Most ecommerce merchants know when they need to start involving some outside help. Perhaps your warehouse storage is no longer efficient enough, or maybe your orders are coming in faster than you can keep up with.
But when the time comes to start looking for an ecommerce fulfillment provider, many online sellers feel overwhelmed by the process.
One of the issues that many retailers run into is that ecommerce fulfillment is not any single process; it's a collection of different services that all play a critical role in ensuring a positive customer experience with your brand.
When terms like ‘batch fulfillment’ and ‘distributed inventory’ are constantly thrown around, it's hard to know what you should be focusing on as the bare essentials of a good 3PL partnership.
That's why Whiplash is here to run through the three key services that you should look for in an ecommerce fulfillment provider.
First off: Why should your business consider partnering with an ecommerce fulfillment provider? Here is a quick rundown:
Something that puts many digitally-native brands off using a 3PL is the perceived high cost. It often appears easier and more affordable to take charge of fulfillment yourself.
While in-house fulfillment works for emerging brands with low order volumes, the costs quickly spiral out of control as your business grows. This is because you have to start taking charge of activities that a 3PL would handle; leasing warehouse space, hiring staff to fulfill orders, and installing warehouse and order management systems (just to name a few).
But this isn't just expensive in terms of money - it's also costly on time. As a retailer, you want your main focus to be on your customers, not logistics. By outsourcing your fulfillment, you can leverage your partner’s economy of scale to lower your fulfillment and shipping costs.
For newly-launched ecommerce brands, it's not unusual for there to be little internal expertise in logistics and fulfillment. While it’s possible to learn by doing, it's easy to make some very costly mistakes along the way - mistakes which can cost you the goodwill of your customers and suppliers!
By outsourcing ecommerce fulfillment, you don't just get access to physical infrastructure, but the knowledge of industry insiders who are experts at working with digitally-native brands. They know all of the do's and don'ts to help your business implement a seamless fulfillment process, especially as your business expands into new channels or product categories.
In such a competitive and fast-changing retail landscape, the support of the experts is what will put your business ahead of the curve - every time.
As we've already mentioned, the cost of technologically-advanced fulfillment quickly adds up.
If you want to shorten turnaround times from order processing to delivery, this is where innovative solutions like AI and automation will make all the difference. However, this is beyond the capabilities of most merchants to fund independently. Considering the ongoing maintenance costs and technical expertise required, it's also not a particularly wise investment.
Instead, consider scouting out a 3PL that’s actively investing in the latest technologies to streamline their customers’ fulfillment operations. Our decision to bring 150 LocusBots into the picking/packing process at Whiplash facilities has helped to improve average pick times by as much as 20 seconds - meaning faster fulfillment and happier customers.
For more reasons why you should consider outsourcing your ecommerce fulfillment, check out our full post on the topic.
We’ve said it before on this blog, and we’ll say it again; there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all fulfillment solution.
Depending on what you sell, some of your SKUs may have specific needs when it comes to packaging or subassembly. It's important that your ecommerce fulfillment provider is able to cater to these requirements in order to provide you with more unique selling opportunities.
For example, let's say you are a cosmetics brand that wants to offer a seasonal gift box for the holiday season. Gift boxes can be quite complex from a fulfillment standpoint, as it requires combining products with specialized packaging to create a very curated look. If a provider only offers limited subassembly services, this impacts your ability to offer customers a memorable unboxing experience.
Likewise, if you want to use custom-branded packaging for either all or selected SKUs, you need a provider who is able to integrate these materials directly into your order fulfillment without slowing the process down.
It’s tempting to use only one warehouse location to keep things nice and simple. However, this can be a major disadvantage as your retail operation grows. While sales forecasts are useful, they can't predict exactly where your future growth is going to be.
That's why it's so important to choose a fulfillment provider who can provide you with a nationwide network of facilities. Otherwise, you could miss out on valuable growth opportunities because your provider’s facilities are restricted to just one or two regions.
For example, if your retail operation is native to New Jersey and you have a steadily-growing customer base in California, extensive cross-country shipping is going to be both expensive and slow. If your 3Pl partner can offer you a micro-facility to process your West Coast orders, this means cheaper shipping and faster last mile delivery times for your customers.
When it comes to ecommerce fulfillment, you can't only think about outbound logistics; you also need to consider what happens when customers return items.
When high return rates are such a core part of ecommerce shopping culture, it's vital that your 3PL partner is an expert at handling reverse logistics. Because if the returns experience is not satisfying for your customers, they’re unlikely to make a repeat purchase!
You should be asking potential fulfillment providers whether they use an inventory management system that updates SKU counts in real-time to avoid confusion over inventory levels. It’s also a major advantage if the provider can integrate with third-party returns management services like Happy Returns who can process returns on your behalf.
So, what do all of these ecommerce fulfillment services have in common? They’re designed to help future-proof your business against difficulties with scaling.
While you might not need all of these services right now, having the options on the table is the key to maximizing future growth opportunities and staying innovative with customer experience management.
By thinking about what your potential fulfillment might be years down the track, you can make sure that you are partnering with an ecommerce fulfillment provider who has the knowledge and technological capabilities to keep your business at the cutting edge of consumer expectations.