What is Wave Picking? Pros, Cons, and Tips

Wave picking is an order picking method that seeks to cut down the time warehouse staff spend walking around to retrieve goods for fulfillment.

Also known as cluster picking, wave picking revolves around picking orders with similar criteria and then sending them off for packing and fulfilment. One major upside of wave picking is that it helps reduce repeated trips for you and your staff, leading to more efficient warehouse operations.

For example, rather than picking orders as soon as they arrive, you can choose to pick high-priority orders by 12 pm, large-sized orders by 2 pm, and goods for a specific shipping carrier by 4pm. That way, you would only have to pick orders in waves rather than repeatedly, thus minimizing travel fatigue and improving order fulfillment. More details shortly.

The wave picking system has its set of pros and cons, which we will be looking at in this post. In addition, we will be comparing wave picking against zone picking and also share insights to make the most of it.

So stick around!

What Is Wave Picking?

What is wave picking?

Wave picking is an order fulfillment strategy used in warehouses to improve order picking efficiency. Unlike traditional methods, which involve picking items for individual orders one at a time. These items are based on common characteristics such as product type, location, or shipping destination. This enables warehouse personnel to pick multiple orders simultaneously, maximizing productivity and minimizing travel time within the warehouse.

The core benefit of wave picking is that it cuts down idle time and lessens movements around your warehouse. This, in turn, leads to better warehouse management and smoother order fulfillment, leading to better customer satisfaction and lower labor and operational costs.

Advantages of Wave Picking

Increased Efficiency

Performing wave picking in your warehouse can result in increased efficiency. This is because by consolidating similar orders into waves, you’d reduce the overall distance traveled by pickers. This optimization leads to a significant reduction in travel time and increases the number of orders that can be fulfilled within a given time frame.

Enhanced Accuracy

By picking multiple orders at once, wave picking reduces the chances of errors compared to traditional order picking methods. Warehouse staff can focus on a specific set of products, leading to improved accuracy in order fulfillment.

Improved Order Consolidation

Wave picking allows for efficient consolidation of orders, especially when items are stored in different areas of the warehouse. This streamlines the packing and shipping process, reducing the chances of mislabelling or misplacing items.


Wave picking is highly scalable and can be adapted to meet changing demands. As order volumes increase, additional waves can be created, ensuring efficient order fulfillment even during peak periods.

Disadvantages of Wave Picking

Wave picking does have its set of cons you need to be aware of before deciding if it’s a good fit for your business. They are as follows:

Reduced Flexibility

One of the limitations of wave picking is its reduced flexibility compared to other picking methods. Since orders are grouped into waves based on predetermined criteria, any changes or last-minute additions to individual orders may disrupt the efficiency of the process. The inflexibility of wave picking can be a disadvantage in environments where orders frequently require modifications or have unpredictable characteristics.

Delayed Order Fulfillment

In wave picking, orders within a wave are picked together, which means that orders with urgent delivery requirements may have to wait for the entire wave to be completed before being processed. This delay can potentially impact customer satisfaction, especially when dealing with time-sensitive orders or customers who expect quick turnaround times. Wave picking might not be the most suitable method for warehouses that prioritize rapid order fulfillment.

Increased Complexity

Implementing wave picking in a warehouse requires careful planning and coordination. Warehouse managers must invest time and resources into analyzing order data, designing optimal wave structures, and training staff on the new picking process. The increased complexity involved in wave picking can be a disadvantage, particularly for smaller warehouses or those with limited resources. The additional steps and coordination required can result in a steeper learning curve and potential operational inefficiencies during the initial implementation phase.

Potential Batch-Size Mismatch

When grouping orders into waves, there is a risk of creating waves with significantly different order volumes. If a wave contains a high number of small orders, it may result in inefficiencies as pickers spend more time traveling between locations to fulfill these orders. On the other hand, waves with a few large orders might lead to a longer picking time for those specific orders, affecting overall productivity. Achieving the ideal batch size balance can be challenging and requires careful consideration.

Increased Inventory Holding Time

Wave picking often involves picking items for multiple orders at once. Consequently, items from earlier orders in the wave may need to be held in sorting or consolidation areas until all orders within the wave are picked and ready for packing. This additional inventory holding time can potentially increase the risk of errors, misplacements, or damage to items if not managed effectively.

Difficulty in Handling Returns

Returns management can be more complicated with wave picking. Since orders are grouped into waves, returning specific items from a single order becomes challenging. Dealing with returns may require additional processes or adjustments to ensure accurate handling and reintegration of returned items back into inventory.

How Does Wave Picking Work?

The best way to explain how the wave picking strategy works is by making an illustration.

Imagine for a moment you have 100 units of orders in your warehouse ready to be picked and shipped for a given shift.

35 of those orders are for one of your wholesale customers. 15 are products which you intend to ship via a specific carrier, say DHL. 20 are for customers who requested expedited shipping. And the remaining 30 belong to two of your customers that happen to stay in the same geographic region.

To fulfill these orders, you will have to pick them in 4 waves at different times during a given shift. That way, you or your warehouse operator would only need to make 4 trips rather than multiple.

Wave picking can either be fixed or dynamic, depending on how the picked items are readied for shipping. Let’s take a closer look at how both differ.

Wave Picking Methods

Fixed Wave Picking

Fixed wave is one popular picking methodology often used in smaller warehouses. In fixed wave picking, orders are not packed and prepared for shipping until all the items in the wave have been completely picked.

Fixed wave picking is ideal if you prefer a predictable workflow, as it makes it easy to schedule picking times. The drawback, however, is that you might have to hire more hands.

Dynamic Wave Picking

As the name suggests, dynamic wave picking involves packings items in a wave immediately after they are picked and preparing them for shipping right away. This arrangement leads to faster picking, although you might need to hire more hands, which can add to your operational cost.

Dynamic picking is your best bet if speed matters a lot to your business. The problem, though, is that it can lead to bottlenecks and fulfillment errors.

Stages of Wave Picking

Pre-wave Picking

This is the stage where each wave of picking is carefully planned and scheduled to ensure a smooth sync between picking and packing operations. It’s also at this stage that you figure out the right grouping criteria for each wave, plan the time interval between each wave, sort out delivery schedules, and also assign the task to the right personnel.

A warehouse management system will come in handy here.

Post-wave Picking

Once the picking has been completed, the next step is to sort, package, and ship the picked items. Shipping deadlines must be accounted for at this stage.

The Processes Involved in Wave Picking

Order Analysis

The wave picking process begins with a thorough analysis of order data. By examining historical order patterns and characteristics, such as product types, order frequency, and customer locations, warehouses can identify commonalities and determine how to group orders effectively.

Wave Creation

Once the order analysis is complete, warehouses can create waves by grouping together orders with similar attributes. These attributes could include product type, destination, order priority, or any other relevant factor. The goal is to consolidate orders that can be fulfilled efficiently within a wave.

Wave Release

After creating waves, the warehouse management system (WMS) releases the waves to the picking team. This signals the start of the picking process for the designated set of orders within the wave.

Pick List Generation

The WMS generates pick lists based on the orders included in a particular wave. The pick list provides detailed information to the pickers, including the items to be picked, the items’ locations within the warehouse, and the quantities required for each order.

Actual Picking

Armed with the pick list, warehouse personnel proceed to the warehouse floor to collect the items for multiple orders simultaneously. They follow the optimized pick routes designed to minimize travel time and maximize efficiency. Pickers may utilize tools such as handheld scanners or mobile devices to ensure accuracy and track progress.

Sorting and Consolidation

Once the picking process is complete, the items picked for each order are sorted and consolidated. This stage ensures that the correct items are allocated to the respective orders and prepares them for subsequent packing and shipping.

Packing and Shipping

Following sorting and consolidation, the packed orders are prepared for shipping. Depending on the warehouse’s workflow, this may involve labelling, weighing, and arranging the shipments for pickup by the carrier.

Wave Picking vs Zone Picking

Wave picking might not always be the best option for your business. If that happens to be the case, you might want to consider another optimal picking strategy, namely zone picking.

Zone picking involves demarcating your warehouse into zones based on criteria such as product type, shipping carrier, product prices, etc. After the zones are established, pickers are stationed in each zone and their job is to pick orders as soon as they arrive.

Wave picking, on the other hand, concerns itself with picking orders with shared characteristics at different times of the day across the entire warehouse, although not in the same location.

While both picking strategies can boost efficiency and reduce errors, wave picking is better suited for smaller warehouses, whereas zone picking is for bigger ones.

Tips to Improve Your Wave Picking Process

Analyze Order Characteristics

Thoroughly analyze order data to identify commonalities among orders. Look for patterns in product types, order frequency, shipping destinations, or any other relevant factors. By understanding the order characteristics, you can create waves that group similar orders together, maximizing picking efficiency.

Optimize Wave Creation

When creating waves, consider various factors such as order priority, shipping deadlines, product availability, and batch size balance. Strive for waves that contain a balanced mix of order sizes to minimize picking time discrepancies. Ensure that waves are created in a way that maximizes picking efficiency and minimizes delays for time-sensitive orders.

Design the Most Efficient Route

Efficient pick routes are vital to minimize travel time and optimize picking efficiency. Analyze your warehouse layout and create logical pick paths that minimize unnecessary movements. Warehouse management systems will come in handy here.

Leverage technology to enhance wave picking accuracy and productivity. Equip pickers with handheld scanners or mobile devices to scan barcodes, update inventory records in real-time, and ensure accurate item selection. Implement pick-to-light or put-to-light systems to guide pickers through the warehouse, reducing errors and improving picking speed.

Invest in Staff Training

Properly train your warehouse staff on wave picking procedures, emphasizing the importance of accuracy and efficiency. Ensure they are familiar with any technology or software tools being used to support wave picking. Regularly provide training updates to address any process changes or optimizations.

Monitor Key Metrics

Continuously monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) to assess the effectiveness of your wave picking strategy. Track metrics such as order fulfillment rate, picking accuracy, travel time, and overall productivity. Use this data to identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments to enhance efficiency.

Continuous Process Improvement

Regularly review and refine your wave picking processes. Encourage feedback from warehouse staff to identify potential bottlenecks, areas of inefficiency, or suggestions for improvement. Stay updated on industry best practices and emerging technologies that can further optimize wave picking in your warehouse.

Consider Order Profiles

While grouping orders based on similarities is a fundamental aspect of wave picking, also consider order profiles within waves. Analyze specific order characteristics, such as fragile items, temperature-sensitive products, or special handling requirements. Ensure that the wave picking process accommodates these unique needs to prevent errors and minimize the risk of product damage.

Streamline Sorting and Consolidation

Efficient sorting and consolidation of picked items are crucial to maintain order accuracy and speed up the packing and shipping process. Optimize sorting areas by establishing clear guidelines and efficient workflows. Implement barcode scanning or automated sorting technologies to minimize errors and improve overall efficiency.


What is wave picking and why is it used?

Wave picking is the practice of collecting items in a warehouse with similar characteristics for packaging and fulfillment. It is used to reduce the trips pickers make in a warehouse, hence improving efficiency and reducing employee fatigue.

What is the advantage of wave picking?

Implemented correctly, wave picking can reduce travel time for warehouse operators. It can also reduce your operational costs.

Is wave picking the same as zone picking?

No, they are actually two different strategies. For the former, orders are picked in batches (waves) at specific times of the day. Whereas for the latter, goods are grouped into zones in the warehouse, and a picker is assigned to each zone to handle the order sorting.

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