Zone picking in ecommerce: increasing productivity in your warehouse

Get more digital commerce tips

Tactics to help you streamline and grow your business.

In the modern ecommerce environment, every second counts, and the efficiency of your warehouse operations can make or break customer satisfaction.

As online shopping continues to grow, businesses are under increasing pressure to deliver faster and more accurately than ever before. The backbone to meeting these heightened expectations lies in the heart of your warehouse.

This brings us to the concept of zone picking—a strategy many successful businesses have embraced. So, what exactly is zone picking? And why is it making waves in warehouse management? Let’s delve into the details and uncover its potential benefits for your operations.

What is zone picking?

Zone picking is an order fulfillment method where a warehouse is divided into specific zones, and workers are assigned to pick items only within their designated zone rather than moving throughout the entire warehouse.

Imagine a big warehouse. Instead of letting workers run all over the place to find products, a zone-picking strategy divides portions of the warehouse into multiple zones or sections.

Each worker, or picker, has their own assigned zones where they pick items. They know this area well, which means they can pick items faster and with fewer mistakes.

The concept of order picking zones

Think of these zones like the sections in a grocery store: produce, dairy, bakery, and so on. By having these set areas, you can place items where they make the most sense and are easy to find.

You might group items that are often bought together or place popular items in easy-to-reach spots. This makes the whole process of picking faster and more organized.

How zone selection works

Here’s a simple way to understand it: let’s say a customer orders three items from your online store. These items are in three different zones in your warehouse.

Three workers, each from one zone, will pick one item. After they have their items, they’ll gather them together, pack them up, and then ship them to the customer.

Zone picking variables

Just like every business is unique, how you set up your zones can be unique, too. Some things you might consider are:

  • Which products are popular
  • How big your warehouse is
  • And how many people you have working in your facility

Zone selection vs. pick-and-pass

Understanding the nuances of different picking methods is crucial for optimizing warehouse operations. Here’s a basic breakdown of zone selection and pick-and-pass.

Imagine zone selection as a grocery store setup. Each aisle or section is dedicated to specific products or categories, much like how a grocery store has designated areas for produce, dairy, or canned goods. Workers, or ‘shoppers’ in this analogy, remain in their designated aisle and pick items only from that specific section whenever an order requires them.

On the other hand, pick-and-pass operates like an assembly line. Picture a product moving down the conveyor belt. As the order travels from one section or zone to the next, each worker adds the necessary items from their assigned zone. Instead of the worker going to different aisles to get multiple items, the order itself moves, and items are added sequentially until the order is complete.

Both methods have their unique advantages, and the choice between them often depends on the warehouse size, order volume, and specific operational requirements.

Pick-and-pass vs. pick-and-consolidate

Understanding warehouse picking methods can sometimes feel like piecing together a puzzle. Let’s use some relatable scenarios to illustrate the difference between pick-and-pass and pick-and-consolidate.

Think of pick-and-pass like a relay race where a baton (or, in this case, a shopping basket) is passed from one runner to the next. As the basket travels through each zone, the assigned worker places their specific items into it. By the time the basket reaches the end of the relay, it contains all the necessary items for the order.

On the flip side, pick-and-consolidate is more like a scavenger hunt where everyone collects items simultaneously. Imagine several teams, each fetching different items from different zones. Once they’ve gathered what they need, they all converge at a central point. Here, they combine all the items to form the complete order, readying it for dispatch.

Both methods aim to streamline and optimize the picking process, but the choice between them depends on factors like order complexity, warehouse layout, and efficiency goals.

What are the benefits of zone picking?

Zone picking isn’t just a tool for organization; it’s a powerful strategy that revolutionizes how warehouse managers operate. Let’s delve into the key benefits this method brings.

Efficient order processing

Think of a well-organized library. If you’re accustomed to its arrangement, locating a specific book becomes a breeze. Similarly, zone picking optimizes picking processes.

When workers are designated to particular warehouse zones, they quickly become specialists in their areas. This familiarity allows them to retrieve items more rapidly, expediting the entire order process.

Greater precision in picking

Clarity in warehouse zones means less room for mistakes. As workers become proficient in their designated areas, the chances of mispicks decrease.

This increased accuracy leads to reduced returns, benefiting both customers and minimizing operational challenges.

Agility during high-demand periods

Have you ever observed the frenzy in a store during a sale? It’s a different scenario when each aisle has its dedicated personnel. That’s the impact of zone picking.

When order volumes surge, especially during peak sale times, this method ensures that everything remains orderly and efficient.

Operational savings and reduced costs

Here’s a practical advantage: when workers focus on specific zones, there’s less wandering around. This focus minimizes needless movement, making the picking processes more efficient.

As a result, warehouse managers can observe significant time and cost savings.

Strengthened customer trust

For all businesses, customer satisfaction is paramount. It’s the gateway to repeat purchases and positive recommendations. When orders are dispatched quickly and accurately, customers’ faith in the company grows. The driving force behind this seamless service? Zone picking, of course.

The different types of zone picking

Simultaneous zone picking

Simultaneous zone picking means that all pickers operate in their respective zones at the same time. When an order arrives, it’s divided based on the zones the products are located in. Each picker in each zone then collects their part of the order concurrently.

Afterward, the parts of the order from each zone are brought together for consolidation. This method is particularly effective when there’s a high volume of orders, as it reduces waiting times and maximizes efficiency.

Sequential zone picking

In the sequential zone-picking method, the order moves from one zone to the next in a sequence. A picker in the first zone collects the items for the order from their zone and then passes the order to the next zone.

The picker in the next zone adds the items from their zone to the order, and this process continues until the order is complete. This method ensures that orders are processed in a systematic flow, minimizing backtracking and ensuring a smooth progression of orders through the warehouse.

Is zone picking right for you? Questions to consider

Here’s a list of diagnostic questions to help you understand if you should implement zone picking in your organization:

  • Order Volume: How many orders does your business process on an average day or week?
  • Product Diversity: Do you offer a wide variety of products or just a few similar items?
  • Warehouse Size: How large is your warehouse or storage space? Is there enough room to define clear zones?
  • Order Complexity: Do most of your orders involve items from multiple sections of your warehouse, or are they usually contained within one area?
  • Staffing Levels: Do you have enough employees to assign them to specific zones, or would they need to cover multiple areas?
  • Product Turnover Rate: How often do products move in and out of your warehouse? Would zones help in managing the turnover?
  • Current Picking Efficiency: Are there frequent errors or delays with your current picking method?
  • Order Urgency: Do you have a high demand for quick order turnaround, requiring fast picking strategies?
  • Warehouse Technology: Do you have or are you willing to implement technologies (like a WMS, barcodes, or RFID) to support zone picking?
  • Seasonal Variations: Does your order volume or product variety drastically change during certain periods, like holidays?
  • Training Capabilities: Are you equipped to train your staff for a new picking method and ensure consistent performance?
  • Growth Perspective: Is your business in a growth phase? Would reorganizing now support your future scalability?

If the majority of answers lean towards high order volume, a vast product range, a sizable warehouse, and the necessity for quicker, more efficient order processing, zone picking might be a beneficial strategy to consider.

Conversely, if the operation is smaller or more straightforward, other picking methods might be more appropriate.

Setting up zone picking for your ecommerce business

Here are some best practices for setting up a zone-picking system in your warehouse or fulfillment center, starting with how you physically lay out your warehouse.

Designing your physical space

Making the most of your zones

Imagine your warehouse as a board game. Positioning your game pieces (products) effectively determines how quickly you can reach the finish line (fulfill an order).

Organize products based on their demand and physical dimensions. Placing frequently ordered items closer to packing areas can drastically reduce travel time, boosting productivity.

Mapping the best paths

A clear path helps prevent motion waste and increase warehouse efficiency. Establish routes that minimize twists and turns, allowing for a smooth flow.

During peak seasons or sale events, having predefined paths prevents chaos and ensures orders are processed without delay.

The tech behind zone picking

Your WMS: The heart and soul of your order picking process

Your Warehouse Management System (WMS) acts as the brain behind your entire zone-picking system. It doesn’t just track items; it provides actionable insights and granular tracking data.

Linnworks, for example, will even produce intelligent pick lists that further streamline the order-picking process.

Accuracy with barcode and RFID

In a warehouse setting, mistakes can easily ripple out into costly errors.

Implementing barcodes and RFID technology ensures every product picked matches the order precisely, reducing costly returns and increasing customer satisfaction.

And you can stack these strategies to increase your efficiency even further. Combine zone picking with barcoding, and store all your inventory data in a robust WMS like Linnworks.

Zone picking examples

To understand better, here are some hypothetical examples from different industries, showcasing how zone picking can be a game-changer.

Apparel retailer “FashionFlare”

Imagine a large-scale apparel retailer named FashionFlare. With thousands of items spanning various categories, such as shirts, pants, dresses, and accessories, their warehouse was initially a labyrinth of products.

By dividing their warehouse into zones—each dedicated to a specific clothing type—pickers now have a streamlined process. When an order comes in with a shirt, jeans, and a hat, separate pickers from each zone collect the items concurrently, reducing the picking time immensely.

Electronics store “GadgetHub”

Or consider an electronics retailer, GadgetHub. Their inventory includes everything from laptops and smartphones to smaller accessories like earbuds and chargers. Before zone picking, a single picker would roam extensively to collect a mixed order.

After implementing zone picking, they categorized zones by device types and accessory types. So, if a customer orders a laptop, a phone, and an earbud set, pickers in the respective zones can gather these items simultaneously, ensuring a swift dispatch.

“HealthyHarvest” – an organic grocery store

For a final example, consider HealthyHarvest, an organic grocery store that deals with a diverse range of products from fresh produce to canned goods. Given the perishable nature of some items, zone picking proved invaluable. Their warehouse is divided into zones such as ‘Fresh Produce’, ‘Dairy’, ‘Grains’, and ‘Canned Goods’.

An order with items from each of these categories is now handled by pickers assigned to each zone, ensuring faster assembly of orders and minimal time for perishable items outside refrigeration.

Final thoughts

Zone picking is more than just a method—it’s a strategic decision to drive productivity and efficiency in warehousing. When combined with technology and executed with precision, it can be a transformative solution for ecommerce businesses, ensuring they stay ahead in a competitive landscape.

As with any strategy, the key to success lies in understanding its nuances and being committed to continuous optimization. Take an interactive tour of Linnworks to see how it could aid your warehouse management processes.

Zone picking FAQs

What is a single scheduling period in a zone-picking system?

The single scheduling period in a zone picking system refers to the specific time frame set for picking operations in a designated warehouse zone.

During this period, workers focus on fulfilling orders from their assigned areas. Think of it as a shift dedicated to picking products in a particular section of the warehouse.

Can you combine multiple picking methods?

Certainly, combining multiple picking methods is not only possible but often recommended for maximum efficiency. Two prevalent hybrid methods include “zone batch picking” and “zone wave picking.”

In zone batch picking, the principles of zone picking are integrated with batch picking. This means workers pick multiple orders within their designated zone during a single trip. It’s especially useful for businesses with a high volume of small orders, as it minimizes back-and-forth trips across the warehouse.

Zone wave picking, on the other hand, merges zone picking with wave picking. Workers pick items from their zones during specific time windows or “waves.” By grouping order picks into waves, the process can be more tightly coordinated with other warehouse activities, such as shipping and receiving.

By assessing and potentially combining picking methods, businesses can tailor their approach to best fit their operational requirements, optimizing both efficiency and accuracy.

Can zone picking be scaled up or down based on seasonal demand variations?

Absolutely. The flexibility of zone picking means it can easily scale up or down. If there’s a surge in orders, perhaps due to seasonal peaks or promotions, you can adjust by assigning more workers to zones or by restructuring zones to handle increased volume.

Conversely, during slower periods, you can scale down to conserve resources.

What are some real-world examples of businesses successfully implementing zone picking?

Real-world examples of businesses using zone picking vary across industries. Many large retail chains, for instance, employ zone picking in their distribution centers to streamline order fulfillment.

ecommerce giants, too, have integrated zone picking, especially during sales events like Black Friday, to efficiently manage the rush. Moreover, niche industries, from automotive parts distributors to book retailers, have tapped into the benefits of zone picking to enhance their operational efficiency.

What’s the difference between zone picking, wave picking, and batch picking?

The difference between zone picking, wave picking, and batch picking is how orders are processed. In zone picking, workers are assigned specific zones in a warehouse and only pick items from their designated areas.

Wave picking, on the other hand, schedules order picking at specific times, often grouping orders to optimize routes and minimize warehouse traffic. Lastly, batch picking involves collecting items for multiple orders simultaneously, reducing the number of trips a picker needs to make.

Ready to see Linnworks in action?

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

Matt Kenyon


Matt has been helping businesses succeed with exceptional content, lead gen, and B2B copywriting for the last decade. When he’s not typing words for humans (that Google loves), Matt can be found producing music, peeking at a horror flick between his fingers, or spending quality time with his wife and kids.