. For example, if you sell temperature-sensitive or fragile goods, you might organize the warehouse into zones to organize products based on their characteristics and storage requirements.

As we’ve seen throughout this article, order picking has the potential to speed up delivery, increase order accuracy, and boost customer satisfaction—when it’s done right. Because of this, it’s worth taking the time to select and implement an effective picking strategy. 

If you’re unsure where to begin—or simply want to make sure you choose the optimal method—bringing in outside experts can be a great way to gain clarity into warehouse best practices.

Optimize your order picking process with these tried-and-true strategies

Regardless of the picking process you adopt, you can—and should—follow these best practices to make your operations faster and more efficient. 

Automate with the right equipment and technology

Automation speeds up the order picking process and reduces the chance of errors. Consider adding the following technologies to your warehouse.

  • Pick-to-light technology. Pick-to-light technology uses LEDs on racks and shelves to guide pickers to the location of items in the warehouse. These visual cues help ensure that pickers find exactly the items they need. 
  • Mobile scanner picking. Mobile scanner picking involves assigning every product a unique barcode, then using handheld scanners to find and identify each item. If a worker scans the wrong item’s barcode, they’ll be notified of their mistake. Mobile scanners allow for real-time inventory tracking and increased picking accuracy.
  • Voice picking. With voice picking technology, workers wear a headset that delivers verbal instructions about what products to pick and where they’re located in the warehouse. Voice picking is particularly useful in environments where pickers need to keep their hands free.
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Autonomous mobile robots are self-guided robots that use sensors, cameras, and navigation systems to move safely within the warehouse environment. In addition to order picking, they’re useful for material transportation and inventory replenishment.
  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs). AGVs are vehicles that navigate through the warehouse to transport goods between locations. Unlike AMRs, which have cameras to detect obstacles, AGVs travel fixed paths with the help of wires or tape.
  • Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS). ASRS are robotic systems that automatically store and retrieve items using cranes, carousels, and other types of robotics. 
  • Goods-to-person robots. Goods-to-person robots bring items directly to pickers for order fulfillment, reducing walking time, optimizing workflows, and reducing labor costs.

Improve warehouse layout and organization

Most warehouses are designed in an I-shape, U-shape, or L-shape. These shapes describe the path goods travel from receiving to storage to shipping. While U-shaped warehouse layouts are ideal for smaller buildings, high-volume businesses usually go with an I-shaped layout.

Whatever layout you use, design a picking strategy that maximizes your space and decreases the distances pickers need to walk. 

In addition to warehouse layout, the way you organize inventory influences picking speed and accuracy. For example, some businesses store items that sell fastest close to packing stations, making it quicker to pick and pack them. You might also place products that are often sold together near each other in the warehouse. 

Set productivity goals

While automation will help streamline the order picking process, don’t forget about your human workers. You’ll accomplish more when pickers use technology effectively and follow processes exactly. 

To see how your system is currently working, measure productivity metrics such as on-time shipments, order picking accuracy, inventory accuracy, and orders picked per hour. Then set goals for improvement. Establishing picking quotas can motivate warehouse staff to be more productive, but don’t forget to provide the training and equipment necessary for them to succeed.

Optimize order fulfillment from picking to shipping

In the warehouse, order picking lays the foundation for every process that happens afterward: packaging, shipping, and even returns. As you work to build a perfect picking process, remember to seek out other solutions to keep your logistics centers streamlined.

For example, solutions like EasyPost Enterprise can save hours a week—and thousands of dollars a year—on fulfillment for high-volume shippers. The EasyPost enterprise suite of solutions includes on-prem or cloud-based shipping software, label and forms generation to meet any document need, advanced analytics, and more. 

Learn how EasyPost Enterprise can help your business.