Successful, scalable ecommerce order fulfillment hinges on efficient pick and pack warehouse operations. The heart of any fulfillment center, pick and pack is the process of filling an online order, from the moment the order is received to the moment a shipping carrier loads it onto a truck destined for the customer’s front door. The faster the fulfillment center or 3PL (third party logistics company) can pick, pack and ship, the faster your ecommerce business can grow.
But what is pick and pack, and what does the pick and pack process look like in an industry leading warehouse? Find out exactly what goes on after you hit that “buy” button.
The Pick and Pack Process
The pick and pack process starts with a packing slip, automatically generated when the order is received at the warehouse or fulfillment center. This may be an actual paper list, or a virtual packing list, accessed through a fulfillment software system.
A picker is assigned the task of locating the items on the list, among thousands of items stored in the warehouse. Once located, they pull the correct quantity of each item off the shelf and place the items in a bin. Then they place the bin on a conveyor belt headed for the packing station.
A packer takes the items out of the bin, locates the ideal size box or bag and packing materials, and packs the item in such a way that the contents won’t shift or break en route to their final destination. A shipping label goes on the outside, and the package is placed on another conveyor belt headed for the loading dock.
While these are the basic steps, the pick and pack process looks different in every fulfillment center, depending on the size of the company and the technology available. A startup ecommerce business can perform its own pick and pack operations out of a garage or storeroom (minus the conveyor belts). Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) may run their own fulfillment centers, or outsource to fulfillment experts known as 3PLs (third party logistics providers) that have the technology and systems to support their growing multi-channel business. Large enterprises need powerful inventory and order management software with complex system integrations that enable them to fulfill both B2C and B2B orders. Larger 3PLs offer these services.
Ways to Streamline Pick and Pack Services
A 3PL that is committed to continuous improvement is always looking for ways to streamline operations, improve accuracy, and minimize costs for the ecommerce merchants they service. Here are some of the methods they may employ:
Cloud-based Fulfillment Software
As you might expect, you’ll find a broad range of software in use in the industry, from the most basic to the most advanced. For example, some fulfillment centers are reliant on paper and manual data entry, while ShipMonk’s industry leading software provides order, inventory, and warehouse management that is both powerfully robust and completely user-friendly. Orders coming from multiple sales channels are prioritized and routed, while inventory distributed across multiple fulfillment centers can be tracked and managed in real time.
If your warehouse is still dependent upon paper packing slips and invoices, it’s time to look elsewhere for fulfillment services. Paper gets damaged, misfiled or misplaced and is hard to update. With a digital system, inventory is scanned at multiple checkpoints to prevent errors. Scanners and barcodes ensure that the correct item is picked, packed in the correct box, and gets loaded on the correct truck. Pickers and packers carry or wear devices that integrate with inventory and order management systems. Orders are tracked in real time as they are processed, can be canceled or updated if necessary, and inventory can be restocked automatically as it is depleted.
Smart or intelligent slotting automatically determines where in the warehouse to store items, based on sales forecasts, error mitigation, size, and other factors. For example, high-turnover items may be shelved closest to the packing stations, while items that look similar might be stored in different places to avoid picking errors. The most logical way to organize items, by color, size, etc., may not be the most efficient way to store items for fulfillment.
Kitting takes smart slotting one step further and combines items that are often ordered together into one easily-picked package. At the ecommerce business owner’s request, a warehouse team pre-packages selected items into kits that can be ordered as a single item on the ecommerce website. After kitting, they are stored on the warehouse shelf as a single SKU, ready for picking. Gift packs and subscription boxes are both examples of kitting. Not all fulfillment providers offer this service.
Depending on the number of orders being fulfilled, ecommerce businesses and their 3PLs generally use one of the following pick and pack methods. As order volume increases, larger 3PLs and fulfillment centers switch to more efficient methods, assuming they have the capacity and technology to manage them.
Piece Picking: orders are picked one at a time by one picker who walks around the warehouse to collect all the items. Startups and small businesses with a manageable number of SKUs often use this method.
Batch Picking: several orders are picked by the same picker on one trip through the warehouse. Pickers may push a heavy cart, or control a motorized cart holding several bins. Each bin is tagged with a packing slip for an individual order. Orders are batched with other orders from the same area of the warehouse to keep walking to a minimum.
Zone Picking: in this method, the bins move around the warehouse, either on conveyor belts or transported by robots, while the pickers work in zones. As the bins pass through each zone, the picker adds ordered items to each bin and passes the bin on to the next zone. After the last item on the packing list is added to the bin, the bin is sent to the packing station.
Wave Picking: pickers work in zones and pick orders in prioritized batches. This is the most complex method to manage. It takes powerful software to identify the best place to store each item, batch orders, and map the most efficient route for the bins to travel through the warehouse.
Warehouse Automation and Robotics
State-of-the-art technologies such as Cubiscans, Locus robots, and high-speed automated sortation systems improve ergonomics and safety for pickers, increase warehouse storage capacity, and accurately perform highly repetitive tasks to reduce human error. Cubiscans quickly measure, weigh and photograph inbound inventory. Locus robots transport bins from zone to zone, and back to the picking stations when empty. A few years ago, robotics were reserved for Amazon and huge distribution centers. They are gradually making inroads into the ecommerce fulfillment industry, starting with growth-oriented 3PLs like ShipMonk.
Automated Package Selection
To reduce or avoid DIM weight shipping charges, orders should be shipped in the smallest possible box. Rather than have packers guess which size box or bag to use for an order, a sophisticated warehouse management system automatically calculates the proper package based on the dimensions and weight of each item in the order. (ShipMonk’s advanced fulfillment platform knows this information because each item’s dimensions and weight were recorded and photographed by the Cubiscan in receiving.)
Automated Carrier Routing
In addition to selecting the perfect size box, an experienced 3PL like ShipMonk negotiates discounts with dozens of shipping carriers, globally, nationally and locally to find the most economical way to get your orders to your customers on time. Their proprietary routing software automatically finds the best shipping carrier, or combination of carriers, for each order based on the destination and shipping speed. All the packer has to do is print the label and stick it on the box. Down the conveyor belt it goes, where an automated sorting machine sends it to the correct loading dock for that carrier.
Custom Pick and Pack Services
While most fulfillment centers focus on speed and turnaround, some offer custom services that fall outside the normal flow of order fulfillment. That way, their ecommerce clients have the flexibility they need to grow in whatever direction they choose.
FBA Prep/Amazon Prep
While Amazon’s marketplace is a great channel to increase sales and reach new customers, failure to comply with FBA — Fulfillment by Amazon — product preparation may result in the refusal, disposal, or return of inventory, as well as charges for noncompliance. Ecommerce businesses that sell through multiple channels and wish to retain their autonomy from Amazon can partner with a 3PL that offers FBA prep as well as multi-channel fulfillment services. FBA prep services might include unboxing bulk shipments and bagging or boxing individual units, managing inventory with expiration dates, adding barcodes, and doing whatever it takes to make sure your products are FBA compliant.
Oftentimes, merchandise arrives at the fulfillment center straight from the manufacturer and may require light assembly work to prep it for picking. For example, bulk packaging or manufacturing labels may need to be stripped away before items are shelved. Bulk containers may need to be deconsolidated and their contents repackaged in individual bags or boxes. Fragile items can be repackaged to prevent breakage, and small manufacturing mistakes can be corrected without having to send the merchandise back to the factory. Again, not all 3PLs offer these services.
B2B and Retail Fulfillment
An experienced fulfillment partner—like ShipMonk—is invaluable when it comes to selling wholesale to retailers. You’ll need software that integrates with both B2C and B2B platforms, as well as bulk processing capabilities so you can simultaneously sell direct to consumers as well as wholesale to retailers, using the same fulfillment provider. A 3PL that can handle both B2C and B2B fulfillment will offer multiple shipping options, customized labeling and packing lists, multi-retailer support, cross docking services, and consolidation/deconsolidation services.
Returns or Reverse Logistics
The opposite of pick and pack, reverse logistics is the process of handling returns. It includes unpacking the returned merchandise, running quality checks, and either repacking and reshelving the item, or donating or disposing of it. The quicker this happens, the sooner your customer gets a refund and the happier they’ll be.
Picking the Right Fulfillment Center
The main thing to understand about pick and pack fulfillment services is that they can be modified to fit your ecommerce business needs. Accuracy and speed are always top priority, but if you’re struggling to get what you need from your current fulfillment center, there are better options out there.
Tech-enabled fulfillment centers like ShipMonk, that focus on automation and software to streamline their pick and pack operations, can quickly scale their pick and pack services as your business grows. If flexibility is important to you, look for a 3PL that offers custom pick and pack services. The larger your business, the more you’ll need an experienced partner to handle multi-channel integrations and powerful software to manage orders and inventory. But no matter the size of your business or how complex the technology, the right partner with modernized warehouses and powerful but user friendly fulfillment software can make pick and pack fulfillment services a breeze. Contact ShipMonk today to find out more — and don’t forget to ask for a software demo.