A Comprehensive Guide to Third Party Logistics

What is a 3PL? Everything you Need to Know


A Comprehensive Guide to Third Party Logistics (3PLs)

For any company, from a large ecommerce business to one just getting off the ground, customer satisfaction is a top priority, and nothing keeps a customer happier than getting their favorite products quickly and efficiently. Getting products into your clients hands efficiently and cost effectively are the core of any business operation.

Yet as your business expands, managing that supply chain becomes difficult and costly; mistakes made in logistics can damage the customer experience, stunt your business’ growth, and eat into your profits. To alleviate a lot of these issues, companies often outsource their fulfillment and logistic operations to a third-party logistics company, also known as a 3PL or third-party logistics provider. The growth in online sales and increasing consumer demand for faster delivery and lower prices have spiked demand for 3PL services.

Outsourcing to a 3PL can mean significant benefits for a business as it grows and faces more complex supply-chain management and logistics challenges.

What is Third-Party Logistics (3PL)?

Third party logistics is outsourcing the supply chain operations and logistics to get a company’s products to their customer. The logistics solutions that 3PLs offer include receiving, storing, packing, and shipping services. Some 3PL companies also provide other logistics services, referred to as value added services. These include inventory management, kitting and assembly, postponement packaging, procurement and others.

Because 3PL service providers have been managing these kind of logistics for years or decades, they have the expertise and leverage to make the process simpler, quicker, and more cost effective for the seller. 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 visibility. Meanwhile, internet of things (IoT) technology has improved tracking metrics for trucking and other carriers.

A Comprehensive Guide to Third Party Logistics

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Types of 3PLs

Most 3PLs offer a variety of services, but not all 3PLs offer the same services and functions and some 3PLs specialize in one or two areas. Most 3PLs focus on one of these functional areas:


3PLs focused on transportation services handles inventory shipments between manufacturers and your warehouse or between your company and your buyers. These consist of the freight forwarders who often transport large shipments from one country to another and small parcel shippers , like UPS, FedEx, and USPS.

Warehousing, Fulfillment, and Distribution

This is the most common type of 3PL and provides basic fulfillment services such as storage, fulfillment, pick and pack, shipping and returns. Sellers use this type of 3PL to outsource all or most of their fulfillment and warehousing needs. Additionally, most of these 3PLs manage the sellers transportation, identifying which shipper to use, managing the relationship with the shipper, and optimizing the shipping strategy on behalf of the seller.d

Financial and Information

Typically used by larger ecommerce companies, these 3PLs optimize your company’s logistics network by providing services ranging from accounting and cost control to freight forwarding, inventory tracking and management and similar functions.

Some larger 3PLs offer services in all of the above areas for their clients.

What is the Difference Between a 1PL, 3PL and 4PL?

It’s important to understand the differences between various third-party logistics providers.

In a 1PL setup, the business/seller manages the entire fulfillment process, including the strategy, storage, and fulfillment of their own products. The seller will have their own warehouse or fulfillment center to house all their inventory and ship their products to retailers and direct the customer.

In a 3PL model, the business maintains logistics management oversight, but outsources the logistics operations to a 3PL provider. The 3PL provider has complete control of the warehouse space, operations, and inventory within the 3PL warehouse.

4PL stands for fourth-party logistics. In a 4PL structure, the business outsources all or most of the company’s logistics operation. In this case, the 4PL is often the single point of contact between the seller and multiple logistics providers, making decisions regarding all aspects of the supply chain. Often a 4PL will work with other 3PLs to manage some of the logistics or logistics services.

What About 2PL and 5PL?

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. 5PL is a relatively new term in the logistics industry and reflects the development of full logistic integration through many outsourced providers. 5PL involves a fully integrated logistics solution to 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.

What are the Core Competencies 3PLs Provide?

If you are new to the idea of outsourcing and managing a 3PL, it may seem like a daunting and expensive process, but it doesn’t have to be, and it certainly shouldn’t. It also might feel strange relinquishing control of the fulfillment process to an outside company. But by working with a 3PL, you can leave all the operational details to them, freeing you up to focus more on other aspects of your supply chain and your core business goals.

The topics below illustrate what a typical 3PL might handle for a seller from a fulfillment perspective, as well as some value added benefits that not every 3PL offers.


The first step in getting inventory to the 3PL so that they can fulfill orders and ship.

A 3PL’s warehouse will receive your company’s inventory and then store your products before they go out to a customer. The 3PL will need to coordinate the inbound shipments with the company who often use freight forwarders, a person or company who helps manage and organize the bulk shipments from the manufacturer to the distribution center. This is part of their warehouse management process. A good 3PL should have warehouse management software integrated to make this process easier. The software will identify where a product is stored and when it was placed in storage to make it easy to fulfill and decide what to fulfill once an order comes in.


The next step happens when a customer places an order, which is known as picking. This is really where the 3PL fulfillment process begins. Once an order is submitted it is sent to the warehouse or fulfillment center where the seller’s inventory is being stored, the location of the items in the orders are identified, and the items are then “picked” out of storage.  The types of orders vary in size, complexity, and pick type so the 3PL you decide to choose needs to support all types of orders. For example, an ecommerce or business-to-consumer (B2C) order is vastly different than a business-to-retailer (or business) order.

“There are a lot of 3PLs that are either really good at B2B shipments, or really good at DTC. But there are not many that can do both well like DCL. Because we sell direct-to-consumer, and we sell on all online marketplaces, and we scale very quickly into big box retail, we need someone who can support all three channels.” 

Chaz Flexman CEO and Founder of Starday Foods


Once an order is “picked”, the products in the order are organized and prepared for packaging. A 3PL will work with the seller during the initial setup process to identify the best way to package the product to ensure the seller’s products are secure, presentable, and packed in the most cost effective way possible. It’s critical that the 3PL have the necessary technology systems and operational process in place to ensure that the orders are accurate and can be shipped at scale, especially during peak season or order times. Having clear business rules of how to pack different types of order is necessary to allow the orders to be fulfilled quickly and accurately.


Shipping can be the most complicated and expensive aspect of the fulfillment process. This is due to the large number of shippers, numerous shipping options per carrier, shipping cutoff times, and shipping locations. An experienced 3PL can layout a clear shipping strategy and provide significant savings on the shipping costs, faster shipping speeds, and a better overall experience for customer receiving the package.


Whether the item is ordered by mistake, damaged during the shipping process, or other various reasons, returns are part of the shopping process and an important part of the customer experience. An experienced 3PL should have a streamlined process to receive products, document the receipt of those products, and establish business rules with the seller to identify what to do with the returned orders.

Learn More About the Core Services 3PLs Offer

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Other Than Order Fulfillment, How Else Can a 3PL Help my Business?

Aside from providing the ability to fulfill and ship orders efficiently, a 3PL’s service can be quite different depending on which company you choose to work with. Below is a number of additional 3PL services and ways in which a 3PL and their expertise in logistics can benefit your business.

Is your 3PL not meeting SLAs?

Our dedicated account managers can help optimize your inventory management and track delivery performance, so you can work on growing your business.

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Cost Savings for Sellers

The primary reason a seller outsources their fulfillment needs to 3PLs is cost savings. Most 3PLs work with a lot of sellers and can leverage their buying power with logistics vendors, including materials and shipping services, and spread out their overhead, like the building cost and labor. As a result, 3PLs can offer better rates than if the seller managed things on their own. There is an extensive list of ways a 3PL can save a seller money – from discounted shipping rates to eliminating the overhead it requires to manage, staff, and run a fulfillment facility, the long term cost savings a seller would recognize may far outweigh them managing it themselves.

Professional Services and Knowledge

Managing a supply chain is a vast undertaking and requires expertise at each step of the way  to deliver optimal results. Third-party logistics providers have professional teams responsible to help streamline each aspect of the supply chain, and they bring their industry knowledge to manage seamless processes and deliver desired results. Technology can play a large role in 3PL services and expertise.

A provider that uses the latest in technology tools will serve you better—you will be able to monitoring of your inventory, receive timely reports and end-to-end visibility, plus it will likely help improve your customer satisfaction by ensuring they receive products faster and with less errors. By outsourcing logistics support, it eliminates the challenge of building in-house resources for each segment of the supply chain, and ultimately it leaves the details up to the professionals


Logistics is a very dynamic function. It requires understanding of business strategy, manufacturing planning, inventory management, and different modes of transportation depending on regions served. Often, these companies feature technology, usually a transportation management system (TMS), or integrated freight management services. It also requires a lot of coordination and collaboration with various service providers and government regulatory agencies. While your in-house team may be able to handle these functions, the complex nature of the job makes it challenging for them to do all of it by themselves. It’s common that as a seller’s business grows, the complexity of their logistics and fulfillment needs grows with it.

Because handling logistics is, by definition what a 3PL does, they have expertise in all these functions, as well as many more. Handling complex logistics and fulfillment problems on a one-off basis may be manageable, but it’s a completely different story at scale. They can take over the more tedious and complex jobs, freeing your team to strategize and focus on their core business.

“As a hardware founder, I’m always prepared for setbacks and surprise challenges along every stage of the journey. We’ve had very few issues in our warehousing and logistics realm and I credit that to DCL’s expertise in the field.”

Cara Delzer CEO, Moxxly

Inventory Management

Inventory management is a key component of the ecommerce fulfillment process and your overall supply chain. It involves much more than the simple aspect of a 3PL warehousing your products to ship whenever an order comes in.

Ideally, a 3PL will have inventory management software integration between your digital storefront and the warehouses that store your products. This will give the seller a real-time view of their inventory at each facility, helping them plan and ensuring they avoid running out of products, also known as stockouts. By having the proper integration, the 3PL can push real-time inventory counts to your digital storefront and retailers so customers know what is in stock and what might have to be backordered.

A 3PL will work with the seller or sellers’ freight forwarder to get advanced shipping notifications (ASNs) from the manufacturer with the inbound inventory. The 3PL and seller get a clear view on what products are coming, the quantity, what facility it’s being shipped to, and when. This is crucial for planning purposes as the seller can properly manage how much inventory is being stored and provide insights on what needs to be ordered.

Ensuring your products are securely stored and accounted for at all times is critical. A 3PL should perform physical audits of your inventory on an ongoing basis to verify that the physical count of your inventory matches what’s in the system. 3PLs need to have strict operational rigor and control to manage your inventory properly.

Learn More About 3PL Inventory Management Services

Business-to-Business Fulfillment (B2B or B2R)

Most of what we’ve covered in this article is order fulfillment to the individual customer, also known as business-to-consumer (B2C). Another large sales channel for sellers are the retailers: ecommerce retailers like Amazon and brick and mortar retailers like Target or Walmart. Sellers can use 3PLs to manage the order fulfillment directly to the retailers, referred to as business to retailer (B2R) or business-to-business (B2B).

The process for B2R fulfillment is similar to B2C, but on a much larger scale. The retailer submits the order and the 3PL picks, packs, and ships the order. Often times, the orders are being shipped in bulk on large pallets to several or dozens of the retailer’s stores. These orders require a lot more coordination with the shipping companies, labor, and retailers. Most of the big-box retailers have strict guidelines of how they product is shipped to them, including custom labeling and scheduled delivery dates. If a seller or 3PL deviates from the requirements outlined by the retailer, the seller can be penalized with fines, also known as chargebacks, which can be significant.

3PLs that handle B2R fulfillment require specific technical integrations with the retailers the seller is working with. When a retailer orders product from the seller, the transaction is done via electronic data interchange (EDI) which sends the order details to the 3PL and manages the transaction. The EDI setup with the retailer and 3PL can be complicated and often requires a person or team of specialists.

Business-to-Consumer Fulfillment (B2C)

If you work with a 3PL to outsource your B2C order fulfillment, their role is to ensure that all orders are delivered damage-free, on time, and with accurate documentation—some also handle returns and refunds. Partnering with a 3PL can bolster your company’s ability to deliver ordered products to customers faster—sometimes on the same day. Mismanagement, delays or errors on the part of a 3PL can lead to bad reviews for the manufacturer and additional costs in terms of refunds and returns.

Amazon Fulfillment

Amazon Seller and Vendor Central have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Managed properly, either can be a large part of your businesses growth. However, each offers their own set of operational challenges and it’s important that you have an experienced team overseeing the process. An experienced 3PL that has a track record of working with Amazon can alleviate a lot of the challenges, minimize your costs, and keep your customers satisfied.

A 3PL can be used to either support a seller’s fulfillment needs for sales from an ecommerce marketplace, including Amazon, Walmart, and Ebay. However, one of the biggest advantages is that a 3PL can support a seller’s own website storefronts. These storefronts are powered by shopping platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce. Sellers can own the entire sales experience from start to finish.

Ultimately, using a 3PL can provide a lot more flexibility than Amazon. Experienced 3PLs should be able to easily integrate with most 3rd party shopping platforms or ERPs and provide the operational expertise to provide sellers with a turnkey solution. A good 3PL can adapt to the ebbs and flows of a sellers’ needs without sacrificing speed or quality.

3PL Value Added Services

Customer demands can be high, and businesses have to adapt quickly to keep customers happy. A 3PL partner can provide a lot of value in helping with solutions. Some 3PLs provide value added services (VAS) outside of the basic services listed above, to provide solutions to meet their customers’ needs.

Here are some examples of value added services a 3PL might provide:

Kitting and Assembly

Taking any number of SKUs and combining them into a single unit. A new SKU is created for the combination. Kitting and assembly is often required for retail distribution and special promotions.


Whether it’s laser etching a customer’s name on a product or inserting a personalized note into the order, a 3PL can add customization. This means a more personal touch, and hopefully better customer loyalty.

Postponement Packaging

This is a technique used where the products are sent from the manufacturer and the packaging for the products are sent separately. Once the product and packaging arrive at the 3PL facility, the staff assembles it. This can save sellers time and money.

Product Destruction

3PLs can provide services to dispose of obsolete products or returned units. This includes breaking down the product, recycling them, or disposing of them in an environmentally and cost-effective manner.

Learn More About 3PLs Value Added Services

Technology Expertise

Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion in technological advances in the logistics space. From shopping cart platforms to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to EDI connections with retailers. The complexity of how these systems work together has grown exponentially. A technology focused 3PL can leverage their expertise and in-house technology team to ensure these connections are setup correctly and maintained.

A 3PL can provide the necessary tools to give their sellers a real-time look of their inventory and fulfillment processes. It’s important that the seller understands the tools and technical support they’ll have access to when evaluating a potential 3PL partner.

Expedited Shipping

When it comes to expedited shipping, consider the stats below:

Utilizing a 3PL to outsource order shipping and fulfillment can help sellers leverage their size to offer discounts, shipping options and increased technology that aren’t available if they fulfill their orders in house. A 3PL can help sellers meet customer demands around expedited shipping and costs and help grow their sales. An established 3PL will already have a network of warehouses, advanced technology, and trained staff to execute quick and efficient delivery. They can keep track of a package from start to end, and readily overcome any shipping issues. Plus, their credibility depends on delivering packages to the right place, at the right time, and in proper condition.

Distributed Inventory

Most 3PLs have multiple locations that are strategically spread throughout the country or globally, thus ensuring the quickest and most cost effective process to deliver products from the seller to the consumer.

A 3PL will automate the order process to ensure products leave from the right locations, delivering optimal results for timeliness and shipping costs. Depending on a seller’s individual needs, having products located at numerous fulfillment facilities could facilitate a much quicker delivery process at a fraction of the cost compared to having all their products at one facility.

This is a particular area where choosing the right 3PL, with the best locations and distribution points can maximize the benefits for a seller.

Learn More About the Benefits of Distributed Inventory

Reverse Logistics

Reverse Logistics, also known as returns management is an integral part to any ecommerce fulfillment operation. It includes all of the necessary actions that are involved products moving from the end customer back to their origination point (either the direct manufacturer or a third-party logistics provider (3PL) that handles their order fulfillment). It is a necessary part of order fulfillment, since returns due to damage, inaccuracies, and buyer’s remorse require the disposal or reintegration of returned products. Reverse logistics may involve varying levels of planning, implementation, and control of goods as they are shipped back to the fulfillment center and navigate the supply chain to the appropriate application.

Learn More About Reverse Logistics

Bottom Line

Though the idea of outsourcing to a 3PL can seem expensive, complicated, and time consuming, choosing the right 3PL can actually help grow a business effectively.

Often business owners don’t have bandwidth to think about getting their product from the manufacturer to the end consumer. Product iteration, marketing, the rest of their supply chain, and company operations should be their focus. But logistics, returns, order fulfillment, and quick shipping are what will keep customers happy. And ultimately if the customer is happy, the business will thrive.

The four biggest benefits of working with a 3PL are:

  • Delegate – outsourcing is a hassle free way to offload one of the most cumbersome, time consuming elements of a business. This allows you to focus on your core business: build, market, and sell great products.
  • Cost savings – it’s substantially cheaper from a time and money standpoint to outsource your logistics. A 3PL can help lower your operating costs by getting bulk shipping discounts, plus property and labor costs are absorbed.
  • Operational expertise – a good 3PL can smooth out the seller and customer experience by getting the products out faster and cheaper. Every business owner knows that return logistics can be a verifiable nightmare to track and manage. A 3PL can take on this task, so that your customer is happy and you can keep your sanity.
  • Technology – in recent years, this has become a bigger benefit of working with a 3PL. As all businesses are coming online and using different tech tools to manage operations, logistics vendors have ever-changing requirements to connect with the customer, the seller, and the fulfillment centers. A 3PL has the industry knowledge to adapt and keep up with these changes efficiently. A 3PL can also use their own tracking technology to retrieve data and key metrics to help inform larger business decisions.

If you’re looking for a 3PL with fulfillment centers in cities across the US, we own and operate facilities in The Bay Area, Los 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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