Understanding 3PL for E-commerce – Costs, Operations, and Benefits

Efficiency in logistics can make or break your business. As an e-commerce entrepreneur, you’ve likely come across the term “third-party logistics” or “3PL.” But what exactly is 3PL, and how can it help you scale your operations? This blog unpacks the nuts and bolts of 3PL services, providing you with a comprehensive guide on how they work, what you can expect to pay, and the myriad ways they can propel your e-commerce business forward.

What is Third-Party Logistics (3PL)?

Third-party logistics (3PL) refers to the outsourcing of e-commerce logistics processes to a third-party business, encompassing everything from warehousing to delivery. A 3PL provider allows e-commerce businesses to manage inventory, handle fulfilment, and ship orders more efficiently than they might be able to on their own.

How Does 3PL Work?

Third-party logistics (3PL) providers are essential partners for e-commerce businesses, enabling them to outsource complex logistics operations to streamline their workflows and improve service delivery. Let’s break down the key processes and elements involved in how a 3PL operates:

Integration and Management

When you partner with a 3PL provider, the first step is typically integration. 3PLs use advanced technology to integrate their systems with your business operations, such as your e-commerce platform, inventory management system, and customer relationship management software. This integration allows for real-time data exchange, enabling efficient order processing, inventory tracking, and status updates. The seamless flow of information ensures that both parties are always on the same page, helping to mitigate errors and delays.


3PL providers offer sophisticated warehousing solutions tailored to the needs of your products. These services include storage, inventory management, and security. E-commerce businesses benefit from the 3PL’s ability to manage large volumes of products, utilise warehouse space efficiently, and handle inventory with precision, all of which are facilitated by their specialised warehousing management systems (WMS).

Order Fulfilment

A critical component of 3PL is order fulfilment services, which involves the picking, packing, and shipping of products. 3PLs streamline these processes using technology and proven strategies to optimise each step. For example, they might use batch picking to handle multiple orders simultaneously or incorporate quality checks to ensure that the correct items are shipped and are in perfect condition.

Transportation and Distribution

3PLs manage the transportation logistics, including the selection of carriers, route planning, and delivery scheduling. They leverage their relationships with various carriers to negotiate cost-effective shipping rates, ensuring that your products are delivered in a timely and cost-efficient manner. Furthermore, many 3PLs offer international shipping capabilities, which can be a massive advantage for expanding your business globally.

Returns Management

In addition to outbound logistics, many 3PLs handle reverse logistics, managing product returns effectively. This service includes the inspection of returned items, restocking usable items, and disposing of or recycling damaged goods. Effective returns management can enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty by providing a smooth, hassle-free returns experience.

Scalability and Flexibility

One of the most significant benefits of using a 3PL provider is their ability to scale services up or down based on your business needs. During peak seasons, a 3PL can quickly adjust resources to handle increased order volumes without significant delays. Conversely, during slower periods, you can scale back the services, which helps in managing costs more effectively.

Expertise and Advisory

Beyond physical logistics services, 3PL providers also offer invaluable expertise and advisory services to help optimise your supply chain. This can include insights into best practices, help with compliance and regulatory issues, especially in international markets, and suggestions for improving overall supply chain efficiency.

Streamlining Operations

By leveraging a 3PL, e-commerce businesses can focus more on core activities like sales, marketing, and product development while leaving the logistics to experts. This not only streamlines operations but also potentially leads to better customer service and satisfaction.

How Much Does a 3PL Cost?

Determining the exact cost of 3PL services can be complex, as it depends on a multitude of factors ranging from the volume of goods handled to the specific services required. Below is a more detailed look at these factors, along with rough cost guidelines, to help e-commerce business owners make informed decisions.

Cost Structures for 3PL Services

Category Description Cost Range
Volume of Goods – The amount of goods stored and shipped affects cost.

– Volume discounts available, reducing per-unit costs as volume increases.

Small volumes: £3 to £5 per order (excluding storage fees).

Large volumes: £1.50 to £2.50 per order.

Storage Fees – Calculated based on inventory space used, billed per pallet, shelf, or square foot per month. Per pallet: £10 to £15 per pallet per month.

Per square foot: £0.50 to £1.25 per square foot per month.

Pick and Pack Fees – Applies each time an item is picked and packed.

– Varies based on packaging complexity and average order size.

Standard items: £1.00 to £3.00 per item.

Complex orders: £5 or more per item.

Service Levels – Pricing depends on the range of services provided.

– Basic warehousing and fulfilment cost less than comprehensive solutions.

Basic warehousing & fulfilment: £500 to £2,000 per month.

Full-service solutions: £2,000 to £5,000+ per month.

Special Requirements – Fragile, oversized, or hazardous items may increase costs due to special storage and handling needs. Fragile items: Additional 10-20% per order.

Large/irregular items: Can double or triple fulfilment costs.

Location and Reach – Geographical location affects cost due to real estate and operational expenses.

– Rural vs. urban locations impact pricing and delivery times.

Urban locations: Higher prices due to increased costs.

Rural locations: Lower costs but higher transport expenses.

Benefits of Using a 3PL for E-commerce Businesses

  • Scalability: Easily scale logistics up or down based on business performance without the need for direct investment in warehouses or transport.
  • Expertise: Benefit from the logistical expertise of specialists to optimise supply chain management.
  • Focus: Free up resources and focus on growing the core areas of your business.
  • Speed: Improve delivery times with efficient, professionally managed logistics.

Choosing the Right 3PL for Your E-commerce Business

  • Assess Your Needs: Determine which aspects of your logistics you want to outsource and what should remain in-house. This will help you select a service that aligns with your business model.
  • Compare Providers: Don’t settle for the first 3PL you encounter. Evaluate several providers based on their services, costs, and reputations.
  • Check Compatibility: Ensure the 3PL’s technology is compatible with your current systems to facilitate a smooth transition.
  • Scalability: Ensure that the 3PL can scale operations swiftly as your business grows.
  • Customer Service: Choose a provider that offers outstanding customer support, as this is crucial for managing your logistics operations effectively.

Opting for a 3PL provider can bring significant strategic benefits to your e-commerce operation. It not only helps manage and streamline logistical tasks but also supports your business growth by allowing you to focus on your core competencies. By understanding how a 3PL works and what costs are involved, you can make a well-informed decision about whether it’s the right move for your business.

Impact Express’ Fulfilment Services for E-commerce Businesses

Are you ready to take your e-commerce logistics to the next level? By choosing Impact Express for your logistics needs, you benefit from a partner that not only provides comprehensive fulfilment services but also connects you with an expansive network of couriers and worldwide shipping destinations. Get in touch for a free quote today!

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