Pick and pack article originally published by, and permission to publish here provided by, Jake Rheude at redstagfulfillment.com.
A lot more goes into successful order fulfillment than shelves of neatly stacked products. There is an art and a science to pick and pack methods.
Good inventory management and the right pick and pack software will help you ship orders with maximum speed and accuracy.
Here is your ultimate guide to pick and pack methods.
Pick, Pack and Ship: The Heart of Order Fulfillment
You might get your pick and pack service from a 3PL provider or manage your own order fulfillment. In either case, the basic pick and pack process is the same.
• Order receiving. Your eCommerce sales channels are integrated with your warehouse systems. When one of your customers places an order, the software at your fulfillment warehouse generates a packing slip.
• Order picking. A warehouse worker takes the packing slip and picks the items for the order from the warehouse shelves. This is the core of the pick and pack service. Your inventory storage strategy and your pick and pack methods are key here. They will determine the efficiency of this step of the process. Different methods will work best for different businesses, depending on sales volume.
• Order packing. The order goes to a packing station where it is packed securely, sealed, and labeled for shipping.
• Order shipping. Orders are sorted by carrier on the loading dock. They are ready for pickup by your carrier or carriers at the end of the day.
Shipping your orders may seem simple. However, there is actually a complex science behind efficient pick and pack methods. Knowledge of these methods and strategies can help you run your business better. This is true whether you are a mom-and-pop eCommerce shop or a million-dollar online store.
What Are Pick and Pack Methods?
When you begin to pick, pack, and ship your products, you start with methods you use in your life. You might organize your inventory the way you organize your closet. That is, put all the pants together and all the shirts together, organized by color. You might also pack your orders the way you would assemble a package to send to a friend. That is, gather the items for each order and pack them one at a time.
At first, this may work for your eCommerce business. As your business grows, however, you will need to adopt different strategies. Even if you work out of your garage, better pick and pack methods can reduce mistakes and returns. You’ll save money and your customers will be happier.
The pick and pack methods that work well for your business will depend on your size and your products. You might change the way you pick, pack, and ship as your business grows. Here are some basic pick and pack methods that many eCommerce companies use for fulfillment.
In piece picking, you take the packing slip for a single order. You move around the warehouse, picking the items for the order off the shelves. Once you have everything you need, you take the order to the packing station to be packed. If your business is very small, you might have only a few orders a day. In this case, piece picking may be the simplest pick and pack method to use.
Batch picking works well if you have enough orders to organize them into batches. Each batch of orders is for items that are in the same area of the warehouse. The goal of batch picking is to give pickers the most efficient path through the warehouse. If one item is needed for several orders, it makes sense to pick those orders together. That will save time walking back and forth. Your orders will go out faster.
You can employ batch picking even if your business is small. Consider picking all your orders at one time each day. This will be more efficient than picking and packing each order as you receive it. When you pick your orders all at once, you can batch them. Pick and pack software can help you batch orders for efficient picking.
Zone picking is a good technique for larger fulfillment warehouses. Pickers stay in a warehouse zone and pick the products located in their zone for each order. Then they pass off the order to a worker in the next zone. After an order moves through all the zones where items on the packing slip are stored, it goes to the packing station.
Zone picking requires complex coordination in your fulfillment warehouse. You’ll definitely need warehouse management software to help you manage zone picking.
Wave picking is a combination of batch and zone picking. Workers pick items within a zone for a batch of orders rather than a single order. Then they pass the batch to the next zone for picking.
Inventory Storage Strategies
Many aspects of your eCommerce business may feel intuitive to you. You may have a great head for business. You might be skilled at organizing your workflow. When it comes to managing your inventory, however, throw intuition out the window. Chaos is your friend.
If you started out small, you probably initially stored your inventory like with like. If you sold blue dresses and yellow dresses, you probably lined up the blue with small, medium, and large on one shelf. You put the yellow dresses on the next shelf.
This is a way of organizing inventory that makes sense to us. This is the logical way to organize our closets and drawers. Imagine putting some of your socks in your sweater drawer and one sweater with your t-shirts. It would take you forever to find your clothes and get dressed in the morning.
But your pick and pack methods will work better when your inventory storage isn’t organized this way. When you line up all the yellow dress sizes together, you might grab a medium when you need a large. If you catch your mistake, you have to return the wrong size to the shelf and pick the order twice. If you don’t catch it, you’ll have an unhappy customer.
To accurately pick, pack, and ship using the like with like inventory management system, you have to move slowly. Slow picking will eat up your time and your profits. To move fast, you need to introduce chaos into your inventory management.
Chaotic inventory management
In chaotic inventory management systems, you place your products randomly on the shelves. A product will never be next to a similar product. The size small yellow dresses will live next to the brown sandals, size 6. The large blue dresses go next to a beach umbrella, and so on. When you need to pick a large blue dress, you arrive at the shelf with blue dresses next to beach umbrellas. The only blue dress you can pick is the right size. You won’t mistake a beach umbrella for a dress. Your error rate will go way down.
To make chaotic inventory storage work, you need inventory management software. The software maps the products in your warehouse. When you print a packing slip, each item will have a location. Software can also map the most efficient route through your warehouse so you can pick orders more quickly.
Volume and class-based inventory management
There are two more types of inventory storage. Each of these can be combined with a chaotic approach to inventory management. The volume inventory storage method places the SKUs with the highest turnover closest to the packing station. Products that sell the slowest are stored in the farthest location. This minimizes the steps that pickers take during the day as they pick orders.
Another inventory storage system is class-based. Items are grouped together into classes based on a shared trait. Turnover rate is one way to classify products. Another class option is how items are packed. Large items that don’t require an overbox might be grouped together. You could also group products by whether they get packed with kraft paper or bubble wrap.
Mobile shelf-based order pick systems
One new innovation in pick and pack methods is mobile shelf-based order pick systems, or MSOP. In this system, robots bring shelves to the picker, and then return them to the warehouse floor. The picker stays stationary while the robots shuttle shelves of products back and forth.
Order Packing Best Practices
There are several things to think about when you get to the packing part of pick and pack methods. You need enough infill in the box to protect the products during shipping. But you also want to ship the products in the smallest box possible, to reduce DIM weight charges.
If you follow a few best practices during your packing process, you can reduce errors, returns, and shipping charges.
• Re-scan the products for each order to make sure the items on the packing slip are the ones you’re putting in the box.
• Don’t make packers guess the correct box size. Use pick and pack software to calculate the size of the box needed for each order.
• Include infill instructions for each order to improve your pick and pack methods. This allows the packer to quickly reach for the proper packing materials for each order.
After your orders are packed, they will go to the loading dock. They can be sorted for pickup by carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and USPS.
Pick and Pack Software
Pick and pack software can help you with the steps to create efficient and accurate pick, pack, and ship systems. Order fulfillment software can generate barcodes, batch orders, and perform inventory management tasks.
There are many choices for pick and pack software. You may want to use multiple apps that work together. This allows you to create a warehouse management software package that has exactly the features you need.
Navigating your pick and pack software choices can be confusing. We asked two highly-rated order and inventory management software makers for their advice. Here are recommendations for choosing the right software package for your eCommerce business from Stitch Labs and Skubana.
Stitch Labs designs software solutions for eCommerce businesses. The company’s software can help you manage inventory, logistics and fulfillment, and other pick and pack services. We asked Stitch Labs spokesperson Emma Miller-Crimm for her pick and pack software advice for eCommerce businesses.
You don’t have to spend a lot on software to get a big value. “Because small eCommerce businesses are typically lean teams with limited resources, you need a system that will save you time and allow your business to focus on growth rather than the nitty-gritty,” Miller-Crimm told us via email. “Knowing your inventory and its value can make or break brands. Inventory management should be one of the first things brands think of when starting up — along with their eCommerce platform. This is because inventory are your assets, and you don’t want to mess around with the lifeblood of your business.”
Flexibility and ease of use are two key characteristics of pick and pack software. “ECommerce businesses should look for inventory management software that allows for agility and experimentation in their operations,” Miller-Crimm noted. “This means features that make purchasing easier, and a setup that allows for visibility into what inventory you have at any given time, and where it’s located at any given time.”
Advice from a pro: many apps are better than all-in-one. “We always recommend a best-in-class solution. This means combining the best software from each category to create a tech stack that suits your brand’s needs. This allows brands to remain agile and add or remove parts of their tech stack as they see fit,” according to Miller-Crimm. “All-in-one solutions inhibit brand growth because they are rigid in their operational choices, and don’t work alongside brands to put their ideas into functional workflows since they’re stuck using a monolith.”
Skubana offers software to help eCommerce businesses manage orders, inventory, and analytics. Chad Rubin, Skubana co-founder and CEO, shared his wisdom on how to find the best pick and pack software solution for your business.
Rubin advises getting clear on what you need your inventory software to do first. Then start researching solutions. “You should understand what you want improved in your current inventory management process, as well as the different existing systems and applications that will need to function alongside the new software,” he said in an emailed response.
Rubin outlined the key features he thinks are most important, starting with multichannel integration. “The software you choose should be capable of integrating with major marketplaces like Shopify, BigCommerce, or Amazon. It should also have the flexibility to connect to the shipping providers and fulfillment sources (in-house, 3PLs, and drop-shippers) that comprise your operations,” he noted. “This provides a ‘god mode’ view of your inventory and order fulfillment, allowing you to better marry your data and generate accurate analytics to track performance.”
Another key feature that Rubin highlighted is automation. “An inventory management software must automate key aspects of your business operations, from order fulfillment to product purchasing, so you can efficiently resource personnel and decrease the time spent on low-level, repetitive tasks,” Rubin said.
“This includes capabilities to triage orders based on predefined filters or generate purchase orders based on cross-channel sales velocity and available inventory.” Packaging automation can prove to be essential to the fulfillment process.
Other key features of pick and pack software are an open API and cloud software. “An open API allows you to take the software beyond its native features, providing a level of customization to accommodate any operations structure or existing workflows,” he noted. Rubin added that customization is a key focus at Skubana. He added, “A cloud structure allows for rapid onboard times, lightning-fast performance, and the ability to deploy new features and enhancements with zero interruption to users.”
If you’re thinking of going it alone or managing your inventory in a spreadsheet, you’re missing out on a crucial business tool. “A good inventory management and fulfillment software can give a small managed business the platform to scale at an unprecedented rate,” Rubin said. “It makes it easier to process orders and returns, manage multi-warehouse inventory, complete vendor and purchase order workflows, and mitigate human error.”
If you are a multi-channel seller, you could see a big benefit when you move your inventory management to a software platform. “Using multiple disparate technologies generates siloed data, over-complicating data analysis. This becomes a roadblock to growing into a multi-channel business,” Rubin noted.
“More channels means more data, and if you don’t have the infrastructure to easily bring that data together, it can result in significant time invested trying to splice it together using Excel documents and formulas.” He added, “This data equips you with the information you need to make crucial business decisions, including which products are actually generating profit or which channels you are performing better on, whether it be on Shopify or on marketplaces like eBay or Amazon.”
Rubin sees some pitfalls in stacking multiple pick and pack apps. “There are so many pointed apps that specialize in specific services targeted to small managed businesses that it can become difficult to manage all of the integrations,” he pointed out. “This can lead to duplicative services, unstable hacks or workaround, and bad data, all of which ultimately result in wasted investments.” He added, “The key to building the right software package is to build it on a stable foundation, selecting a mix of technologies that provide the flexibility to allow for seamless integrations.”
Is It Time to Outsource Your Pick and Pack Services?
If your eCommerce business has grown beyond your fulfillment capacity, there is another solution. You can outsource your pick and pack services to a 3PL provider.
When you use a fulfillment warehouse, you get the benefit of a professional team. Your order fulfillment will benefit from the latest pick and pack methods. You can increase order accuracy and reduce shipping costs. Here are just a few of the steps we take at Red Stag to make sure our pick and pack methods are perfect.
• Implement custom warehouse management software and update it continuously. This is the best way to offer the latest and greatest fulfillment solutions.
• Use barcoding to scan each order and each product multiple times. Build checks into the system. This prevents pickers from placing a product in the wrong order and to check each order again during packing.
• Calculate exact box dimensions for each order. Feed this data into a custom box machine so your orders ship in perfectly-sized boxes.
If your business is in a rapid growth phase, outsourcing could save you future headaches. If your need for pick and pack services outstrips your ability to ship orders, this could slow your expansion. A third-party fulfillment warehouse can free up your space and capital resources. This gives your business more room to grow.
Which Pick and Pack Methods Are Right for Your ECommerce Business?
Most eCommerce businesses start small. It makes sense, at first, to provide your own pick and pack services inhouse. As you grow, pick and pack software can help you scale your capacity while staying lean. In addition, handling your own fulfillment has the benefit of teaching you about pick and pack methods. This knowledge will put you in a better position to find the right pick and pack services provider for you. When you’re ready to outsource your fulfillment, you can choose with confidence.
The right pick and pack services solution for your business depends on the size and growth trajectory of your business.