ShipLeaf Academy

Warehouse prder picking: best practices

A warehouse operation can feel like a complicated machine with a lot of moving parts. Every working hour is full of activity, and nothing seems to sit still or stay the same for long. Everyone is moving quickly to get things done on time, and there’s very little room for error.

Among all of this hustle and bustle, it can be hard to imagine that picking orders within this warehouse environment could be made any simpler or faster. Fortunately, just a few simple strategies can make a huge difference when it comes to warehouse order picking.

Use two-bin storage for faster picking

Many fulfillment teams keep all of the stock for an item in one place. This makes receiving, put-away, counting, and picking as simple as possible. However, this can take up a lot of space in your picking area depending on how large each unit of inventory is, and how much total inventory you keep for each product.

This problem is compounded by how many products your team sells and fulfills. Since each SKU is taking up a significant amount of picking area space, your team members must pass all of that space to move from one SKU to the next when picking. That travel time adds up quickly, and can be reduced significantly by offering smaller picking bins with overflow inventory stored elsewhere.

With smaller picking bins per product, and fewer units of each product per bin, your team can access a greater range of SKUs within the same working space. As long as the team can replenish these bins throughout the day, this simple adjustment will greatly reduce the time and complexity involved in navigating the warehouse during picking.

Group high-flow products together

A big component in order picking efficiency is an efficient warehouse layout. No team benefits from long walking stretches between picked products, nor doubling back to cover the same area multiple times to get everything. The more we can reduce these unfortunate gaps in efficiency, the better for our team’s productivity and wellbeing.

If your brand has been selling for some time, you can probably identify which products sell frequently and which don’t. Try to rate each product in your inventory by “flow rate” — if a particular SKU sells more than once per day, it is “high-flow”. SKUs that average multiple days between sales are “low-flow”. For many brands, high-flow products make up only a small portion of the overall catalog but are responsible for a significant portion of sales revenue.

Since your fulfillment team needs to pull high-flow products more often than low-flow products, your warehouse layout should reflect this need. While it is common to arrange products by brand, supplier, or product category, this doesn’t lend as well to picking efficiency. Instead, try grouping your high-flow products together, and moving those picking locations closer to the main picking and packing workspace.

When done right, grouping high-flow products together in an optimized picking area will significantly reduce the amount of walking distance, and thus the overall picking time, needed for each order. Your fulfillment team will save energy and reduce stress by not having to race against the clock to pick each product up and down your warehouse aisles.

Surround your packing stations with top sellers

When you sort through your catalog and sales records to identify high-flow and low-flow products, you may observe that an unexpectedly small percentage of your catalog appears in a large percentage of your daily sales orders. This is very common, and in fact it’s typical that just 20% of a brand’s catalog will appear in 80% of fulfilled orders. This 80/20 rule is called the Pareto Principle, and is observed in other areas of business and daily life as well.

Identifying those top-selling SKUs that appear in most of your orders presents another opportunity for picking optimization. Since you probably have a portion of your warehouse cleared for packing and shipping, pickers must move away from this area to pull items for each order before returning to that same area with the picked goods.

The space immediately around your packing stations is the perfect place for your top sellers to be stored for picking. If your fulfillment team can pick all, or even just a portion, of a large amount of daily orders without traveling far away from the packing area, the total time to pick those orders will be very short.

You can combine this tip with the previous section by categorizing your products into three groups: “A” sellers, “B” sellers, and “C” sellers. The percentages needed to qualify for each category may need adjusting based on your order makeup and volume, but a good starting point is as follows: your top 20% of SKUs could be “A” sellers, the following 30% could be “B” sellers, and the remaining 50% are “C” sellers.

The reason for this breakdown is that most brands have a catalog where fewer than 50% of the total SKUs are likely to appear in any given order. If that’s the case for your brand, most orders will only contain “A” and “B” sellers, while a minority of orders will require that your team picks “C” sellers. If you lay out your warehouse’s picking locations so that “A” sellers are closest to the packing area, “B” sellers are located just past the “B” sellers, and the “C” sellers are the furthest away, then the time to pick your average order will be greatly minimized.

Use barcode scanning to boost speed and accuracy

Many fields where optimization is an actively studied practice will use the term “bottleneck” to identify inefficiencies that block benefits that could be realized elsewhere. For example, a construction project that takes 2 weeks to plan and 6 months to build may take over 10 months to complete because approval of the plans took 4 months. The approval step was a significant bottleneck in the project’s completion, and steps taken to avoid that delay can allow future projects to be finished faster.

For most warehouse picking operations, the layout of products for picking is the first significant bottleneck that can be identified and resolved. While constant experimentation is ideal to continue improving on your picking layout, your team may soon identify other bottlenecks in your operation once the first has been addressed. Another common pain point in warehouse order picking that becomes more obvious after layout issues have been addressed is the time it takes to identify and verify which items to pick for an order, especially when done to avoid order picking mistakes.

Order picking accuracy is vitally important to save cost and avoid negative customer experiences. Nobody likes receiving something the wrong product when ordering goods online, and the time and cost incurred in resolving these issues add up quickly. But verifying picking accuracy can slow down the process of order picking, especially if multiple team members are needed to check and double-check each order. Fortunately, a simple solution can be implemented to make order picking faster as well as more accurate.

Barcode scanning is the industry standard solution for order picking speed and accuracy issues. By providing barcodes on each unit of inventory, and requiring scanning during the order fulfillment process, a fulfillment team can ensure 100% accuracy without slowing down picking or adding verification steps to their workflow.

Once you’ve barcoded your inventory, your team can implement barcode scanning in one of two places in your process: team members can scan items as they’re picked or scan picked items as they’re packed. As long as each order is scanned completely once before shipment, your team can ensure 100% accuracy while still picking quickly and efficiently.

Every warehouse team will benefit from experimenting with optimizations and measuring improvements to see what works and what doesn’t. Make sure that your order fulfillment software is keeping up with the efficiency gains your team is achieving. ShipLeaf was designed from the ground up to work fast and smart for ecommerce businesses big and small. Get started today and see what our optimization tools can do for your warehouse.