Behind every order placed at an online store is a careful workflow designed to turn fresh inventory into a parcel ready to ship. We call this process pick and pack fulfillment, and it’s one of the most important parts of direct-to-consumer fulfillment.
So, what does pick and pack fulfillment involve, and why should brands pay close attention to this stage of order fulfillment?
In this guide, we’re going to take deep dive into all things pick and pack fulfillment:
Pick and pack fulfillment refers to the end-to-end process of receiving, packing, and shipping individual orders to customers. It forms a crucial stage of the wider e-commerce order fulfillment process.
When a customer places an order, the fulfillment center processing the order will send out a request for an operator to “pick” the items required from the warehouse and “pack” them into a box or package for shipment. The pick and pack process can either be handled in-house or outsourced to a third-party logistics provider (3PL) which allows businesses to focus on other aspects of their business. A 3PL will charge brands a pick and pack fee for completing this service, usually per item or order completed.
Although pick and pack fulfillment can appear to be a straightforward process, there’s a lot of strategic planning required to ensure that workflows are efficient and errors are minimized as much as possible. How a warehouse sets up its packing station and picking zones has a huge impact on how easy it is for personnel to locate the right merchandise and select the appropriate packing materials for shipping, ensuring that orders make it to the final destination undamaged.
Pick and pack fulfillment involves several distinct steps to get customer orders ready for shipping:
The customer places an order via an e-commerce website or other sales channel. When integrated properly with warehouse management software, a new order request and packing slip will be generated by the warehouse management system. If there is more than one fulfillment center in use, the order will be forwarded to the location with sufficient inventory and the lowest transit time to the end customer.
When the fulfillment warehouse receives the order, a warehouse worker will be assigned a picking list to retrieve the items from the relevant warehouse shelves or storage facilities. This may require them to visit multiple zones of the warehouse, depending on which picking method is being used.
Once all of the items have been gathered for an order, they are delivered to the nearest packing station to be prepared for shipping. The operator needs to select the appropriate pack methods according to whether the goods are fragile or require specific handling e.g. hazmat products. The items are then packed into the correct box, along with any necessary packing materials, such as bubble wrap or foam.
The packing process may be fast or lengthy, depending on the demands of the products and any additional requirements listed by the brand. AI pack software may be used by larger fulfillment warehouses to make recommendations for packing methods to help speed up the process.
Once the order has been packaged, it needs to be correctly labeled to meet the requirements of the parcel carrier and service level. Packages are also weighed at this stage to make sure that the business can save money on shipping.
Shipping processes are one of the most complex and costly e-commerce fulfillment services, thanks to the tension between shipping costs and speed. The expectation for free shipping has put pressure on brands to shoulder higher carrier fees, making a streamlined pick and pack operation essential for cost-effective order fulfillment.
Naturally, the pick and pack fulfillment process will vary depending on the specific needs and requirements of the business and the fulfillment provider. Some fulfillment centers may also offer additional services such as assembly or customization of products, returns handling, and more.
Which picking strategy is best for a particular fulfillment center will depend on factors such as the size of the warehouse, the number of orders being fulfilled, and the types of products being stored.
Also known as single order picking, piece picking involves warehouse workers picking items for only one order at a time until it’s completed. This is a relatively slow picking method, but is also less prone to errors than other strategies.
When to use piece picking: This works best for businesses that only receive a handful of orders per day and/or don’t have the warehouse systems to coordinate more complex picking and packing methods.
Batch picking is when warehouse workers are picking items for multiple customer orders at the same time. This helps to guide staff on the most efficient path through all the zones in the warehouse, as they can pick multiple SKUs at once from the same area and not revisit a zone twice.
When to use batch picking: Works best for businesses with a large volume of orders and a tight SKU base, as this increases the likelihood of workers being able to pick several of the same SKU at once.
This more complex picking process requires dividing a warehouse facility into geographical zones, with each picker assigned to pick one order at a time in a specific zone. If an order requires additional items that are stored in a different zone, it will be handed off to another worker until it is completed. This reduces the distance that pickers need to travel large distances within storage facilities.
When to use zone picking: Zone picking is a good fit within larger fulfillment centers that make it difficult for workers to find the most efficient route. However, the complexity means it does require a sophisticated warehouse and inventory management system.
A combination of batch picking and zone picking, wave picking involves grouping incoming orders by a specific zone in the warehouse for workers to pick simultaneously. This is highly efficient for large orders and high-volume fulfillment operations.
When to use wave picking: Wave picking is an extremely complex picking method because it requires a high level of coordination between warehouse workers in different zones. For this reason, it’s best used only by brands that are outsourcing the order fulfillment process.
Pick and pack services aren’t limited only to the picking process, but also what happens once items are ready to be packaged into a single order for shipping. At the most basic level, pack services require a business or 3PL to select the right pack method (e.g. a box, mailer, or envelope) and packaging materials to ensure an order stays safe in transit and keeps carrier requirements.
When not planned strategically, pack order fulfillment can be one of the biggest sources of waste in an e-commerce fulfillment operation, both in terms of time and cost. For this reason, brands need to make sure that their pack processes are carefully chosen to maximize space and remove anyexcess weight. At the same time, the packing station is also the place where brands have the opportunity to add their brand identity to the post-purchase experience. Brands should consider how they can adjust warehouse processes to accommodate custom pick and pack methods that enhance their offerings:
Cartonization is the process of choosing the optimal number, size, and type of boxes to use for shipping a customer order. The purpose of cartonization is to minimize the amount of packaging needed to ship orders while keeping products protected and safe in transit. Some businesses practice cartonization manually, with trained personnel determining the best way to pack individual orders according to weight or unique product characteristics. 3PLs normally use pack software or algorithms to automate this process, helping to streamline the pick and pack service.
Cartonization is an essential step in the order fulfillment process, as the combined size/weight of packages will determine the cost and speed of shipping. By using the right size and type of boxes, businesses can reduce the risk of damage to the products and minimize shipping costs.
Being able to showcase brand identity upon delivery is a valuable asset that helps to differentiate your business from competitors. Some 3PLs allow businesses to implement branded packaging and inserts into their pack processes as a value-added service, making it easy to offer your customers a memorable experience.
Product kitting is a key part of the pick and pack process. It streamlines the order fulfillment process by creating a series of pre-packaged ‘kits’ at various storage facilities that are ready to ship once an order is placed. Kits can include gift sets, influencer packages, and subscription boxes, just to name a few. Having these pre-assembled kits on-hand is a good way to reduce the number of orders that require unique pick and pack services, which has massive cost savings advantages for brands.
Because pick and pack is one of the most basic tenets of order fulfillment, it’s easy for this stage to be ignored in favor of more technically complex areas, such as shipping or inventory management. Yet many errors or delays in the fulfillment process can be traced directly to the pick and pack methods being used, or a lack of advanced warehouse management software. But without a solid pick and pack strategy in place, brands can find themselves facing high financial and opportunity costs which make it difficult to scale effectively.
By prioritizing pick and pack fulfillment as a value-added aspect of the e-commerce fulfillment process, brands can minimize errors and bottlenecks that slow down delivery and maximize opportunities to create memorable brand experiences.
Keep your inventory organized and visible. This will help to speed up the picking process by ensuring that workers can easily locate the items they need to fulfill orders. This can be done through the use of inventory management software and using a good inventory management system for arranging picking locations, such as color-coded bins, barcodes, conveyer systems between picking zones, and placing commonly-bought SKUs close together.
Optimize your packing process. Cartonization will help you to develop a pack fulfillment process that is efficient and minimizes the risk of damage to items in transit. This can be done by using the right packing materials, such as bubble wrap and packing peanuts, and choosing the right-sized containers to reduce the amount of extra packaging required.
Use real-time order management. Implement a real-time order management system (OMS) that allows you to track the progress of each order as they are being picked and packed. This can help you identify any bottlenecks in your process and make adjustments as needed.
Train your employees. Make sure your employees are trained on your warehouse management system and the latest pack methods your business is using. This will help ensure that they can work efficiently and avoid errors.
Monitor your pick and pack process. Review your pick and pack methods at regular intervals. Pay attention to metrics such as Time on Dock, order picking accuracy, and Total Order Cycle Time, as well as customer feedback to identify areas of improvement.
Setting up an efficient pick and pack fulfillment operation doesn’t just require expertise, but enough square footage to set up the right picking locations and packing stations to keep your operation humming. Yet space is a costly premium in e-commerce fulfillment, with additional warehouse space often difficult to come by for smaller businesses. As your business scale, finding enough inventory storage space to support more fulfillment can stifle growth and make it difficult to ensure customer satisfaction.
Partnering with a 3PL provider with a large pick and pack warehouse network ensures that your brand always has access to additional space, whether that’s during peak sales periods or as part of a longer-term expansion of your operation.
One advantage of in-house fulfillment operations is that brands have full rein to customize every stage of the fulfillment process, especially the pick and pack methods they use. Many e-commerce businesses want to offer their customers an enjoyable post-purchase experience, yet the time and material costs of executing an unboxing experience can be high as a brand grows.
Implementing branded packaging and/or personal touches like handwritten notes or samples is easy enough when you only receive a few orders each day. But as order volumes grow, your current pack methods may no longer be efficient enough to prevent the pick and pick fulfillment process from taking up more of your operators’ time. While hiring an army of operators provides a short-term solution, this is rarely cost-effective in the long term.
A 3PL partnership provides a path to sustainable growth via their economy of scale and spreading fulfillment costs between multiple clients. This ensures pick and pack fulfillment stays cost-effective as a brand scales.
It only takes a small increase in sales for manual order management practices to struggle to keep up. Manual transfers of data or hand-drawn packing slips can easily result in fulfillment errors or slow pack methods, which lengthens the time it takes for orders to reach your customers. Automation via pick and pack software offers brands a way to streamline their warehouse operations, but can be very expensive for smaller merchants to shoulder the full cost independently.
Outsourcing order fulfillment and pick and pack warehouse activities ensures that your brand has access to the very best technology and expertise to increase efficiency but at a much more cost-effective price point.
Manage peaks and troughs with ease. Shipping more than 100 million units per year across retail and ecommerce sales channels, we offer brands a true omnichannel fulfillment approach with ease to scale. Our flexible staffing arrangements, on-site engineering team, and in-house productivity management systems mean your operation can scale in either direction to maximize cost savings.
Pick and pick fulfillment tailored to your precise needs. Our warehouses are equipped with customized pick and pack fulfillment systems to meet the demands of both emerging and established brands, we have the flexibility to handle the smallest and the largest SKU profiles (even just a single SKU!) with pallet, bulk, or each-picking strategies for efficient, highly accurate fulfillment.
Advanced e-commerce technology. Our proprietary rule-based order management platform makes it easy for brands to configure unique packing processes based on order characteristics like SKUs, destination, shipping method, and more at the touch of a button.
A full suite of value-added services. With a full menu of value-added services available that all of our fulfillment centers, our experts make sure your products have what they need to get ready for shipping. Whether it’s price ticketing or labeling for a retail store or custom packaging and inserts for direct-to-consumer sales, our dedicated team has the tools and know-how to turn the picking and packing process into a competitive differentiator.