Who would’ve thought that there could be a variety of ways to pick and pack products. It’s a plain task — just look at what’s needed for every order, pick the product out of its storage, and place it into the packaging.
It’s an overlooked part of the fulfillment process, mostly because it’s the most simple. But once order volumes grow, so does the importance of picking and packing. A higher order volume means more time spent processing orders, and that process can be optimized to save you time and money.
Discrete Order Picking
The most common and simplest method is discrete order picking. If you’re already fulfilling orders, you’re probably already doing it: an e-retailer receives an order, prints the packing list — a slip of paper listing the various products in the order — and begins picking and packing each item before moving to the next order.
If simplicity is key, discrete picking is the lock hole — it’s straightforward and simple, hence why it’s commonly used. Every order’s contents are plucked and packed before any other order is touched. E-retailers with smaller product catalogs and order volumes typically use this method, and, because orders are completed one by one, room for error is reduced.
But being easy and safe comes at the cost of efficiency, especially if you’re juggling a high volume of orders per day.
One at time means visiting the same location multiple times. For instance, let’s say you’re fulfilling ten orders. Each contains three or more SKUs, but a few of the orders share one or more of the same SKU. With the discrete model, one-at-a-time picking and packing, you’re wasting some time returning to a SKU when you could’ve picked whatever quantity you needed in total for those ten orders.
Batch picking focuses more on efficiency. It’s centered around picking and packing a bunch of orders one SKU at a time, not one order at a time. Because of that focus, it remedies the issue of repeatedly returning to an SKU’s location with every order. With batch, you’re collecting all the SKUs before completing any order.
Like discrete packing, it’s a common method (whether you know you’re using it or not!) because its efficiency is scalable. It’s as time-effective for just-starting-out merchants as it is for larger merchants with employees paid to pick and pack orders.
It does, however, have its limitations. Batch picking gets unwieldy when orders have several SKUs, as it creates more opportunity for error. It’s also a no-go when an order’s physical dimensions are large.
That’s where the following two picking methods arrive — they’re usually reserved for high order volume businesses that pay for storage space or employees that pick, pack, and fulfill orders.
Wave picking is very similar to discrete order picking because you’re handling one order at a time. The main difference is that groups of similar orders are fulfilled during scheduled time frames (waves). How those orders are grouped can be based on a variety of factors. Here are a few:
- Orders containing items stored in close proximity to one another
- Orders with similar or common SKUs that are often sold together
- Orders with similarly-timed shipping deadlines
Wave picking is also useful if you’re fulfilling orders that require different shipping methods.
For instance, let’s say you’ve got a business centered around vintage records. You sell a variety of vinyls, as well as larger products, like record players and stands. The smaller, flat records are cost-effectively shipped via USPS, but you ship the larger players and stands via FedEx because it’s less costly.
If you wave pick, you can set certain timeframes when you pick and pack orders to be shipped by USPS or FedEx. Then you can line up those times with a shipping carrier’s scheduled pickup time.
Wave picking is fair game for any merchant, but the main reason it exists is for those larger businesses that store a considerable amount of product and hire employees paid specifically to pick, pack, and fulfill orders. Frequently, by the time wave picking makes a considerable difference in efficiency, a merchant’s order volume is high enough to afford outsourcing fulfillment with a 3PL.
Zone picking is for the big boys — it’s about assigning an employee to a specific area within a warehouse. When orders arrive, that employee picks all of the SKUs within an assigned zone.
For instance, if an order consists of products all located within “Joe the Picker’s” designated Zone A, he’ll end up picking and packing the entire order. If an order consists of products stored in multiple zones, Joe will only pick and pack the products of Zone A, passing the order on to Zone B afterward.
Efficiency if the name of the game. Zone picking is very much reminiscent of the tried and true assembly line process that caused the production booms of the 20th century. And it also opens the door for some employee specialization.
Referring back to that vintage record example, let’s say you’re storing a huge amount of records in a warehouse along with stacks on stacks of record players. Records are fragile — train employees to treat them with specialized care. And to get those stacked record players down from the shelves, hire employees capable of safely operating a forklift.