Comparing Logistics Providers—the Main Differences Between a 1PL, 2PL, 3PL, 4PL, and 5PL


Most people have heard the term third-party logistics—often abbreviated to 3PL—but there are actually many types of companies that offer a variety of other logistics services.

While the use of logistics providers has been prevalent in businesses for years among larger companies, the use of 3PLs specifically is on the increase for small to medium-sized businesses as the growth in ecommerce fulfillment continues to skyrocket. For many ecommerce businesses, operating their own fulfillment, warehousing, and distribution services is usually far more costly than outsourcing logistics services. 

While 3PLs are is the most widely used third-party logistics provider, you may also come across others such as 1PL, 2PL, 4PL and 5PL. Here are the definitions of each type of logistics company, plus the main differences between them.

1PL - First-Party Logistics

A 1PL first-party logistics provider is a company or individual that needs to have cargo, freight, goods or products transported from one point to another.

First party logistics involves just two parties. There is the manufacturer or distributor that ships the goods (you), and then there is the retailer or customer that receives the goods (your customer). There are no other middlemen involved in the whole process.

2PL - Second-Party Logistics

A 2PL is an asset-based carrier that is responsible for the method of transportation. Examples of 2PLs include shipping lines which operate the ships, airlines that operate the planes and hauling companies that operate vehicles. A 2PL is often referred to as a forwarder because their business mainly consists of a means of transportation. For instance, it could be an airline company that also offers freight services to get things from you to your customer.

Usually the conversation you’re having with your 3PL is about tail-end shipping. How it takes them four days just to get your products out of the distribution center because they’re behind on staffing or something else. I’ve dealt with a lot of 3PLs over the years. With DCL that has never been an issue. We’ve never had a backlog of any kind, even around the holidays. DCL’s ability to get things out immediately shouldn’t go understated. It’s actually a pretty big deal.

Rachio CEO, Kim Sentovich

3PL - Third-Party Logistics

A 3PL will most commonly outsource elements of their supply chain, including distribution, warehousing, and fulfillment to third parties. 3PLs provide integrated fulfillment, warehousing and transportation services.

More specifically, a 3PL should provide receiving, storing, packing, and shipping services. Some 3PLs provide more, referred to as value added services. These include inventory management, kitting and assembly, postponement packaging, and others.

The landscape of 3PL providers is vast, some have been managing logistics for years or decades, they will have the expertise to make your operations simpler, quicker, and more cost effective overall.

The market for 3PLs providers has grown exponentially with the exponential growth of ecommerce. Most Fortune 500 (86%) companies and 96% of the Fortune 100 use services like these. 3PLs have also bloomed thanks to tracking technology, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning system (GPS), both of which offer extended supply chain transparency. Meanwhile, internet of things (IoT) technology has improved tracking metrics for trucking and other carriers.

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4PL - Fourth-Party Logistics

A 4PL provider is an integrator that manages all aspects of the supply chain. Going beyond physical logistics, a 4PL may include elements of IT, procurement, and finance.

It may seem that the differences between a 3PL and 4PL are slight, but a company seeking the right fit of services and support for their growing business, the distinction can be huge. For example, both will rely on the latest in IT to help optimize your supply chain communication and accuracy. However, a 3PL is more likely to have proprietary tech systems for tracking units across the supply chain and bundle that service into the overall cost of their support, while a 4PL may provide a higher-level analysis of data to help inform your business decisions for long-term growth. 

4PL will include all the benefits of 3PL providers but also include:

  • Project management, sourcing and negotiation
  • Logistics strategy and analytics
  • Impartial service advice
  • A single point of contact

Crucially a 4PL needs to be impartial, while they may be able to offer the services its clients need, they need to compare those services and costs to that of their competitors and work in the best interests of their customer at all times.

5PL - Fifth-Party Logistics

5PL is a relatively new term in the logistics industry and reflects the development of full logistic integration through many outsourced providers. 5PL services include fully integrated logistics solutions that encompass the whole supply chain from beginning to end through multiple outsourced service providers.

Critical to success in achieving this is the effective integration of IT and computer systems to ensure real-time visibility and control of the entire supply chain no matter how many different suppliers are involved.

Bottom Line

Just like any method in business, there are always pros and cons to each option of handling logistics. Instead of getting caught up in the debates around 3PL vs. 4PL or 1PL vs. 2PL, it’s a good idea to take a step back first and look at what your business needs.  

A 1PL system is definitely a simple system, and it doesn’t require a lot of integration or networking. Your business has full control over the process. However, it can hamper the ability to grow, and it is not always the most effective system once the business reaches a certain level of maturity or growth. 

The 2PL system can also be a more simple system, but it doesn’t offer as many logistics solutions as the more complex 3PL or 4PL logistics models. 

When a company matures to the point that they require a 3PL, it does mean you need to let go of some degree of control in order to outsource the day to day logistics of your business. However, what your business loses in control, you’ll make up for with flexibility, reach and consistency.

If you choose to go with a 4PL, this means giving up control of your supply chain almost entirely. The 4PL supplies most of the management and design functions. While these functions are highly personalized to match the business needs, they still keep most of the process out of the business’ hands.


If you’re looking for a 3PL with fulfillment centers in cities across the US, we own and operate facilities in The Bay AreaLos Angeles, Kentucky, and the East Coast.

Be sure to review the list of services we offer, including ecommerce fulfillment, retail fulfillment, Amazon fulfillment services, reverse logistics, transportation management, and kitting & assembly.

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