At ShipHero, I get asked a lot of questions about setting up a packing station – or improving an existing one. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about creating an effective, fast packing station during nearly 20 years in e-commerce fulfillment.
So, why is your packing station such a big deal? Because a badly designed packing station and process can cost as much as half of a worker’s productivity, upping labour costs and boosting shipping expenses. It also increases order errors – an undesirable scenario for both you and your customers.
What does a packer do?
Packers take order items from the pickers (the staff who walk around and collect the products for each customer’s order), package them for shipping, add an invoice, apply the shipping label and send the product to the spot where it will be picked up by your shipping carrier.
You will want to keep your packers and labeler together, unless the labeler is an automated print and apply solution. Why? Keeping the labeler and packers together saves needing another person handling the package. Automated labelling becomes a worthwhile investment when you’re shipping over 2,000 packages a day.
While some warehouses have a separate labeler to compensate for bad inputs, like non-validated addresses and unshippable orders, smart processes and good software eliminates the need – and cost – for this extra station.
The pickers are part of the solution – or the problem
When packers get bad inputs, it costs extra time for them to make sense of it and troubleshoot. Garbage in, garbage out!
Don’t give your packers:
- A mixed stack of products and papers/labels that identify orders.
- Products organized in such a way that it takes work to figure out what order they belong to.
- Products that should not be shipped because the order is not complete.
- Orders that can’t be shipped without assistance from the customer or customer service due to incomplete addresses or other holds.
Do give your packers:
- Products that are separated into bins that can be scanned to pull up the order.
- Co-mingled single item orders, as they don’t need to be sorted.
- Products for completely picked orders, so that you know that the orders can ship.
- Orders that have been confirmed as ready to ship, which means that the addresses have been validated and the orders are cleared of any holds.
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What should an efficient packing station include?
Easy access to frequently used packing supplies
These should include shipping boxes, poly bags, packaging materials, and any item inserts like manuals and promotional items such as catalogues, coupons, special offers, etc.
Use a shelving unit that is within arm’s reach of your packers, between 150cm to 175cm high. The shelving unit should contain packaging material and inserts. Put your most commonly used materials between 75cm and 150cm high. Less commonly used materials can be placed lower and higher. Don’t put anything on the floor – this guards against water damage. A shelving unit with a lip is better, as it helps to stop materials from spilling off the shelves.
Make sure the packaging material is easy to access, rather than inside a tough-to-reach-inside box. Always put the same materials in the same place on the packing supplies’ shelving units. Your packers will soon build an unconscious map and won’t need to spend time searching – their arms will know how to find the right material on their own.
A way to quickly seal packaging
Poly bags should be self-sealing without any reinforcement.
There are 3 common tools for sealing corrugated boxes:
- A tape gun is a common way to seal boxes. They’re cheap and simple to use. They’re kind of slow, though, and packers often do multiple passes. They may underuse the tape, leading to orders that open and even lose contents during shipping. They may also overuse the tape – and those rolls are not cheap.
- An automated water-activated tape dispenser is often a better choice as you scale up. True, they are more expensive, costing about $1,000 per machine. But you get a lot for your money. They’re faster to use and create stronger seals. They reduce theft, as tampering attempts show clearly. You can add your brand to the tape fairly inexpensively, keeping your name top of mind for customers.
- High volume shippers often use automated case sealers. These high tech devices don’t usually live at the packing station. Instead, open boxes are put on a conveyor and sent to an area where boxes from all the packing stations converge – just one person can operate the case sealer and seal all the packages.
A quick way to generate labels and invoices
Your packers should never manually enter info to generate any part of a shipping label – it slows down the fulfillment process and increases the risk of errors. To avoid this:
- Weight should be pre-calculated or fed automatically and in real-time from a scale that’s linked to printing software.
- Shipping software should pull up the order by scanning the tote, item barcode, or other identifier.
- Packers shouldn’t need to type in package dimensions. In ShipHero, for example, package dimensions are entered in by scanning a barcode for your predefined package sizes.
- Labels and invoices should be generated with a scan or by touching a single button on a touch screen.
Don’t make your packers walk
Your packers should be able to move each completed package from their stations without having to walk. The two ways to do this are:
- A conveyor within arm’s reach that takes completed packages and moves them to the warehouse’s outbound area.
- A wheeled cart for outbound packages that’s rolled away when full and then replaced by another cart.
A scale (optional)
Without a scale, you can calculate the weight of packages by totalling the pre-estimated weight of each item and the packaging materials in an order through your shipping software.
For many companies, the best choice is an electronic scale that weighs completed packages and sends the data instantly to your shipping software. Because the weight of products and packaging varies a little, many companies add a little extra weight to their calculations to avoid the penalties of under-estimating postage. But this technique often leads to overpaying for postage – an extra cost which the scale eliminates.
If you opt for a scale, use an inline or platform model – one that’s large enough for orders to be packed on. You don’t want to add the extra step of moving the package and putting it on the scale to your packers’ process.
An additional benefit of using a scale is that you have a record of the exact weight of a package when it was sealed. That information comes in handy if a customer complains of a package with missing items and when auditing your shipping charges.
Set up the station so that packers face away from each other. We all love to chat and if packers can see each other, they’ll spend more time chatting. If they’re back-to-back or side-by-side, they’ll probably still chat, but far less often.
Analyse existing packing stations to boost efficiency
Has it been a while – or never – since you analyzed your packing station setup and process? Just one hour reviewing your staff’s workflow in your packing station can result in big efficiency gains.
Watch a single packer for an hour – and don’t tell them what to do during that time. Ideally, you observe without it being too obvious to the packer.
Take note of whether the packer:
- Is walking, rather than reaching.
- Needs to crouch or hunch to get items or input data.
- Takes more than 10 seconds packaging the order (excluding oversize packages, as those will take longer).
- Needs to use a mouse or a keyboard. That’s never a good idea.
- Takes more than 10 seconds to move completed orders away from their station towards the outbound area.
During your hour of observation, look for occasional orders that take significantly longer than average. If spotted, see if you can determine:
- How often those cases happen.
- If it’s something like an address issue, if customer service handle it before the order is released to the warehouse.
- If it’s because of a missing item, if you can ensure that only ready to ship orders are released to the warehouse.
If the packer has to find something out about the order, if you can have that information visible to the packers when they pull up the order.
Aaron Rubin founded and was the CEO of a mid-size ecommerce company for 14 years. After struggling to find a warehouse management solution (WMS) that provided the efficiency, accountability and ease of use needed at a reasonable cost, he founded ShipHero, a robust WMS for small-to-mid-size e-commerce merchants. ShipHero is a Canada Post partner.
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