How to Reduce Picking and Packing Errors

Fulfilling orders is a tedious and repetitive task, making it easy to underestimate how important the process is for your business. Simple mistakes on orders, like packing the wrong item or putting labels on the wrong packages, can cost you thousands of dollars every year. The costs in return shipping, lost or damaged items, loss of repeated business, and time spent on corrections add up quickly.

Most small businesses don’t realize how many orders involve picking and packing errors. In most small business fulfillment environments, there is little accountability and performance measuring to help find these errors and what might be causing them.

A 97% accuracy rate is common when the appropriate metrics are available. That means that 3% of all orders that go out the door have a mistake going with them. Those orders will need to be returned, reshipped, or refunded, and your chance of repeat business from those customers is extremely low.

To err is human. To optimize is business. Let’s talk about some simple steps you can take to get closer to 100% order accuracy:

The Conventional Workflow:

Most e-commerce stores use an order fulfillment process similar to this:

  1. A new order is received by the cart.
  2. The order is verified and moved to a processing status.
  3. The packing slip is printed and placed in a bin.
  4. The bin and packing slip are handed off for picking.
  5. Order items are crossed off as they are picked and placed in the bin.
  6. The picked order is handed off to a packer, who double-checks the contents for accuracy.
  7. The order is packed and prepared for shipping.
  8. The packed order is handed off to a shipper, who weighs and measures the package.
  9. A shipping label is printed and attached to the package.

While the process seems effective at first glance, there are multiple holes that errors are allowed to slip through. By streamlining the process and shortening the steps to completion, we can eliminate these margins for error.

We have a few goals in mind for an optimized order process:

  1. We want to eliminate the need to move the order from one person to another.
  2. We want to process an order completely from start to finish, with no time spent waiting in a queue with other orders.
  3. We want a more accurate validation method that imposes less strain on the picker.

The first two goals are fairly easy to accomplish – we just need to make slight adjustments so that one person can pick, pack, and then ship an order or batch of orders with no interruption. This will reduce the chance of errors by keeping focus on the order and not leaving it with a group of other pending orders at any point.

The third goal is the more sophisticated problem to solve: what would be the best way to verify order picking accuracy? Striking off items on a paper invoice can be a tedious process, and has a lot of room for error. Ideally, you would want a way to verify the items through an electronic method that is aware of what’s needed to fulfill an order. However, electronic validation usually involves expensive hardware and software that you would only find in giant fulfillment centers.

Order Verification:

Verifying orders electronically doesn’t need to be a complicated or expensive thing to implement. All you really need is a way to scan an item’s barcode and know whether or not that’s the correct item for an order. By taking it a step further and setting up barcodes for your individual orders or bins, you can also confirm that the items are going with the right order and shipping label.

SKUlabs began with that exact idea. We developed a barcode-based order item verification system and started picking orders with 100% accuracy. Our first version involved scanning a packing slip barcode to display the order items on a laptop computer, then scanning the order items to complete the order. The system flashed a green message when the scan was correct, and a red message when it was incorrect. We later switched to an electronic order list to eliminate the need for paper packing slips.

Our testers required minimal training and reported reduced physical and mental strain in the transition away from the old packing slip method. We used control groups to compare orders picked with the new method versus orders picked using the traditional workflow, and found that the new method eliminated picking errors completely.

The Streamlined Workflow:

While a barcode-based picking system can eliminate errors at that phase of the workflow, there are still other steps where mistakes can be made. By extending the electronic system to seamlessly transition from picking to packing and shipping, we can plug the rest of the holes that allow for mistakes.

Packing errors usually come from mixing order bins in a group and packing the wrong bin for the wrong order. The chances of this sort of error occurring can be reduced by moving straight from picking to packing, without setting the order aside or handing it off to someone else.

To help facilitate this, the SKUlabs fulfillment workflow moves directly from picking to packing and shipping, allowing the worker to quickly enter package dimensions, weights, and other parameters from the same interface that they were on previously. We even memorize package size and weight when a specific combination of items is shipped, allowing us to preload those figures automatically when that combination is ordered again.

Our revised workflow now looks something like this:

  1. A new order is received by cart.
  2. The order is verified and moved to a processing status.
  3. An order or batch of orders is selected for picking from the SKUlabs orders list.
  4. Order items are marked as picked as their barcodes are scanned and they are placed in the appropriate bin.
  5. The picked order is packed and prepared for shipping.
  6. The packed order is weighed and measured, and a label is printed and attached to the package.

We’ve now reduced the number of steps, eliminated handoffs and waiting periods, and ensured 100% item accuracy through barcode verification. This workflow will save time and eliminate errors, saving you money every day of the week.