Obeying the first law of marketing, (giving the customer what the customer wants and not what you think is best for them) can be like a two-edged sword and nowhere is this more costly than in the order-picking function. It is said that the key factor in uncovering the true cost of order picking is getting to grips with ergonomics which affects pick rates against labour and fixed costs but this pays no attention to the cost of mispicks, which vary according to which surveys you read.

One survey across 250 supply chain and distribution managers in America, Britain, France and Germany put the average mispick cost at £14, with more than half reporting an accurate pick rate of under 97%. Another survey put the average global cost of mispicks at $59. And surveys still show a high percentage (20%) of businesses still do not measure the cost of their mispicks. But in the pursuit of fulfilling e-commerce orders, particularly in the fashion business, suppliers are perhaps bending over backwards too much to make a sale. It is not uncommon for a seller to send one particular product in six different colours for the buyer to try on and then send back the five rejected colours. That is the equivalent of five mispicks which makes a nonsense of order picking costs and the slickest picking systems trying to control those costs.

Leaving such nonsense aside, for those suppliers who wish to exploit omni-channel logistics it is clear that order picking accuracy is a key issue. Over the last 20 years almost error-free paperless solutions have evolved, first with barcode scanners, followed by pick-to-light and voice picking. Hands-free voice picking, which can typically be 35% and 15% more productive than paperbased picking and hand-held scanner operations respectively, continue to evolve. A good example is the Lydia Smart Watch from TopVox, which combines voice and visual picking. As a hands-free and headset-free device the watch displays items to be picked in full colour and so backs up voice-directed picking to ensure high pick accuracy. The watch, however, does significantly more than that. All order information and current pick positions can be instantly retrieved. If orders require nonstandard processes, such as valueadded services, then the picker is alerted by a vibration function. The watch can be operated by voice or touch screen.

A less obvious benefit of Smart Watch, perhaps, is that space does not have to be arranged according to the product type because the display of the article image on the watch ensures correct picking. This could mean a big increase in storage capacity through a mixed arrangement of storage space and the possibility of multi-order picking.

Order picking, of course, should not be considered in isolation from the rest of the warehouse IT systems and getting order picking operations to integrate smoothly with, say, stock forecasting systems can be complex. In such cases it is better to choose a partner that has capabilities in hardware and software, so that everything can be obtained from a single supplier who is also responsible for after-sales maintenance and so cannot buck pass when new investments fail to live up to expectations.