Preventing picking errors
A range of tactics to improve order-picking accuracy during eCommerce fulfilment
As your business’s operations or warehouse manager, you’ll know that warehouse picking errors during eCommerce fulfilment can significantly impact your business.
Warehouse picking errors are where an incorrect product is picked and sent to a customer. Inadequate inventory management, tired staff, or poor warehouse layout are common causes. Picking errors can affect customer satisfaction, increase return rates, and harm business profitability. But there are several tactics you can use to minimise mistakes.
This guide provides 21 actionable tips to reduce warehouse picking errors when fulfilling online orders. It covers staff, stock management, advanced picking tactics, and more.
The business impact of picking errors
Before highlighting the steps you can take to minimise picking errors, it is essential to understand how much of an impact they can have on your business and operations.
Estimates suggest that an average warehouse will experience a one to three per cent error rate when fulfilling eCommerce orders. This figure may seem minor. But if between one and three out of every hundred orders you process is returned or has to be corrected, it can soon become a significant drag on your productivity.
Picking errors can also compound themselves, with one mistake resulting in incorrect stock and preventing further orders from being fulfilled.
Worse than this is the effect on your customer’s satisfaction and the potential for preventing repeat business.
Several studies have shown that a single picking error can reduce the profitability of an order by as much as 13 per cent.
Some level of error will always exist. But minimising levels as far as reasonably possible can significantly impact the profitability of your business.
Tips to improve your order picking
21 ways to reduce warehouse picking errors
Considering the impact warehouse picking errors’ can have on your business, you can use as many as 21 different tactics and ideas to reduce any mistakes. These are, in no particular order:
- Measure performance.
- Map your picking process.
- Ensure the accuracy of your inventory.
- Conduct regular inventory checks.
- Organise your inventory strategically.
- Consider product velocity.
- Use a suitable picking tactic.
- Establish picking routes.
- Consider how many orders your staff pick per run.
- Prioritise picking orders.
- Don’t rely on memory.
- Give items individual locations.
- Consider measurement units.
- Have a strategy for half-picked orders.
- Track any substitutions.
- Regularly review your storage strategies.
- Ensure you use suitable picking bins.
- Improve your working environment.
- Get everyone involved (including outside the warehouse).
- Empower your workforce to be accountable.
- Review workforce requirements.
Ascertaining your current situation
The starting point for any business is to understand your current position. And this is true if you are analysing picking errors.
It is impossible to begin reducing picking errors if you are making assumptions about the levels you are currently experiencing. Measurement also provides a baseline to see how implemented changes impact your success.
It is also critical to choose a consistent measure of performance. For example, you may already have data on customer returns or complaint levels. Looking at the percentage of how many orders staff pick correctly first time is also a widely used metric.
Whatever you decide, measurement is the first step to making tangible improvements.
Map your picking process
Analyse your error data to assign errors to stages or individuals
Measuring your warehouse picking errors can result in data that is revealing but challenging to act on.
As such, mapping your order fulfilment process from beginning to end can help you highlight the stages in which errors are most likely to occur. Doing this provides actionable data that you can use to drive improvements in those specific areas.
You can also use this info to post league tables of accuracy amongst teams or individuals, adding a competitive element and accountability. You must take care not to demotivate or alienate your workforce, however.
Ensure the accuracy of your inventory
Correct storage, labelling and locations
An often overlooked aspect of order-picking errors is that, often, it is not the picking process that results in the problem. Instead, the inventory is not put in the correct locations or appropriately labelled.
As such, it is crucial to review your goods in processes thoroughly. Miscounting items, assigning to the wrong location and other mistakes during put-away cause enormous difficulties for order pickers. At best, these cause delays whilst staff locate the correct items. At worst, they result in your business sending incorrect items to customers.
Remember to include the receipt of goods when mapping out your order-picking process.
Conduct regular inventory checks
Ongoing management of stock levels and accuracy
Similarly to vetting your goods in and put-away processes, it is crucial to maintain the ongoing accuracy of your inventory.
Replenishment, putting returns back into stock and allowing for substitutions (where applicable) can all result in inaccurate inventory counts.
Where possible, it is wise to schedule regular stock checks and counts. Stock taking in itself can cause difficulties, with inventory changing during counts or resulting in delays to fulfilment. But even part stock checks can make a significant impact. This process can identify incorrect locations, stock levels or missing items before it causes an issue.
The added bonus of keeping your inventory accurate is that it helps identify fast-moving or popular lines, those that may have seasonal peaks and troughs, or less popular items where you do not need to hold excess stock.
Organise your inventory strategically
Make sure you organise your products correctly
How you organise your inventory within your warehouse plays a surprisingly significant role in the number of picking errors you experience.
For example, if your staff often mix up specific SKUs, make sure these are not stored directly next to each other. It may sound obvious, but many businesses can eliminate warehouse picking errors by taking simple actions such as this.
Consider product velocity
Organise inventory to reduce fatigue
As with keeping easily mixed-up SKUs apart, if customers often order specific items alongside others, storing those together can help reduce errors.
Similarly, analysing your product velocity (i.e. how many products you sell and how quickly) can allow you to place all fast-moving lines closer to packing bays.
The other benefit of thinking through how and where you store stock is that it can also reduce travel time for your staff. Doing so indirectly reduces errors, too, by helping to prevent staff fatigue.
Use a suitable picking tactic
Making your picking teams' jobs easier
Rather than simply considering a basic storage strategy such as those mentioned previously, you should seriously consider implementing an advanced picking tactic.
Whether you utilise zone (assigning staff to a particular area), batch (picking multiple orders from a specific warehouse location) or even wave picking (a combination of these), using tactics can help focus staff and improve accountability.
Implementing such tactics requires staff education and training, but this can vastly reduce errors and help improve engagement.
Establish picking routes
Minimise travel times for fulfilment staff
After deciding on a picking tactic that fits your business well, you can also implement picking routes.
Doing this can remove the thought process of how best to get to an item’s location and instead allows your team to focus on the accuracy of their picking.
While picking routes will depend on your methodology or tactic, the efficiency gains can also help reduce travel times. Again, this directly impacts staff fatigue, with the improvements typically resulting in fewer errors. It can also help improve your fulfilment times.
Consider how many orders staff pick per run
Balancing efficiency with accuracy
Some businesses have order pickers retrieving one order at a time. Others ask staff to pick multiple orders in one journey around the warehouse.
The former idea argues that it allows for improved focus on accuracy and prevents products from being mixed up between orders. The arguments for the second are that it is much more efficient and reduces fatigue for staff.
The best option, however, is probably somewhere in the middle. Your employees should not have too many orders to pick at once but avoid single-run picking as they will become tired and begin to make errors towards the end of the shift.
Finding a balance between accuracy and efficiency is vital.
Prioritise picking of orders
Ensure you fulfil all orders in a timely manner
Another type of picking error not mentioned thus far is failing to fulfil orders promptly.
What can often happen is that the newest orders are picked first by default. Whilst employees pick these orders, older ones can be delayed and may even miss promised despatch dates. In worst-case scenarios, you may completely overlook older orders.
Just ensure you have a process that ensures you pick older (or more urgent or important) first.
Don't rely on memory
Move away from reliance on individuals
Another surprising aspect of many eCommerce businesses is that their order-picking processes rely on people remembering where specific stock is stored. But this can cause numerous problems.
Firstly, memory is fallible. Somebody having a bad day or who is more tired than usual may struggle to locate the correct items (or make picking errors). Similarly, staff may put items back in incorrect locations.
Secondly, if key staff members are out of the business – for example, on holiday – finding items may prove incredibly difficult.
And thirdly, it becomes costly or even impossible to bring in temps or train new employees.
Give items individual locations
One SKU per picking bin
When combined with cutting-edge scanners and warehouse management systems, some picking methods suggest storing different SKUs in a single location or bin. But for most businesses, this is a recipe for disaster.
Similarly, having an SKU across multiple locations (i.e. in several different picking bins) can also cause an increase in warehouse picking errors.
Consider measurement units
Review and ensure all employees understand unit quantities
Your eCommerce operations may allow customers to order products in different pack sizes or quantities. Multi-pack offers may mean one product has a ten count whilst a similar one has a 20 count. On others, ten individual items may make up one product – and should be picked accordingly.
If this is the case, order pickers must know the correct counts when retrieving an order. Otherwise, customers may receive much lower or higher product counts than intended. Grouping products or assigning individual SKUs to different part counts can help to resolve this.
Have a strategy for half-picked orders
How to handle stockouts and unfulfilled orders
It is not uncommon for orders to be half-picked before finding that not all products or parts are in stock. If this happens, it can significantly negatively impact your business from a customer and marketplace perspective (Amazon and eBay demote sellers who regularly have this issue).
However, it can also mean that the items that have been picked end up in limbo. They may sit at despatch bays, waiting for other items to become available. Or they may be put back into stock with returns. Both can impact your inventory counts and result in further picking errors.
As such, it is essential to have a robust process for dealing with this scenario.
Track any substitutions
How to manage substituted items
Similarly to half-picked orders, substituting items during picking can cause severe headaches in a relatively short time.
Whilst customers in specific markets now accept substituted products, if employees make the substitution without tracking stock, it can result in other errors (and more substitutions) further down the line. This is before considering disallowed substitutions.
Although careful management can help here, an automated stock management system is necessary if this is a frequently recurring scenario.
Regularly review your storage strategies
Stay on top of how you are handling your inventory
Although detailed previously, it is essential to stay on top of how you manage the storage within your warehouse. Stock checks, correctly putting away new stock, and handling returns and substitutions are all critical.
However, it is also vital to consider that your requirements will change over time. As your inventory evolves or your business reacts to trends or seasonal peaks in demand, the strategies that were working six months ago may now be causing your problems.
The takeaway? Make sure you review your storage strategies on an ongoing basis.
Ensure suitable picking bins
Enable appropriate storage of your inventory
Although the tactics and strategies for reducing picking errors are important, you must also consider how you physically store your stock.
Inventory piled on warehouse raking or shelving can be challenging to retrieve, easily be muddled, and become damaged and dusty.
Suitable picking bins can prevent all of these issues. Besides this, they can also improve stock density, segment similar items (helping to reduce errors), and maximise the available space in your warehouse. They can even make the physical act of picking the items much easier for your staff.
Finally, temporary picking bins can also help with any seasonal fluctuations you experience.
Improve the working environment
Help staff to reduce picking errors
A tired workforce makes more mistakes than a fresh one. As such, making the working environment as comfortable as possible for your picking teams is vital.
Even small changes such as optimising picking bins, adding floor mats and ensuring a sensible ambient temperature can all help to reduce fatigue and prevent warehouse picking errors.
The added benefit is that if you show that you are considering the well-being of your workforce, it can lead to more motivated and engaged staff. Again, this can help to reduce picking errors.
Get everyone involved (including outside warehouse)
Engage staff from across the business to reduce picking errors
As per the earlier point, your goods-in team, if incorrectly putting away or booking in goods, can lead to picking staff making errors. And this is why it is essential to involve employees from across the business to reduce mistakes when fulfilling customer orders.
Maybe the team who uploads product images on the website has the wrong picture against a specific SKU? Perhaps the website admin has mixed up two product references on the online store? There may even be differences between online and offline (i.e. retail store) product codes, confusing returns.
Surprisingly, picking errors can often result from mistakes in different parts of the business that are not directly involved with fulfilment. The inclusion of all relevant stakeholders is essential to reduce picking errors.
Empower your workforce to be accountable
Foster a culture of openness and improvement
Teams and individuals should be held accountable for any warehouse picking errors. Failing to do this can be divisive and demotivating to employees not making any (or fewer) mistakes.
However, it is equally important to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable admitting to and owning mistakes. If they fear remedial action (or worse), staff will attempt to hide or cover up errors. They may even look to shift blame elsewhere. This behaviour can seriously hamper your efforts to reduce picking errors.
It may also be possible to incentivise staff by offering bonuses or other rewards for those who have made the fewest errors or shown the most significant improvements (although you must implement and manage such schemes carefully).
Review workforce requirements
Consider training or other avenues for poorly performing staff
If you can pinpoint which staff are making the most errors, it allows you to provide additional training and support as required.
This level of analysis should also allow you to ascertain which employees are the most productive and to reward them appropriately.
You may also identify employees not pulling their weight and contributing disproportionately to your warehouse picking error figures. If these individuals do not respond to training, then there may be a case to replace them. Teams carrying poorly performing members can themselves become demotivated, potentially creating a negative spiral that results in increased errors.
Preventing warehouse picking errors at your business
There is much to consider when attempting to reduce picking errors at your business. What picking tactics to use, how to empower staff, storage strategies and even the types of picking bins you use.
However, the benefit of getting this right is improved customer satisfaction, reduced costs, a motivated workforce and an overall improvement in your operations.
If you would like to explore how working alongside GWP can help improve your warehouse management and reduce picking errors, please do not hesitate to get in touch.