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Pick, Pack, and Ship: How Warehousing & Order Fulfillment Work

An efficient order fulfillment process starts with the right packing services. Simple inventory management can get an eCommerce business off the ground, but the art of truly efficient management requires more planning. The right pick, pack, and ship method can help businesses of any size manage their orders, increase profits, reduce expenses, and improve their customer satisfaction.

In this guide, we cover the basics of warehouse picking and packing, the main methods and strategies that eCommerce businesses should know, and the pick and pack software that can offer additional support for businesses that want to put these methods to the test.

What is “pick and pack”

Pick and pack methods of order fulfillment can be managed within a company or outsourced to a third-party fulfillment service. Businesses of any size can use pick and pack processes to their advantage, from new eCommerce sites to established giants.

Pick and pack lists allow warehouses to use efficient pick priority to process merchandise orders more cost-effectively. Pick priority describes how inventory managers select items to fulfill multiple orders. Even walking time factors into the cost-effectiveness of a packing operation, with 50% of costs often going towards paying inefficient pickers to walk inefficient routes to their packing orders.

An efficient pick, pack, and ship process reduces costs while increasing efficiency. It does so by following the four basic steps of picking and packing: receiving, picking, packing, and shipping.

Receiving Orders – Due to advances in eCommerce infrastructure, warehouses can receive orders as they are made. When a customer purchases a product, your fulfillment software creates a packing slip and sends it to the appropriate warehouse for fulfillment.

Picking Orders – This packing slip goes to your warehouse personnel. They use it to pick the items that will be shipping in each order. Pick and pack services rely on this step and the so-called pick priority to become more (or less) efficient. Ineffective storage systems and picking orders result in orders that take longer to fulfill and customers that take more effort to satisfy. We discuss specific picking strategies in detail below.

Packing Orders – The packing step is simple. Once the items are picked, they go to a packing station to be prepared for shipping, including being sealed and labeled.

Shipping Orders – The carrier collects the items from the packing station and moves them to the loading dock. Your business’s designated carriers will distribute the items from there.

Here are some additional basic tips on creating an efficient pick and pack system:

  1. Warehouses should keep boxes and packing materials on hand so that orders never have to wait for packing materials to arrive before being fulfilled.
  2. A clear process of pick priority allows warehouse managers to fulfill orders more efficiently.
  3. Modern pick and pack software such as 3PL Central should be used to your company’s advantage to streamline the fulfillment process.
  4. Companies should consider making use of third-party fulfillment services to manage their pick and pack methods. This takes the strain off their own labor and transfers it to companies that know the most efficient shipping methods in your industry.

Why businesses benefit from pick and pack strategies

The basic practices we all use to organize our shelves come to bear on our strategies for managing the inventory of our stores. The reason these processes work at home is that the “inventory” of our closets is so limited that we’re unlikely to make mistakes. As inventories increase in size, our simple picking methods become breeding grounds for human error.

Consider an eCommerce store that sells shoes. In your closet at home, you put all your shoes together in the closet, maybe on a single dedicated shelf. In a warehouse, it seems to make sense to do the same. However, your inventory pickers will make errors picking up size 10 brown loafers sitting on the shelf next to size 9 brown loafers. To compensate, they will have to move much more slowly. As your enterprise grows and the number of shoes increases, the chance for error goes up and efficiency goes down.

Pick and pack methods introduce strategic chaos into your inventory sorting strategy. They prevent the mistakes of conventional sorting by creating a system that works for larger inventories.

The main pick and pack methods

Proper pick and pack methods reduce mistakes, increase efficiency, and cut costs for retailers of any size. The methods that work best for your business can change depending on your company’s products. The main idea is that fulfilling your orders one at a time can become labor-intensive. New methods can streamline your workload and reduce mistakes.

Consider how each pick and pack strategy will affect the efficiency of your unique shipping process. There are four methods that retailers should understand: piece picking, zone picking, batch picking, and wave picking.

Piece Picking

Piece picking involves fulfilling each packing slip individually. Your warehouse personnel retrieve each item separately and complete the order at the packing station. This method could prove difficult for large enterprises as it requires intensive labor to complete for multiple large orders. However, for a small business, this method proves to be the most straightforward.

Zone Picking

By contrast, zone picking caters to the larger enterprises. In this method, warehouse personnel are assigned “zones” of the warehouse and collect the items in their zone, sharing an order with other zones. After the packing slip makes it through all the zones, it gets packed and shipped.

This method requires a great management system to keep everyone on the same page when the packing slips get passed around. Management software is a priority in this case to keep track of the contents of every order.

Batch Picking

Batch picking prioritizes efficiency. With this method, coordinators organize the packing slips into batches that correspond to areas in the warehouse. This gives warehouse personnel an efficient route through the warehouse to pick up each item in that area before moving on. Batch picking fulfills multiple orders at once to save personnel time and energy walking through the warehouse. If two orders include the same shirt, they can pick them both up at the same time.

Even small businesses can make use of batch picking. Rather than collect for each order, you can collect items in multiple orders at the same time. Batching orders can be useful, though doing so efficiently requires organizational skills or the help of inventory management software.

Wave Picking

Wave picking uses the warehouse’s zones determined in zone picking to collect all the items for an order in that zone before passing it to the next worker. However, wave picking also adds to the strategy behind batch picking, where personnel gather multiple orders at once. Each zone’s slips are completed before the batch of slips passes to the next zone, and so on until they reach the packing station.

Strategies for pick and pack

Efficient pick and pack fulfillment requires a strategic warehouse setup, an understanding of available warehouse picking software, and the application of a few basic best practices. To reduce errors, returns, and customer service costs in your fulfillment process, use these practices in your packing room or warehouse:

  • Utilize pick and pack software to organize boxes by calculating which sizes are needed for each order. The less you and your personnel have to guess the box sizes, the better.
  • After the orders have been picked, re-scan them to double-check the accuracy of the order compared to the packing slip. This will save your operation shipping charges, return charges, and customer service issues later.
  • Instruct your packers on the packing materials needed for each order. Reduce their guesswork and their chance for error by directing them to the correct packing methods for each order.

These represent basic strategies for fulfilling orders efficiently no matter which pick and pack method your operation uses. These strategies bolster a proper warehouse setup, which emphasizes a varied inventory management system over the conventional methods you may be used to.

How to set up a warehouse for pick and pack

When eCommerce businesses first set up shop, they try to apply conventional organization strategies to their enterprise. However, these often fail to measure up to the needs of a large organization and can slow down even the smallest eCommerce enterprise by reducing efficiency and increasing costs. Recall the earlier example of the size 10 shoes. If you put all the shoes on one shelf, like a sock drawer in your room, your employees always run a greater risk of packing the wrong item.

Accurate pick and pack methods forgo conventional thinking when it comes to organizing an inventory. Since a wrong order means an unsatisfied customer, which means additional costs in returns and a loss of customer loyalty, these methods represent an evolution in how businesses think of their inventory strategies.

Volume-based Inventory Sorting

When arranging a warehouse or storeroom by the volume of each item you sell, you can minimize the amount of time it takes to retrieve the items for the majority of orders. Rather than have all the clothing items grouped together near the packing station, for instance, items of all types that sell quickly and often should be stored nearest to the station.

As you go further from the station, the items become less frequently purchased. This means that you and your workers spend most of the day taking fewer steps to the items being ordered, completing your pick and pack process more quickly as a result.

Class-based Inventory Sorting

If your catalog contains items of many different sizes that require different boxes to pack and ship, class-based sorting may work for you. This method organizes products by something they share in common, such as size. In this case, you can group them based on the required packing materials.

Chaotic Inventory Sorting

Chaotic inventory sorting organizes items in your warehouse at random. To reduce mistakes, size 10 loafers are not placed on a shelf next to size 9 loafers – they sit on a shelf with a certain kind of toaster and a computer cord so that the employee who goes to that aisle to get shoes will always pick up the correct ones.

A chaotic system can be combined with the other methods for varying results. For instance, items could be grouped by required packing materials, such as everything that needs bubble wrap, but also randomized within that group to promote chaotic sorting.

Pick and pack software

The goal of an efficient warehouse setup and picking method is to reduce the potential for errors in the fulfillment process. However, no matter how you sort your inventory, pick and pack software is the only way to pull it off effectively. With the software’s help, the packing slips will provide employees with the most effective route through the warehouse, saving time and reducing errors.

The 3PL Central warehouse management platform transforms conventional on-paper organization into a method efficient enough for 21st-century eCommerce businesses. 3PL optimizes warehouse management, inventory sorting, and workflows. It does this by automating routine tasks and giving you complete control over the essential ones.

The more you know about your fulfillment methods, the better informed your customers will be about the state of their orders. The reason that cloud-based WMS platforms like 3PL accelerate growth in modern supply chains and improve the bottom line is that transparency is key in eCommerce. 3PL keeps its clients up to date so they can keep their customers informed as well.

Is the pick and pack process right for your business?

With efficient pick and pack fulfillment methods, eCommerce businesses can give more accurate orders, increase efficiency, and reduce shipping costs. To do so, they need to optimize their warehouse setup, choose the right inventory management strategy, and implement modern pick and pack software to manage the system. Not only will a modern pick and pack method lead to company growth, but it also allows businesses to keep up with this growth when it happens.