How to improve warehouse picking speed and accuracy (with these 8 hacks)

Get more digital commerce tips

Tactics to help you streamline and grow your business.

There’s no getting away from it, your customers are demanding. They want their orders super-fast and with zero mistakes. And who can blame them? Our recent State of Commerce Operations Report reveals that:

52% of UK shoppers are likely to become repeat customers if their item is delivered swiftly.

But 27% of online shoppers have been sent incorrect items. 

There’s clearly lots of work to do if you’re going to meet and exceed your customers’ expectations, and where better to start than focusing on the pivotal role of warehouse picking within your organization?

What is warehouse picking?

Warehouse picking is the cornerstone of ecommerce logistics. It’s the process of picking and packing the products your customers want to buy from inside your warehouse. This process may sound straightforward, but in practice it can be tricky to get right. 

To make things even more complicated there are lots of different approaches, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Piece picking involves selecting individual items one at a time to assemble and complete customer orders. This approach results in more accurate orders as it is easier for employees to correctly identify products during the picking process.

Batch picking is more complex, with items for multiple orders picked simultaneously by grouping those orders into small batches. Batch picking is faster because employees can pick multiple items from the same area of the warehouse, reducing the distance they must cover. However, great care must be taken to avoid mixing up orders. This method can be supported by warehouse picking software. 

Zone picking, also known as ‘pick and pass’, involves your warehouse being split up into multiple zones. Each area has its own stock pickers who are not allowed to pick from other zones. Instead, orders are passed from zone to zone until picking is complete. When done correctly zone picking can enhance accuracy and efficiency, but there is a real risk of introducing unnecessary levels of complexity. This approach can be simplified, however, using warehouse picking software.

Wave picking involves focusing on groups of orders which have one or more factors in common. That may be a shared shipping deadline, similar product or orders which are stored in a specific warehouse zone. Wave picking can boost efficiency and can be used alongside other picking techniques. It can be complicated, however, lack flexibility and lead to delayed orders if due care is not taken. Warehouse picking software is essential if this method is to be adopted successfully.

When ecommerce firms choose the right approach, backed up by suitable warehouse-picking software, you can: 

  • Improve speed and accuracy
  • Reduce labor costs
  • Cut your returns rate 
  • Reduce the risk of employee injury within the warehouse
  • Boost employee retention
  • Boost customer experience 
  • Move towards automated warehouse picking
  • And ultimately increase profitability.

Seven key factors that adversely affect picking speed and accuracy

Here are seven of the biggest warehouse mistakes that prevent pickers from working accurately and at speed:

  1. Incorrect inventory information: Due care has not been taken to ensure inventory data has been recorded properly. This leads to picking mistakes, late deliveries and wasted time/money.
  2. Human error: Employees can misread labels, pick the wrong item or send products to the wrong customers.
  3. Outdated technology: Disconnected legacy technology can sap warehouse productivity levels as employees struggle to make outdated hardware and software solutions work.
  4. Inefficient picking paths: A messy, disorganized warehouse with poor access to products and longer picker journey routes can lead to a significant decrease in warehouse efficiency.
  5. Lack of real-time picking visibility: This makes it difficult to manage workload and assign resources effectively, leading to excess cost and inefficiency.
  6. Inflexible picking processes: Warehouse picking requirements can change rapidly. For example, systems and processes might need to change due to a new product mix or shifting customer demands. Without the right level of adaptability this can cause serious issues.
  7. Lack of scalability: Sudden spikes in order numbers can overwhelm picking teams and trigger an increase in mistakes and delays.

Top four ways to improve your picking speeds

Ensuring your warehouse picking processes are swift and effective can clearly be challenging – but that doesn’t mean success is beyond your reach. Here are four tried-and-tested strategies to ensure your pick and pack operations run on well-oiled rails.

1. Optimize your warehouse layout

A well-designed warehouse layout will minimize the distance your employees must travel as they walk from one area of your warehouse to another, ensuring smoother and speedier order picking. This can be achieved by dividing your warehouse into functional zones and positioning them so they aid the flow of goods and processes. 

Common zones include:

  • Receiving area, where products are first received into the warehouse and inspected.
  • Picking area, where orders are assembled
  • Packing and shipping area, where items are packaged and prepared for delivery
  • Storage areas, where items are kept based on their individual requirements. For example, some items may need refrigeration or additional security.

A good example of an optimized warehouse layout involves locating high-volume items close to packing and shipping areas. It reduces the distance traveled by pickers and increasing the speed at which orders can be dispatched.

The best-designed warehouses will also be laid out to seamlessly accommodate conveyor belts, automated storage systems and other hardware. It is also important to ensure warehouse layout is scalable and flexible so it can easily adapt to future demands.

2. Create a unified naming scheme for your warehouse catalog

Adopting a single, unified naming scheme is a key step towards speeding up your processes and moving towards automated warehouse picking. A unified product naming scheme will optimize warehouse data management, product searchability and effective data governance within your product catalog. 

A unified naming scheme will enable you to:

  • Centralize your catalog management operations giving your warehouse pickers a single view of the stock in your warehouse and where it is located. 
  • Organize, search, track and maintain the products in your warehouse. Your employees will be able to search and pick products faster using specific keywords and attributes, using warehouse picking software.
  • Enable different systems to talk to each other and achieve a seamless exchange of data. For example, your inventory management system will be able to interact with your CRM system and your warehouse picking software. Third-party APIs and data feeds will also work more effectively.
  • Achieve clear, descriptive and intuitive names for your products. This will reduce employee confusion leading to higher warehouse-picking accuracy rates.
  • Scale and future-proof your warehouse picking operations. A unified naming scheme will ensure order and a high level of searchability is maintained as your catalog expands and warehouse pickers’ order retrieval becomes more complex.  

3. Switch from paper to digital-based warehouse picking

Paper-based warehouse picking may have reigned supreme within ecommerce for decades, but this approach will undoubtedly slow down your order-picking operation. Here are five compelling reasons to finally ditch paper in favor of digital picking and warehouse picking software: 

  1. Paper-picking lists are error-prone. Incorrect data, bad handwriting and lost documents can all slow down pickers and trigger mistakes and incorrect orders, leading to a hike in returns rates.
  2. Digital warehouse management systems (WMS) give a single, real-time view of items available for picking. This approach prevents valuable time wasted by pickers as they hunt for unavailable stock.
  3. Paper-based picking is slower and inefficient compared to warehouse picking software which streamlines operations, improves order tracking and enhances overall efficiency. 
  4. Digital picking systems merge and automate multiple manual/paper-based tasks, meaning they can be completed faster and in a more cost-effective way. 
  5. Paper systems are vulnerable to damage from fire, water, pests and general wear and tear. Unlike digital systems, damaged paper documents risk permanent data loss. Switching to warehouse picking software ensures improved security and data redundancy, as well as better disaster recovery. It is also a powerful step towards automated warehouse picking and better warehouse picking speed.

4. Consider the benefits of batch picking in your warehouse

As we’ve already seen there are a range of warehouse picking techniques, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. 

Batch picking, however, is arguably one of the most effective approaches for medium to large warehouses with moderate to high order volumes. 

This is because batch picking enables staff to collect multiple orders simultaneously, reducing travel time and improving overall warehouse productivity. 

Without the right warehouse picking software this can be a complex approach, however. Creating efficient batches requires careful planning with any mistakes adding complexity and slowing down pickers’ progress.

You will also need enough space to successfully implement batch picking because grouping too many orders together in a confined space can lead to congestion and inefficiency. 

Four ways to enhance picking accuracy

Speed is essential when it comes to warehouse picking, but so is accuracy. There’s no point racing to locate and dispatch products if your employees are more likely to pick the wrong items and inflate your returns bill in the process. Here are four powerful ways to boost your accuracy levels.

1 Adopt barcode scanning

Barcode scanning is a mature technology trusted within a wide range of sectors and industries to identify and track assets. 

It is particularly well suited to ecommerce warehouse picking because barcode scanning is simple to do and can identify products quickly and accurately, minimizing manual data entry errors, removing any element of guesswork from the process and ensuring that correct items are selected. 

Barcodes systems also record immediate real-time information about SKUs. This ability to track items in real time greatly improves the visibility and accuracy of stock records. 

For example, barcode readers immediately tell employees if they’ve picked the correct items and pickers following in their immediate footsteps will know if that product is still available.

There are at least five different types of barcode used to increase the accuracy of warehouse picking, but the most popular is the universal product code (UPC) which is commonly used across retail for product identification and inventory management.

To summarize, barcode scanning is a cost-effective way to improve warehouse-picking accuracy by minimizing manual errors, providing real-time tracking and enhancing the overall efficiency of warehouse-picking operations.

2. Double down on quality control

Quality control checks are key to improving the accuracy of your warehouse picking operation. Quality control should be an ongoing process, which evolves as your business grows. Here are five key warehouse picking quality control measures that will help you boost picking accuracy.

Establish clear targets for your pickers: The first step is to establish what “effective picking” looks like within your organization. Set and monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) including pick rate (the speed items are picked), error rate (the frequency of picking errors) and cycle time (the time taken for each picking process). 

Gather and analyze your picking data: An on-going use of data analytics will enable you to spot downward trends in picking quality. It will also help you identify areas of best practice which can be celebrated and replicated across the rest of your picking operation. 

Random order checks involving a sample of picked orders will help identify errors earlier, prevent downward trends in picking quality, highlight structural issues in your warehouse operation and help identify employees in need of additional training.

Automatic verification systems can also cross-check picked items against order details, flagging discrepancies for correction. Weight verification systems, for example, can do this by comparing the actual weight of a picked item with its expected weight. If there is a discrepancy an alert is triggered. The picker can then correct any errors.

3. Don’t forget strict inventory control

Inventory control encompasses the systems and processes firms like yours use to track their goods through their supply chains. This approach is particularly important when it comes to ensuring the right goods are available to be picked in your warehouse.

Most major companies use inventory control software to help manage their products these days. And while there are still smaller companies using older manual methods for tracking products, inventory control software is clearly the way of the future.

These systems work by using software and apps to help you track inventory at every stage of your supply chain, across multiple locations, with a simple press of a button.

They can warn you of potential issues before they happen, prevent losses and shrinkage, and help ensure your warehouse picking operations runs smoothly.

We have already discussed the benefits of barcodes, which are one way to track inventory. Another way is to use a Radio Frequency Identification System (RFID). Rather than using barcodes, RFID systems rely on tags attached to products which can then be tracked as they move through your warehouse. RFID is a very effective inventory-control solution, but it is also significantly more expensive than barcoding, and so it generally tends to be used for higher-value items.

4. Incentivise your employees

Your employees are, without a doubt, your most important asset. It’s all very well optimizing systems and automating your warehouse picking processes, but if your warehouse pickers are demotivated and feel undervalued all that hard work may be wasted. That’s why employee incentivization is so important. Here are five great ways to energize your staff and ensure they bring their warehouse-picking ‘A’ game.

Performance-related bonuses are probably one of the most effective ways to incentivise your employees. By tying rewards (monetary or otherwise) directly to speed and accuracy metrics staff can be encouraged to redouble their efforts.

Recognition programmes are a great way to publicly acknowledge and celebrate excellence among your warehouse picking team members. Such schemes are well known to boost morale and instill a sense of healthy competition within your warehouse.

Display team/shift picking accuracy levels. A well-displayed and regularly updated information board showing accuracy levels is likely to keep motivation high – just don’t make it purely an opportunity to name and shame poor performing teams. Celebrate success but also use it to offer guidance and support to teams that may need it. 

Individual quality score cards are likely to work well, but only when they are used sensitively and shared on an individual basis. Scorecards are a great way to provide continuous feedback, highlight areas of excellence/need for improvement and show how a picker is developing their skills over time.

Flexible working is another highly effective way to motivate warehouse pickers. Employees are more likely to concentrate on accuracy if flexible working is a perk afforded to high-performing warehouse pickers.

Improving your warehouse picking speed and accuracy is easier than you might think

Warehouse picking is a critical process in any ecommerce operation. Despite its high profile, however, there are few firms that have fully optimized either their picking speed or accuracy.

Rather than focusing on one headline-grabbing change, warehouse picking speed and accuracy optimization is about turning the dial in lots of different areas. For example, switching from manual error-prone paper systems to warehouse picking software, or using technology to automate warehouse picking processes.

Investing in a dedicated warehouse management system like Linnworks’, however, will not only take your warehouse picking to the next level, it will also improve a long list of associated processes, helping your business remain competitive in an ever-more challenging ecommerce environment. 

To find out how Linnworks can help you transform your warehouse operations, book a free demo now.

Ready to see Linnworks in action?

  • Unrivaled ecommerce data accuracy
  • 100+ integrations with global sales channels
  • Up and running in 40 days on average