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Optimizing Online Order Picking in Distribution Centers for Efficiency

Authored by Derek Rotondi
November 13, 2023

In the ever-expanding world of e-commerce, the backbone of success lies in the efficient operation of distribution centers. With consumers demanding faster delivery times and a wider range of products, distribution centers are under constant pressure to improve their order picking processes. Efficient online order picking is not only crucial for meeting customer expectations but also for reducing operational costs and increasing profitability. In this blog, we'll explore the key strategies and technologies that help distribution centers pick online orders efficiently.

Understanding the Order Picking Process

Before delving into efficiency strategies, it's essential to grasp the complexity of the order picking process in distribution centers. Typically, this process involves several stages:

  1. Order Receipt: Orders are received from online shoppers via the website or mobile app.
  2. Order Processing: These orders are processed, and inventory levels are checked.
  3. Order Picking: This is the crucial stage where items are physically picked from the storage area.
  4. Order Packing: Picked items are assembled, packed, and labeled for shipment.
  5. Shipping: Orders are dispatched to their respective destinations, often involving multiple transport modes and handovers.

Zone Picking:

In large distribution centers, dividing the storage area into zones is an effective strategy. Workers specialize in picking from specific zones, reducing the time and effort required to cover vast areas. This strategy minimizes congestion and optimizes the use of available space.

Batch Picking:

Rather than picking one order at a time, batch picking allows workers to pick items for multiple orders simultaneously. This method minimizes the distance traveled by order pickers and is especially beneficial for high-velocity items. Afterward, items are sorted and consolidated into individual orders.

Wave Picking:

In this strategy, orders are grouped into waves based on their pick paths, ensuring that orders are picked efficiently and without unnecessary backtracking. Software systems help determine these pick paths and minimize the time and distance traveled.


The integration of automation technologies, such as conveyor systems, robots, and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), can significantly enhance order picking efficiency. Robots can pick and transport items to packers or consolidation areas, while AS/RS systems facilitate fast access to inventory.

Use of Voice and Wearable Technologies:

Equipping order pickers with wearable devices, such as headsets or smart glasses, that provide audio or visual instructions can reduce picking errors and improve efficiency. Voice-guided picking allows workers to keep their hands free, enhancing accuracy and speed.

Slotting Optimization:

Regularly reorganizing the storage area based on product velocity and popularity can significantly reduce travel times. High-demand items should be stored closer to the picking area, minimizing the distance pickers need to travel.

Data Analytics:

Utilizing data analytics and predictive analytics can provide valuable insights into order patterns, seasonal fluctuations, and inventory management. These insights enable distribution centers to make informed decisions about staffing, order prioritization, and inventory replenishment.

Training and Staffing:

Well-trained, motivated, and adequately staffed teams are crucial for efficient online order picking. Investing in employee training and creating a positive work environment can boost productivity and reduce error rates.

Challenges in Efficient Order Picking

While these strategies can significantly improve order picking efficiency, several challenges need to be addressed:

  1. Scalability: As online shopping continues to grow, distribution centers must constantly adapt to increased order volumes and product diversity.
  2. Complexity of SKUs: The more diverse the product range, the more complex the order picking process becomes. Efficient handling of a vast number of SKUs requires advanced sorting and storage systems.
  3. Labor Shortages: Distribution centers often face labor shortages, making it crucial to implement technologies that augment human workers effectively.
  4. Accuracy: Speed is essential, but accuracy is paramount. Incorrect orders can result in costly returns and damage to the brand's reputation.
  5. Seasonal Variations: Seasonal fluctuations can strain distribution centers, as order volumes spike during peak shopping seasons.

Efficient online order picking in distribution centers is a critical component of e-commerce success. Implementing a combination of zoning, batching, automation, technology integration, slotting optimization, and data-driven decision-making can help distribution centers meet the demands of the modern e-commerce landscape. Adapting to challenges and continuously improving order picking processes is the key to thriving in this fast-paced industry, where customer satisfaction and operational efficiency go hand in hand.