The Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors Blog

10 Ways to Achieve E-Commerce Distribution Success, Part 3 of 10 – Determine Overall Pick Strategy

August 22nd, 2016

Ian Hobkirk

By Ian Hobkirk
Managing Director of Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors





Under increasing pressure to work faster, better, and smarter in today’s omni-channel and e-commerce business environment, companies need help getting their distribution operations up to speed with customer demands and expectations. To help, I’ve identified 10 key tactics that successful companies are employing in order to make a graceful transition to higher levels of e-commerce in the distribution center.


In this ten-part blog series I’m covering four basic, three intermediate and three advanced tactics that will help your firm achieve e-commerce distribution success. This blog, Part 3 will focus on the third Basic Tactic, Determine an Overall Pick Strategy.


Tactic #3: Determine Overall Pick Strategy

The decision of an overall pick strategy should not be taken lightly. Companies that are in their infancy with e-commerce will likely not have the piece-pick volumes to justify expensive material handling equipment. It is advisable, however, to perform some long range planning and have some sense of what strategy will need to be employed once volumes increase.


Vehicle-Based Systems 

Many companies may already be performing this type of picking. They may be using electric pallet-jacks for floor-level picking or “man-up” order-pickers for multi-level picking. Neither of these vehicles lends itself particularly well to picking low-cube items to discrete orders. Manual picking carts, while not likely to win any technological awards, are the lynchpin of many piece-pick distribution centers, even those with high volumes of business. A key to effective cart picking is using the right cart design. There are seemingly infinite configurations of shelves to suit every picking need. It may be wise to purchase a few different designs as “prototypes” to test out in the warehouse before making a larger purchase.



  •  Inexpensive
  •  Flexible
  •  Easy to add additional labor at peak periods
  •  Potential ergonomic issues
  •  Passing batches between zones is harder than with conveyors
  •  May be long travel distances to packing area

Conveyor-Based Systems

For large distribution centers with multiple pick zones, conveyor-based systems can be an effective means of fulfilling orders. When goods need to be conveyed a long distance to a shipping area, or when they must be routed to many different zones for picks by a variety of workers, conveyors can be a significant labor saver. Conveyor systems are not inexpensive however, and careful thought must go into their design. Systems should be designed with scalability in mind. Additional levels of a pick module might need to be added in the future, and the support structure should be designed to support this if needed. Generally speaking, conveyor-based systems evolve relatively well over time. Additional labor can usually be added fairly easily, and the system can be lengthened or additional levels can be added in the future.


  •  Well suited for large distribution centers with multiple zones
  •  Ties into automated packing systems well
  •  Operators can focus on picking, not transporting
  •  Can usually add labor in peak periods
  •  High upfront cost
  •  Less flexible than carts
  •  Not all SKUs are conveyable

Goods-to-Picker Systems

There are a wide variety of goods to picker systems available, including vertical and horizontal carousels, vertical lift modules, automated storage & retrieval systems (AS/RS), and robotic picking systems. Each has their relative merits, depending on the type of goods being picked and the outbound velocity patterns. Goods-to-picker systems offer the fastest pick rates of all three picking strategies, but are also the least flexible if business needs change. A potential middle ground exists now with the advent of robotic picking systems. These systems involve armies of robots bringing shelving pods to pickers and then putting them away again after picking is done. (In the third segment of this blog we’ll discuss each type of goods-to-picker systems in more detail.)


  •  Ultra-high pick rates
  •  Excellent space utilization
  •  High upfront cost
  •  Very inflexible if needs change
  •  System efficiency is highly dependent on the capabilities of the software controlling it.



In the next segment of this ten-part series we’ll look at the final Basic Tactic (#4), Determine Optimal Pick Methodology.

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