Pick and pack’s evolution – which system is right for your business?

Picking and pack is one of the simplest warehousing processes to understand – it’s the action of taking a customer’s orders from storage and placing them into a shipping box. The shipping box has obviated the need to pick orders and then process them in a variety of ways (box, envelope, pallet etc). Instead, many smaller businesses simply pick and pack in a single process, padding out larger shipping boxes with dunnage to ensure the goods won’t rattle around. Larger businesses may have a dedicated area of their warehouse space that they use to do ‘specialist pack’ which is where warehouse personnel utilise special packaging for odd-shaped, fragile or otherwise hard to pack items.


Finding the right pick and pack process improves both speed and accuracy of fulfilment which improves business performance in a number of ways:


  • Fewer miss-picked items – no need to run time and money consuming shelf return operations in your warehouse space
  • Fewer returns – less need to refund or replace items that got through the system as miss-picks
  • Happier customers – better brand reputation and more loyalty
  • Better morale – efficient operations lead to more confident and enthused warehouse teams.


Pick and pack is also important simply as a cost centre – time and motion studies suggest that around 70% of labour time is spent purely on picking products from the shelves.


The stages of pick and pack pick and pack services

pick and pack

  1. Order reception – this can occur in a number of ways, but e-commerce fulfilment software is one of the most straightforward. An order placed through any ecommerce channel generates a packing slip; many software systems include an optimal picking order with this slip.
  2. Pick – a warehouse worker collects the items from the warehouse’s shelves, or in an automated system, the whole process is handled by software operations. The warehouse worker, or picker, picks the items from the warehouse shelves listed on the packing slip
  3. Pack – compiled orders are put into a shipping box with dunnage (padding) and any promotional items required. At this point many companies have a check process that ensures the right goods have been picked and that they are properly packed.A printing label is attached.
  4. Ship – whatever the preferred logistics system: courier, Post Office, carrier, own fleet – contact is made with the fulfilment services who will deliver the order.


The various systems of pick and pack divide into two main forms: manual and automated. Here we’re going to discuss manual systems, all of which work for eBay, Amazon and Shopify based businesses.


Single order picking (SOP)


This is the fundamental basis of all pick and pack, and works best for specialist small businesses – a single picker goes through the warehouse collecting all the items for a single order, before moving onto the next one.  It works well if the warehouse is shipping to under 30 customers a day, but over that level of incoming orders, one of the other three manual picking systems may work better.




This system differs from SOP only by degree, not system. A single picker is assigned a batch of picks, each batch containing between 10 and 30 orders. They travel the warehouse, collecting all their batch in a single sweep and return the whole batch to the packing area where they receive a new batch and start again. This system is ideal for warehousing with a high order volume but only a few products, but becomes too labour intensive in e-commerce systems where there are a high volume of individual items per order.




This is a more sophisticated pick and pack system where pickers are assigned their own zones within the warehouse space and only collect items from within their zone. This means that orders pass from zone to zone to have relevant items added to them, finishing at the zone nearest the packing and dispersal area. If an organisation has high volume orders this can be an efficient system, not least because pickers can learn their own zone by heart and pick rapidly. However there can be delays in moving orders from zone to zone and further delays if items are out of stock. It also requires a relatively high volume of pickers.




Wave picking is like zone, but requires a higher degree of coordination because instead of orders transferring from one zone to another, orders are all picked simultaneously within each zone, before being transferred to a central area or the pack station. One picker then consolidates the picks into individual orders. This is much faster than zone picking, allowing for high volume orders and multiple item picking, but it has three downsides:

  1. It requires greater training, as pickers have to not only know their own section but also to pick at a steady rate so that all orders arrive at the coordination point at the same time
  2. It requires more people (at least one or two order co-ordinators at the central point) which increases labour costs
  3. It can become slow if all pickers aren’t adequately trained – this means that illness and holidays can create delays in the system as new pickers unfamiliar with their zone can slow down the entire process.


So how do you decide which system will work best for your warehouse space? There are two key criteria:


  • Average order processing time
  • Return rates.


Order processing time is crucial – and while it doesn’t depend entirely on pick and pack processes, as we’ve already stated, it’s reckoned that about three quarters of the labour cost of order fulfilment is spent on pick and pack. Processing time is easy to track with warehouse software, but can be done the old-fashioned way.  By recording the time from start to finish for processing orders, and then dividing by the total number of orders processed in that time an average can be obtained. While most warehouse software does this automatically, a small operation can choose to record a single morning’s or afternoon’s pick and pack once a week or once a month to get a ‘rule of thumb’ assessment of the average order processing time.


Return rates are less established but equally important to an efficient warehousing operation. Knowing how many times are returned/left out of orders is invaluable. Again, it’s not entirely down to the pickers, but once you’ve determined how much of the return rate is due to pick failure and how much to something else (failure to remove items from e-commerce channels when they go out of stock, for example) you can take a set of orders for a specific time period and see how many items were returned. This gives you your average accuracy.


To determine which pick and pack system works best for you, decide whether speed or accuracy is most important, calculate your average daily order number and assess how suitable your warehouse space is for the different forms of pick and pack before trialing one system for a month. Once you have the data for that system, you can trial another system and – after a period to allow warehouse

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