Avoiding Packing Bottlenecks

Packing is generally the last stage in the fulfillment process before the order is shipped out the door. So it’s also the last place you want to have a bottleneck of cartons or totes that need to be packed and shipped. Here are a few suggestions to ensure smooth sailing in the packing process:

Make sure picks are complete

Keeping the workflow going in the packing department means having orders all but ready to head out the door once they reach the packers. Anything that the packer has to do other than packing can cause a backup.

For instance, pickers shouldn’t drop off incomplete orders in hopes that the packers will fill in the blanks, says Leslie Case, director of consumer direct at Atlanta-based operations consultancy The Progress Group. “Set up an exception cart for incomplete or problem orders,” she suggests, “so that all problems are dealt with before they reach the packer.”

Packers should double-check that what they are packing corresponds with the order on the pick ticket, however. Case says that packers as well as pickers should be held to an accuracy benchmark of 0.5%. Pickers or packers who get more than one out of every 200 orders wrong on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis should be held accountable.

“The packer should be accountable for doing the final check of right item, right order,” says Case. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for companies to drop these standards when in a crunch, even though that is when it is most important to have accuracy. You can never win back that customer you lose because of a faulty order.”

Keep the station stocked

Packers must have as many of their packing materials as possible within reach, or at least within a few steps, says Jack Blair, a principal of Deerfield, IL-based business operations consultancy The Revere Group. At Anchorage, AK-based gift baskets mailer Alaska Wild Berry Products, packing materials are kept directly adjacent to the stations, says warehouse manager Lee Simmons.

Cheyenne, WY-based apparel and sporting gear cataloger Sierra Trading Post has one worker whose sole responsibility is to circulate around the packing stations and keep stocked supplies such as the most common box sizes used, says director of fulfillment and facilities Robin Jahnke.

Some ops managers say that packers shouldn’t even be responsible for finding and inserting dunnage into packages or for sealing up the boxes and bags. Packers at Sierra Trading Post, for one, are trained to leave the packed boxes unsealed when they place them back on the conveyor belt. Downstream on the assembly line a designated employee adds any necessary padding and places the boxes through an automatic tape machine.

“I don’t want the packer to have to do any more inserting of dunnage and taping than is necessary,” says Jahnke. “I want to keep her packing.”

Give packers their space

Up until this year, Alaska Wild Berry Products’ eight off-season and 15-20 holiday-season packers were continually getting in each other’s way. “We had everything too close together,” Simmons says, “with workers bumping into each other, and stuff piling up on top of each other. Things took longer, and we made more mistakes.”

But this past January the company finished an expansion of its warehouse, increasing the floor space from 2,500 sq. ft. to 3,500 sq. ft. The assembly line table the company uses as a packing station was enlarged from 34 ft. to 48 ft. long.

“We had been working in the old warehouse so long we could see exactly where we needed to make changes,” Simmons says. “We needed space to spread out and organize.”

Sierra Trading Post, which built a two-mezzanine, 348,000-sq.-ft. fulfillment center in 2002, designed a floor plan that allows pickers and packers to work in close vicinity but not side by side, Jahnke says. The bin rows are on three sides of the packing department, which minimizes the distance traveled to drop carts off at the packing section of the warehouse.

Divide and conquer

Dividing picked orders before flowing them to the packers improves efficiency, says Jane Browning, vice president of direct-to-consumer business at Bowling Green, KY-based recreational equipment cataloger/retailer Camping World.

The cataloger separates orders into categories such as single-item and multi-item orders, backorders, items requiring personalization, and oversize items. Browning says dividing packing tasks into specific categories of responsibility helps maintain the workflow of the company’s dozen or so packers.

Before the company began separating out oversize items such as folding chairs, recreational vehicle (RV) antennae, 35-gallon RV water tanks, and grills, Browning says it took just a few oversize orders to create a logjam: “We would get two [large items] on the belt for the packer, and then we couldn’t get anything else on the belt.”

Software from Natick, MA-based CommercialWare sorts Camping World’s picking and packing batches into the specified categories, printing pick tickets labeled by category. Deployed in 2001, the software cost about $600,000, including installation, licensing, and maintenance fees, says Browning.

Give gift-wrapping its own station

Catalogers that offer gift-wrapping can sometimes get away with doing it at the packing stations during slow periods. But in general, you’re better off with a station just for gift-wrapping.

San Francisco-based high-tech gifts and gadgets cataloger/retailer The Sharper Image separates packages needing gift boxes into their own area in the facility, says Barry Jacobsen, senior vice president of distribution. Having workers who concentrate on gift boxing, which takes a bit longer than regular packing, keeps the overall process flowing.

“It is more efficient for us to do it in a different area, as a kick off from the packing line after the items are placed in a brown box and before the dunnage/shipping label area,” Jacobsen explains. “It is somewhat difficult to assemble our [gift] box, and thus more efficient for a person to do only that function continuously.”

Sierra to Seek Sorter

Sometimes fulfillment center bottlenecks occur not at the packing station but during the picking process. Cheyenne, WY-based apparel and sports gear cataloger Sierra Trading Post, for one, sometimes finds that its pickers are unable to continuously supply the packers with work. The company carries some 40,000 SKUs and fulfills about 6,000 orders a day during the off-season, with that number jumping to 13,000-14,000 orders during the holidays. “With the pickers walking back and forth to the picking batches, it’s getting more difficult for them to productively support the packers,” says director of fulfillment and facilities Robin Jahnke. That’s why the company plans to invest in an electronic tilt tray sorter within the next three years.

The tilt tray sorter organizes order pick bins and boxes according to where in the warehouse they need to be delivered. A picker picks the first item in an order and puts it into a box or a bin, which he then places on a tray next to a conveyor belt. A scanner reads the bar code on the ticket or the label and assigns the box to a designated chute on the sorter. When the tray passes the designated chute, it tilts so that the piece slides down the chute to the desired warehouse location. A single-line or completed order would go to a packing station, whereas an incomplete multiline order would be delivered to the pick location of the next item on the ticket.

The technology, which Jahnke says will cost the company $1.75 million-$2 million, will help pickers with the sorting process, thereby allowing the pickers to continually provide the packers with work. “We will probably get two and a half times the productivity out of order-fillers once it’s installed,” he estimates. “It will help keep a decent flow coming to the packers.”

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