Pick and Pack Distribution Techniques: The Logistics Behind the Scenes of e-Commerce Companies

With logistics, getting products out to customers efficiently and expeditiously is what matters most. The techniques logistics companies use to ensure customers receive their orders as quickly as possible are the same as that which the big boys of e-commerce use. One of the prime methods used by logistics providers is what’s known as the pick and pack process, which utilizes warehouse automation to create a seamless process for the delivery of products

It’s what every e-commerce business depends upon, along with other companies that rely on shipping for their businesses. Amazon is king when it comes to pick and pack distribution methods, which is also known as omnichannel distribution. As the world’s top e-commerce retailer, it’s no surprise that they utilize such methods. With many businesses offering almost instant delivery – many e-commerce businesses now offer same-day and next-day shipping – the methods used in logistics has become a real factor for online retail. 


Methods of Picking

On the surface, pick and pack techniques are relatively simple. Yet logistics companies still need to choose the best picking methods to support e-commerce businesses, especially with two-day deliveries becoming a norm among online shoppers. 

Warehouse workers use several different strategies when taking orders off shelves, and which ones they use depends on a variety of factors. Nuances in fulfillment systems help increase efficiency, and it’s important for e-commerce and other businesses that depend on logistics (which is most businesses) to understand the various strategies to ensure products get to customers as quickly as possible. 

Of the types of picking, these are the most common: 

  • Discrete order picking: for businesses with low volumes, with products that are bulkier, it involves pickers taking each item off the shelf individually. 
  • Batch picking: this works best for items with scannable bar codes (SKU) and high order volumes, which require lone pickers gathering items that have the same SKU for different orders. 
  • Cluster picking: this involves gathering items from the same location for different orders and clustering them together, generally used for small orders that involve less than a case. 
  • Zone picking: with SKUs located in specific warehouse sections, it involves multiple pickers working different zones, picking orders only from their respective zones to reduce congestion. 
  • Wave picking: involving lining up and grouping items into pick lists, this allows workers to overlap orders based on shipping schedules, list capacity, product weight, and worker shifts. 
  • Multi-batch picking: this technique works best when several orders come through asking for items with the same SKU, which allows pickers to fulfill multiple batches from the same location. 
  • Zone-batch-wave picking: this combination strategy combines zone, wave, and batch picking, and is the most complex method that requires pickers to gather multiple SKUs simultaneously and with overlapping scheduling windows. 

Once orders are picked, they go to the packing station and are prepared for shipping, which includes checking, packaging, sealing, and labeling packages. 


Labeling & Packing 

It’s SKU labeling along with the software that reads it that helps make the magic e-commerce companies require to get their products out to customers quickly. The bar codes allow the automation required in the picking process, and they’re key to same-day, next-day, and even two-day deliveries. 

Each bar code denotes a specific product, ensuring the correct products are shipped out. These labels reduce errors and returns, keeping down shipping costs by helping safeguard the efficacy of picking systems. 

Packing is equally as important, though less complex, and these simple instructions help make the packing process more economical: 

  • Check all items in boxes are correct by re-scanning.
  • Have software help choose correct box sizes. 
  • Protect products with enough infill. 
  • Provide packing instructions so that the correct packing materials are used. 
  • Use the smallest box possible. 

Once packed, they’re then sorted according to the carrier and prepared for transport. While this process tends to work effortlessly, the world’s fulfillment system showed strain during the 2020 pandemic. 


Pandemic Pick & Pack

The pandemic taught many traditional retailers the importance of the pick and pack process. In an August 2020 survey by Dunnhumby – an international company that looks at customer data – over a third of shopping trips in the US went online. 

Unlike many US food-processing plants that were chastised for not doing enough to keep workers safe, logistics companies in the country quickly moved to ensure their workers’ safety. Despite hype involving a few deaths due to COVID-19 at Amazon warehouses, the industry adopted policies on social-distancing. 

LOGIWA – a warehouse software developer – advised the following methods for warehouses to reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus: 

  • Very small, average-volume warehouses: any pick and pack method
  • Small, high-volume warehouses: batch picking 
  • Large, high-volume warehouses: zone picking 

Such remedies reduced efficiency and lengthened delivery times, especially in smaller warehouses, though they did significantly reduce coronavirus cases, particularly through relying on social distancing. 


Conclusion

Pick and pack processes become more problematic as warehouses become busier, which is why increasingly logistics companies rely on technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Yet it needn’t be costly. The software designed for pick and pack distribution improves productivity, showing the best routes to take to fulfill orders within the warehouse. 

When done correctly, fulfillment using these techniques minimizes costs and increases efficiency as well as providing more precision, even in times of crisis. Using a variety of software packages that encourage productivity, pick and pack systems in warehouses worldwide helped manage logistics with only relatively minor difficulties during the 2020 pandemic, though it also showed logistics companies areas in which they could improve. 


D. A. Rupprecht is an internationally-based freelance writer who writes about the intersection between technology and business. He also sometimes writes books.

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