Order picking speed and accuracy can directly impact a company’s profitability. Inefficient processes are costly and customers have high expectations for shipping speed, while mistakes can negatively affect customer satisfaction and lead to an expensive returns process. To develop an effective order picking operation, it’s vital to consider the many factors that contribute to the workflow, such as the various picking types, methods and technologies.

What Is Order Picking?

Order picking is the process of pulling the right inventory off of shelves to satisfy a customer order. Workers travel through the warehouse with a digital or paper pick list to collect the necessary SKUs for either one or multiple orders at a time, depending on the picking strategy employed. Because the order picking process can directly influence overall supply chain productivity (namely, order processing speed) and inventory control, it’s important for any business that fulfills orders to devise an organized order picking strategy that prioritizes speed without sacrificing accuracy.

Key Takeaways

  • Order picking is a vital piece of overall warehouse management and order fulfillment.
  • Speed and accuracy are the two most important factors to consider.
  • A business can use a variety of order picking methods and types to create the best order picking strategy for its needs.
  • Order picking technologies such as voice-picking devices, RF scanners and robots can greatly increase order picking speed and accuracy.

Order Picking Explained

A basic process in warehouse management, order picking may seem simple and straightforward. But it’s actually one of the most labor-intensive warehouse tasks, widely reported to account for 50% to 55% of total warehouse operational costs. Workers can walk miles in a day traversing the warehouse floor, sometimes routinely lifting heavy and cumbersome items to fulfill customer orders as quickly as possible to keep up with consumer expectations for rapid fulfillment. Although automation of warehouse processes is on the rise and some companies are adding robotics to assist workers, picking remains a largely manual process.

Even with automation, not all businesses will be able to match the fulfillment speeds of precedent-setting ecommerce giants. Still, understanding your own product offerings and customer needs can go a long way toward devising a more effective order picking strategy. Put simply, every company will have a different order picking system, and some companies will employ several methods, depending on the products and types of orders being picked. It’s also important to note that strong inventory management practices will benefit the order picking process by keeping products logically organized and stocked.

Order Picking Goals

Order Picking Goals

To establish an effective order picking process, all businesses must keep four particular goals in mind: minimize travel, errors and injuries, and maximize space.

  • Minimize travel. Travel time — or how long workers spend traversing the warehouse floor to collect items — is one of the biggest drains on warehouse productivity. Workers can easily spend up to half their time navigating from item to item. Picking one item several feet away from another and then backtracking might seem like a small delay in the moment, but it can quickly add up over the course of an eight-hour shift. To minimize travel, strategically organize the warehouse and carefully plan picking routes. Keep fast-moving SKUs close to the packing area and group SKUs frequently ordered together near one another. Regularly touch base with workers to understand what factors impede travel across the warehouse.

  • Minimize errors. Errors can include selecting the wrong items, omitting items or including the wrong quantity. Wrong items may have to go back on the shelves, and may be returned if they’re sent to the customer. If the packing team receives the wrong quantity of a SKU, a picker will have to navigate the warehouse again to retrieve the remaining item(s) or return the excess, increasing travel time. While human error is inevitable, it’s possible to improve accuracy by using technology like barcode scanners and pick-to-light systems. When errors do occur, keep records and analyze them to find the root of the problem. Something that initially seems easy to blame on staff may be due to inefficient processes, equipment problems or an unreliable shipping partner.

  • Minimize injuries. Ensuring warehouse safety is key to preventing injury on the job. It’s easy to prioritize occupational health and safety standards, like forklift safety or material-handling practices, but ergonomics also plays a key role in minimizing warehouse injuries. Repetitive motions, especially when involving heavy products, can lead to strains and injuries that are often preventable. In addition to making sure items are easy to reach and at a comfortable height, use hand trucks and carts whenever possible. Moreover, be sure to permit breaks for workers to stretch and relax; fatigued employees are not only more prone to injury, but tend to be less accurate.

  • Maximize space. Workers waste time if items are hard to locate. Aisles that aren’t wide enough can be a problem for forklifts and other material-handling equipment. Floor plans that fail to allow for a clear flow of traffic can result in bottlenecks. A carefully organized warehouse will maximize space and improve the order picking process. When all inventory is appropriately stored and a clear traffic pattern exists, workers can function efficiently.

How Does Order Picking Impact Profitability?

While it’s clear that order picking directly affects warehouse operations, it can also affect larger business objectives like profitability. The rate at which workers pick orders can keep order fulfillment and other warehouse operations on track — or cause them to lag. Generally, inefficient order picking processes fail to make the most of equipment, warehouse space or a worker’s time and energy, meaning organizations aren’t getting the full return on their investments in people, processes and technology. This can hurt the bottom line.

Accuracy matters, too. For example, when pickers collect the wrong items or not enough items, they must backtrack to fix errors, adding to travel time and postponing the next pick on their list, putting picking and packing teams behind schedule. But sometimes mistakes get past the picking and packing teams and customers receive the wrong products or quantity. Not only can this strain customer relationships, but it can strain the return process — an already costly part of order fulfillment. Of 2020’s $565 billion in U.S. ecommerce retail sales, consumers returned an estimated $102 billion in merchandise. And many retailers throw away up to 25% of returns.

Improving order picking is an important warehouse goal for organizations because even the smallest optimization — such as slightly adjusting pallet height for easier access, or using batch or wave picking instead of single order picking — can benefit both customer experience and profitability.

Order Picking Elements

To devise an effective order picking strategy for all types of orders, it’s important to consider three key elements: order picking methods, types and technologies.

  • Order picking methods directly affect how a team picks orders. For example, some methods require the worker to travel to item locations within the warehouse, while others use automation and robotics to bring items to the picker.

  • Order picking types, such as single order picking, batch picking and wave picking, can make or break the order picking process. There’s no single best strategy for all organizations, so it’s important to select the right options for your order fulfillment needs. For example, single order picking may be ideal for a small shop with a few simple orders but inefficient for a large company handling many orders and various SKUs.

  • Order picking technology, such as voice picking, radio frequency (RF), barcode scanners, pick-to-light, robotic solutions and automation, can shorten the process and reduce human error. Some order picking technologies decrease human error by up to 67% compared to using paper pick lists, for example.

Order Picking Methods

Organizations have a variety of order picking methods at their disposal to best suit their different needs.

  • Picker-to-part: Also known as picker-to-goods, the picker moves around the warehouse to collect the items necessary for an order. Pickers might collect items directly into totes, carts or shipping cartons, and teams can use a variety of picking types, such as single order picking, batch picking and wave picking.

    • Advantages: Allows for customizable workflows to suit the organization’s needs.

    • Disadvantages: Travel time is generally high, as workers must continually traverse the warehouse/item storage areas.

  • Pick-to-carton: A subset of picker-to-part, pickers note the dimensions and weights of orders before picking. They then choose the appropriate shipping carton, and items are picked directly into it.

    • Advantages: Can save time because it eliminates a formal packing operation.

    • Disadvantages: Only works well when products are of a similar size and weight. Can be inefficient for companies with diverse product offerings. Risk of human error; pickers can inadvertently place item(s) in the wrong containers.

  • Pick-to-tote: A subset of picker-to-part, workers pick items for orders and place them directly into a tote. Orders are then taken to a dedicated packing station, where they are sorted and packed into the appropriate packaging.

    • Advantages: The “one-size-fits-all” nature of totes means pickers can easily pick any products directly into a tote.

    • Disadvantages: Unlike pick-to-carton, pick-to-tote requires a dedicated packing function. Can be time-consuming because items must be sorted after they’re picked. Risk of human error; packers could incorrectly sort orders.

  • Pick-to-cart: A subset of picker-to-part, workers navigate the warehouse to pick items for orders, placing them on a rolling cart before they’re packed for delivery. Each cart usually comprises multiple containers, and pickers generally pick multiple SKUs for multiple orders.

    • Advantages: Saves time by enabling multiple orders to be picked at once.

    • Disadvantages: Can be challenging to organize an optimized picking route through the warehouse without an order management system (OMS) or warehouse management system (WMS). Risk of human error; pickers can inadvertently place items in the wrong container.

  • Part-to-picker: Also known as goods-to-picker, products move from storage to picking bays, where the picking operator collects them. Part-to-picker is a high-tech method that relies on modern components like carousels, sorting systems and robotic units that can present entire shelving units to pickers.

    • Advantages: Can greatly reduce travel time because inventory is brought directly to pickers.

    • Disadvantages: Workers can experience downtime waiting for goods to be delivered to their picking location.

What Are the Different Order Picking Types?

Different Order Picking Types

There is a wide range of order picking types that organizations can use in conjunction with the order picking methods listed above. Before settling on a strategy, take time to understand the different ways to pick orders.

  • Single order picking: Also known as discrete picking or pick-to-order, single order picking entails having each worker pick all items for a single order before preparing the order for shipping. Pickers usually rely on a printed pick list, featuring one SKU at a time. Compare this to someone going to the grocery store and filling their cart with all the items on their shopping list, one item at a time.

    • Advantages: Simplicity, less chance of mix-ups. Can work well within small warehouses with low order volumes. Easy to train employees.

    • Disadvantages: Inefficient, especially for companies with many orders to fulfill. Travel time increases because the picker usually must walk through the whole warehouse just to complete a single order.

  • Batch picking: Also known as multi-order picking, multiple orders are grouped into small batches. A single worker simultaneously picks multiple items for one batch of several orders, one SKU at a time, usually placing them into a cart, bin or tote. This eliminates unnecessary trips to the same spot over and over again. Batch picking is often used when orders have only a few SKUs of small items; searching for too many items or large items can become cumbersome.

    • Advantages: Eliminates repetitive trips because the picker visits each pick location once to fill several orders.

    • Disadvantages: Most effective when there are multiple orders with the same SKU. May need to use an order management system (OMS) that analyzes orders to determine the most efficient batches to bundle and the most efficient pick routes.

  • Wave picking: Orders to be picked are scheduled into waves throughout the day. For example, in each scheduled wave, certain types of orders are all picked within a specific time frame to better coordinate shipping activity, especially if certain orders must depart on the same truck at the same time. Wave picking can be performed like single order picking (each worker focusing on one order at a time) or like batch picking (each worker handling multiple orders at once). Warehouse managers might use an OMS or warehouse management system (WMS) to assign groups of orders into “waves” to establish a daily workflow.

    • Advantages: Enables warehouses to align all operations, including receiving, picking and shipping.

    • Disadvantages: Requires using an OMS or WMS to best schedule waves.

  • Zone picking: The warehouse is organized into several discrete zones, with order pickers assigned to work within a specific zone and only pick SKUs within that zone. Workers might simultaneously collect multiple items for multiple orders. Zone picking is often combined with other picking methods, such as pick and pass and order consolidation, which are detailed below.

    • Advantages: Reduces travel time for individual packers. Particularly useful when pickers need to compile orders that contain multiple discrete components.

    • Disadvantages: Some zones can end up with more work than others, leading to uneven distribution of labor.

  • Pick and pass: A type of zone picking in which workers (within their zones) pick multiple SKUs for multiple orders at a time. They deposit items into a tote or bin that’s then passed to the next zone. For example, a worker might add all SKUs from Zone 1 into a bin before passing the bin to a worker in Zone 2 and so on until she has picked all items for an order.

    • Advantages: Especially effective for high-volume warehouses that tend to see high traffic in multiple areas. Large orders can be fulfilled quickly.

    • Disadvantages: The succeeding zone worker may have downtime while waiting to receive a bin from the previous zone.

  • Order consolidation: A type of zone picking in which pickers work within their assigned zones to pick multiple SKUs to fulfill one wave of multiple orders at a time. All workers in all zones pick items from the same wave of orders simultaneously, with picked items sent to the packing station for sorting and consolidation (instead of being passed onto the next zone, as in pick and pass).

    • Advantages: Faster than pick and pass because pickers don’t have to wait for the previous zone to finish picking.

    • Disadvantages: Adds time and complexity to the sorting and consolidation process.

  • Combination of types: It’s not uncommon for companies to combine two or more of the above picking types. For example, zone picking might be combined with wave picking, batch picking or both.

    • Advantages: Can lead to highly structured picking strategies that reduce travel time and help each picker work as efficiently as possible. Can allow more picks to be completed simultaneously.

    • Disadvantages: Can add unnecessary complexity if not executed well. Relies on an effective WMS or OMS to devise the most efficient picking strategies.

Which Order Picking Method Is Best?

There’s no one-size-fits-all order picking strategy that’s best for all companies. The best blend of picking method and type depends on a business’s needs and order picking requirements. Criteria can include volume of customer orders, size of the items and orders, complexity and cost — not to mention warehouse size, layout, available order picking technologies and staff. For example, simple processes — like picker-to-part methods that use single order picking or batch picking — are generally best for small businesses. But as the business grows, it may need to consider more complex ways to pick orders to maintain efficiency, such as part-to-picker systems that incorporate robotic units, carousels and sorting systems.

Whatever their size, it’s important for organizations to stay agile in their order picking approaches and constantly reassess their strategies. Items with high order volumes and multiple SKU counts may fare better with part-to-picker systems, while low-volume products might benefit from single order picker-to-part strategies. Sometimes, it may be wise to adopt new picking methods during peak seasons or when new products are released.

Optimizing Order Picking With the Best Technology and Equipment

Optimizing Order Picking With the Best Technology and Equipment

If you can simplify the order picking process, you can offer customers faster order fulfillment. Investing in technologies that promote picking accuracy can be the key to fast and accurate picking while minimizing costs and maximizing capabilities. By going paperless and perhaps integrating with WMS or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the following technologies can make work much easier for order pickers:

  • Voice picking is a system that equips order pickers with real-time instructions. Hands-free and paperless, voice picking systems provide pickers with a headset that directs pickers via voice prompts. Pickers are guided to locations and told what to pick and how much. Some voice picking systems allow workers to provide voice feedback to confirm they are picking the right item or quantity. Others may be combined with RF scanners to further increase accuracy and productivity.

  • RF scanners transmit information via radio frequencies, enabling workers to transmit data in real time when tasks are performed. These wireless handheld devices typically direct workers via a screen that shows them what to pick and how much. The picker can then use the device to confirm tasks by scanning barcodes on product or shelf locations.

  • Pick-to-light is a paperless system composed of a series of modules with colored lights and display screens attached to inventory locations. Lights illuminate targeted pick quantities and may display a container identification number so the worker knows where to deposit picked items. When picking tasks are completed, the light turns off. Depending on the system, the display might show “done.” Pick-to-light systems can also be used for putting, sorting and assembling.

  • Vertical lift modules, or VLMs, are essentially vending machines in which inventory items are securely stored until retrieved by an order picker. This eliminates the need to walk between aisles to pull items from shelves and can speed up the order picking process in a big way. VLMs can generally extend higher than forklifts, meaning vertical storage space can rise higher than usual, if space permits.

  • Robots enhance the traditional, manual picking process by operating alongside. Designed to complement manual picking processes, robots work in collaboration with order pickers. The robot may automatically navigate to a picking zone, for example, where a picker places an item into a bin or tote attached to the robot. The robot then autonomously navigates to the next zone, continuing until all items are picked. There are several types of robots used in warehouse operations:

    • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs): Guided vehicles that follow fixed routes similar to a train or tram. Compared to other options, AGVs tend to be better suited to obeying simple orders, like moving pallets of items or transporting carts and totes between picking zones.

    • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs): Autonomous vehicles that navigate a warehouse without fixed routes, similar to a car. They are powerful computing machines that react to the warehouse environment, including people and forklifts. AMRs can transport inventory between zones as well as sort items, for example.

    • Aerial drones: Autonomous vehicles that fly through distribution warehouses to complete specific order picking tasks. While drones aren’t often used to pick inventory, they can be used to navigate to pick locations, accurately scan barcodes or keep track of inventory.

    • Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): Warehouse automation technology designed to retrieve items on demand. There are many AS/RS systems available, including cranes, carousels, shuttles and VLMs. AS/RS systems can be particularly useful for the part-to-picker method.

  • Smart glasses allow users to view pick information within their field of vision, instead of having to look down at a paper or mobile device. Smart glasses provide instructions for the picker, who then captures barcodes within the glasses’ vision instead of using a handheld device. Smart glasses often incorporate speakers and microphones as well, allowing workers to confirm activities or ask for help.

  • Software solutions play a critical role in developing and maintaining an optimized order picking strategy. Order picking benefits from the use of OMS, WMS, ERP and inventory management software, for example. These tools keep records of all individual SKUs — their quantities, storage locations and all other necessary information — as they move in and out of the warehouse. Software solutions can also coordinate optimal picking paths and schedules, and integrate with other technologies, from voice picking solutions and smart glasses to RF scanners and robotics.

Warehouse Order Picking Tips and Best Practices

Though using the technologies above can go a long way in developing highly effective order picking workflows, they won’t make the job easier if you’re not heeding certain best practices. The following order picking tips can help ensure a more effective strategy:

  1. Use labeled dividers, totes and bins for easier and faster picking. Avoid mixing multiple SKUs into one tote or bin at all costs. If a worker has to sort through a bin containing several different SKUs, not only is it more time-consuming, but it can reduce picking accuracy. Whether items are stored in racks, on shelves or within an automated system, breaking up inventory into appropriately labeled dividers, totes and bins can help workers find what they need faster.

  2. Prioritize replenishment of frequently ordered items. Throughout the day, stock in picking locations will become depleted as items are picked. These storage locations must be replenished in a timely manner to prevent instances where workers are left standing around and waiting. Always strive to ensure storage bin and tote locations are full before pickers start picking. Perhaps you’ll need to schedule a second or third shift that exclusively replenishes stock so workers don’t waste time during the picking process.

  3. Automate order picking. Tools like AS/RS, including vertical carousels, horizontal carousels and VLMs, consolidate inventory items to save on floor space; they’re also dynamic and movable, unlike static shelving. Because these technologies bring parts to pickers, they can significantly reduce travel and search times. Single operators can complete picks that otherwise would require several workers, and those workers can instead be reassigned to other value-adding tasks. Automation can also help compensate for labor shortages or busy seasons.

  4. Design warehouse spaces for inventory workflow. Warehouse organization involves multiple components. First, carefully work with the receiving department to establish storage locations that are efficient for picking; it’s common for receiving teams to prioritize ease of putaway, rather than pick accessibility. Further, be sure that each area of the warehouse is designed to flow from one activity to the next, from receiving to shipping. Logical flow of inventory minimizes the need for backtracking. Space is also important: Warehouse aisles should be wide enough to accommodate the free flow of workers and equipment without causing bottlenecks.

  5. Zone fast-moving SKUs together. Keep high-volume SKUs together to optimize order picking activities, thus reducing travel times because workers won’t have to double back or travel far distances to receive products that either sell a lot or are frequently purchased together. Make sure each zone is well-designed and able to accommodate high-volume traffic. Zone fast-moving items closer to packing and shipping for more efficiency.

  6. Establish key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs can help you set benchmarks for your order picking operations, making it easier to identify areas for improvement. Consider tracking KPIs that measure pick accuracy, labor costs and travel time, or how many orders are filled in a given time frame.

Work Smarter With NetSuite’s Warehouse Management System

A warehouse management system can help any organization optimize its order picking strategies in a variety of ways. NetSuite’s ERP platform offers OMS capabilities, as well as a WMS module with a number of valuable features, including:

  • Automatically devising pick strategies that enable the system to identify the proper recommended bin location, based on parameters such as first-expired, first-out (FEFO).

  • Automatically devising optimal pick paths for single order and multi-order picking, cutting back on travel time and physical labor.

  • Facilitating a wave picking strategy, allowing warehouse managers to utilize wave release templates that identify which orders to release to picking teams, based on criteria such as customer, expected ship date, item type, warehouse location, shipping method and any or all of the above.

  • Automatically identifying clustering opportunities for businesses employing a multi-order picking strategy. For example, for a worker picking the same item for three orders released in one wave, the system will recommend that the worker pick for all three orders in one fell swoop instead of traversing the warehouse three times to get to the same bin location.

Order picking is one of the most important components of the order fulfillment process. The speed and accuracy at which orders can be picked directly influences shipping time and customer satisfaction. To create an optimal order picking process, it’s important to employ the picking methods and types that best suit your business needs.


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Order Picking FAQs

Why is pulling orders accurately so important?

Order picking is one of the most labor-intensive warehouse tasks, typically accounting for half of total warehouse operational costs. The order picking process can directly influence overall supply chain productivity (namely, order processing speed), so it’s important for any business that fulfills orders to devise an organized order picking strategy that prioritizes speed without sacrificing accuracy.

What is a sorting system?

A sorting system, like a high-tech part-to-picker system, moves products from storage to picking bays. The picking operator collects products after they’ve been delivered to the bay via an automated material-handling system.