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The process of warehouse fulfillment begins once an order has been placed. The goal is to make is to make delivery a delight. While many companies overlook this final step in an order, it is the moment that matters most to your customers.
Of course, approaching fulfillment haphazardly isn’t the best course of action. Without systematic fulfillment processes in place, a variety of things could go wrong at any moment.
Needless to say, none of these outcomes is good for business. Whether you end up losing money, upsetting your customers, or both, a subpar approach to fulfillment can effectively make your otherwise exceptional warehouse processes null and void.
Here, we’re going to explain the three phases of the fulfillment process and discuss some best practices to adhere to throughout each.
(Note: we’ll be discussing the process of order consolidation and checking within our discussion of warehouse packing. However, depending on what works best for your fulfillment process, these actions may occur during the picking phase.)
Warehouse picking refers to the process of finding an item (or multiple items) in storage after a customer has placed an order. Once the product has been found, the picker will then transport the item to be prepared for packing.
While this may seem like a relatively straightforward process, picking can become complex as your inventory continues to grow:
Start by determining which approach to picking is right for your circumstances:
In discrete picking, a given picker is assigned to an entire order and tasked with collecting the items from warehouse storage. Discrete picking requires that your pickers know the optimal route to take thus minimizing downtime or backtracking.
Zone picking assigns different pickers to different areas of the warehouse, making each responsible for picking items being stored within their assigned zones. Once the right items have been picked from one zone, the picker transports them to the next zone (typically via conveyor belt or similar tools).
(A quick note on zone picking: Individual pickers should adopt discrete picking within their own zone. That is, Picker A should always know the optimal route to their assigned inventory, as should Picker B, C, etc.)
Batch picking, or multi-order picking, has individual pickers begin the fulfillment process for multiple orders of the same product at the same time. For example, if three orders for a specific product come in at once, the picker will take retrieve that inventory in a single trip. The items are then separated appropriately at a sorting location.
Typically, batch picking is most effective when all products are relatively similar in physical composition.
Cluster picking involves one picker retrieving multiple orders in their entirety at the same time. Once all the products for a collection of orders are obtained, either the picker or another warehouse worker then separates the items at a sorting location into their discrete order for packing and shipping.
Wave picking is essentially a more advanced form of cluster picking for large warehouses with predictable order cycles. A picker still retrieves multiple orders in their entirety; however, groups of pickers are sent out in “waves” at regularly scheduled intervals rather than individually as orders come in.
Warehouse packing happens once all items within an order have been picked and grouped together. While a bird’s-eye view of the packing process simply shows items being placed in containers in preparation for shipping, there’s a lot to think about throughout this phase.
For one, it’s essential that orders are packed into containers of appropriate size. Obviously, the container needs to be large enough to fit each item within the order. Using an oversized container, on the other hand, can cause contents to shift during transport — ultimately risking major damage along the way.
Speaking of potential damage, you’ll also need to include proper protection within your packages to ensure your customers’ orders arrive intact and as expected. This may mean including shock-absorbing materials or climate-controlled packaging within your shipments.
It’s worth mentioning that using excessively-large containers will often require you to use more protective materials to ensure the safety of your orders. In such cases, you’ll be using far more resources than you’d need to effectively deliver said products.
Consolidation involves determining the optimal way to package items to be shipped — and, depending on the picking approach being used, may also involve grouping items into different orders as needed.
Each item will also need to be assessed to ensure that the right item is about to be packed and that no damage has occurred while being transported within the warehouse.
Once an order has been packed correctly, the final step of the packing process is to label the container for shipment and include any other information or documentation as needed.
Optimizing the packing process involves completing a number of tasks:
Warehouse shipping involves the final steps in fulfilling orders and the actual delivery of said orders as planned.
Once an order has been packed, it will need to be weighed and measured. Depending on your warehouse’s overall workload, weighing and measuring can be done manually (with the necessary tools), or through automated processes using advanced equipment (such as in-line scales and scanners).
After an order is 100% ready for delivery, it will need to be loaded for transport.
As with packing, loading should be systematic to ensure efficient use of space, resources, and manpower. The goal here is to load the delivery vehicle to its maximum capacity without risking damage or loss. This enables your team to deliver multiple orders in one fell swoop, instead of having to double back to the warehouse.
In the same way that your picking process should minimize redundant travel, you also want to ensure your delivery team always knows the optimal routes to take when fulfilling multiple orders.
Your average delivery times need to match your customers’ requested order lead time. By today’s standards, most eCommerce retail consumers typically expect to receive their orders within three days’ time however wholesale customers often accept longer lead time — so it’s vital that your shipping processes allow this to happen.
If this three-day window isn’t yet plausible for your growing business, your other option is to offer your customers a trade-off between the time it takes to ship your orders and the cost of said shipping.
That said, offering free or low-cost shipping isn’t a “magic bullet” — you’ll still need to be able to fulfill orders within a reasonable amount of time.
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