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Picking Perfection: Three Ways Automated Order Picking Makes For Fresher Produce

By: Derek Rickard, Contributor

In the immortal words of legendary chef Julia Child, “Freshness is essential. That makes all the difference.” It comes as no surprise that freshness is top of mind for most order fulfillment and warehouse managers serving the grocery market.

The grocery world has changed drastically in just the past five years. Customer demands for faster fulfillment continue to climb, as well as the number of SKUs needed in each warehouse to meet consumer expectations for variety. Yet widespread labor shortages are making it a challenge to deliver high quality produce at a competitive price. And on top of it all, the popularity of grocery delivery and pick-up services is booming. Now, many grocers are feeling the pressure.

Fortunately, some large-scale grocers and food suppliers have found an ideal way to keep up with the competition – automated order picking systems, which can be installed in nearly any facility setup.

So, what are the benefits of automation and why should grocers implement these solutions sooner rather than later? Here are three ways that automated order picking can enable the perfect pick on produce every time:

1. Making Product Handling Faster and More Efficient

Keeping produce fresh requires quick and decisive product movement across the grocery supply chain – including in warehouses and distribution centers that must supply greater varieties of fresh food to stores within increasingly short time frames. Some must house upwards of 6,000 different SKUs, all of which need to be sorted, picked and shipped within a small time window.

This can be difficult for facilities with a manual setup, where order speed and accuracy are completely dependent on how fast employees can pick and prepare everything by hand. It’s far too easy to fall behind, even in the best of times. By the time orders get out the door and onto store shelves, that produce is no longer fresh for customers.

Instead, automation can ensure that everything from apples to zucchini is perfectly ripe for purchase. Automated systems can move produce through the facility far faster and more accurately than humanly possible. In short, fresh products enter the system and fresh products come out. Grocers and distributors can get ahead of short lead times, accelerating fulfillment and quickly delivering the highest quality products to store shelves.

The most efficient of these solutions combine order picking and product handling within a single system, allowing for buffer storage and picking in one fluid operation. They can provide reliable fulfillment for a wide range of produce on a massive scale. In fact, some grocers that employ automated picking solutions service over 1,600 storefronts – relying on the speed of automation to bring fresh food to millions of consumers and their families.

2. Preparing For Seasonal Peaks and Unexpected Spikes

Any business in the consumer retail market knows how seasonal peaks put pressure on order fulfillment operations. The grocery industry is no exception. During busy holiday months, many traditional warehouses struggle to handpick the influx of orders and find themselves running out of sufficient space for the increased volume of goods.

But what happens when those peaks hit amid wide sweeping labor shortages? Or when external disruptions cause sudden and unpredictable changes in demand? Many grocery and food distributors faced these questions during 2020 and 2021, when their facilities lacked the staff to meet heightened demand and keep shelves stocked.

Equipped with automation technology, warehouses can keep produce orders flowing out the door all year round. Food suppliers can get ahead of seasonal peaks with fast and efficient picking systems that run around the clock with minimal human involvement and cut down lead times for orders of all sizes. And by using a high-density automated storage and retrieval system, facilities can improve space utilization. These systems require just 50% of the space needed in a manual setup.

3. Enabling Greater Control Over Product Flow

Fresh produce distributors must adhere to a variety of food safety regulations, including strict sell-by-dates. Orders that are sent late or delayed can result in wastage, which eats into the bottom line, leads customer dissatisfaction and contributes to the major food waste problem.

Automated systems allow for greater control over the flow of produce, from warehouse to storefront. Advanced Warehouse Control System (WCS) software executes all system movements to optimize flow in real time, and all historical data stored is stored for increased visibility and traceability. This makes it far easier to track inventory across potentially thousands of different products, as well as meet traceability requirements for the food industry.

Overall, the result is smooth operations across the supply chain, where quick and decisive action is possible if problems arise.

Pick The Perfect Fit

When exploring automating, grocers and fresh food distributors should look for a solution provider and integrator that is well-versed in the fresh food industry. A partner with proven experience brings the know-how to optimize product flow within any given warehouse, applying best practices to create a solution that meets each business’ unique needs.

The benefits of order picking systems for consistent fresh produce are clear. Grocers keen on preserving customer satisfaction should pay close attention to how automation can help supplement their business. The right system and the right integrator can set them up for success in the long term, even in the face of challenges like labor shortages and rising customer demands. No matter what lies ahead, automation can ensure that the freshest possible produce is what grocers, and in turn, their customers, are picking every time. WMHS

Derek Rickard serves as Director of Sales at Cimcorp, where he leads the sales team in developing robotic order fulfillment solutions designed to meet each customer’s warehousing needs. With 20+ years of supply chain experience, Rickard has worked on many of the first fully automated robotic picking systems in North America, with some of the largest exceeding 1 million cases per week (

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