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How Does the 3PL Fulfillment Process Work?

As the owner of a growing ecommerce business, you already understand how integral 3PL fulfillment is to keeping your business on track. Your 3PL partner handles the entire fulfillment process for you – keeping your orders moving, and freeing up your time for other business matters. But what, exactly, do they do in those big, intimidating warehouses? How does the 3PL fulfillment process actually work?

In this post, we’ll give you a glimpse into all five areas of the 3PL fulfillment puzzle – receiving, storing, picking, packaging and shipping – and we’ll outline how they all come together to create a seamless ordering process not only for you, but for the consumer as well.

Part 1 – Receiving

Receiving refers to the transfer of inventory from you or your manufacturer to the 3PL warehouse. Every 3PL company has its own process for receiving inventory, but in most cases, you’ll be asked to fill out a receiving order. The information on that form lets your vendor know exactly which products, and how many units of each, to expect from you.

Part 2 – Storing

Once your products are received and all items are accounted for, they have to be stored. Typically, each retailer is given its own dedicated storage location within the warehouse, and then each product – after being assigned a unique SKU number – is organized on a shelf, in a bin, or on a pallet, so that it can be easily found and accessed when ordered.

Part 3 – Picking

Once you sell an item, it’s time for your 3PL partner to fulfill the order. Some vendors may require you to manually upload orders into their system each time one is placed; but more likely, they have the technology to integrate directly with your ecommerce platform so that they are notified automatically each time a sale is made.

This step is referred to as picking because the warehouse specialist is literally picking the ordered items from the shelf, bin or pallet, and gathering them all together so they can be sent out to the customer.

Part 4 – Packaging

Before an item can be sent out, it has to be boxed up, and this is where the process begins to vary, as the packing materials used will depend on your specific 3PL’s capabilities, your brand preferences, and the items being shipped. In some cases, only standard packaging materials are available, and those tend to include things like unbranded boxes, bubble mailers, poly bags and packing tape. But then there are some 3PL partners who will allow for custom packaging, or even allow you to send pre-packaged items that require no more than a shipping label.

A good 3PL partner will also consider product protection and shipping rates when determining how to package your items. Their goal is to keep your products well-protected while achieving the lowest practical dimensional weight (a shipping pricing technique that takes into account package dimensions to determine shipping rates). They may even make decisions on whether to ship everything together, or split packages, to optimize rates.

Part 5 – Shipping

The final step standing between your customers and their orders: Shipping. In most cases, the 3PL partner will purchase and print shipping labels on your behalf from their preferred carrier, whether that is FedEx, UPS, DHL or USPS. They then arrange for the carrier to pick up the boxes – and off they go. The speed at which the packages are ultimately delivered will depend on the options offered by you and selected by the consumer.

Optional – Returns

If your business is one that accepts returns, you can facilitate that through your 3PL partner as well. The warehouse will process the returns and restock the items for you, so all that’s left for you to do is to administer the refund.

We hope you have a better understanding now of exactly what happens in the time between “Order Placed” and “Order Delivered.” When you choose to work with a 3PL partner who really knows their stuff, you end up with a streamlined fulfillment process that makes life easier for you and makes the ordering process an enjoyable one for your customers.

If you are looking to improve your logistics process, talk to one of our experts today.


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