Splitting your inventory across multiple fulfillment center locations, known as distributed inventory, can offer many advantages to an ecommerce seller.…
What is a Fulfillment Center and How is it Different (and Better!) than a Warehouse?
The terms warehouse and fulfillment center are often used interchangeably when discussing logistics and supply chain management, but depending on the circumstances each term can mean something different. At their most basic level, both are large buildings that can hold inventory for all types of businesses that sell physical products. Despite this similarity the services provided and the way they are utilized can be quite different. This guide will describe the functions and purposes of each, helping you better understand which option might be the right for your individual business needs.
A warehouse is cost-effective storage for product inventory
When using the term warehouse, it refers to the place where a company stores products for sellers for an open-ended period of time. It is a large facility or industrial space that houses inventory to be sold. It can contain large containers, shelves, storage bins, and palates filled with products, as well as equipment like forklifts that are used to move the inventory around.
The main businesses that work with warehouse providers primarily do wholesale or B2B (business-to-business) orders in large volume. Some companies own and operate their own warehouse(s) to store their excess inventory until it is ready to be shipped, while others rent out the warehouse space depending on their storage needs.
Depending on location, renting warehouse space is usually a more cost-effective solution for small to mid-sized sellers although that can depend on the available space and rent terms.
Smaller sellers, or those just starting up might decide to lease a space that is smaller and less expensive, such as local storage units if they don’t have the in-house space to maintain their inventory. This can help keep the needed products close by their own location in a more cost-effective space.
What is a fulfillment center?
A fulfillment center is the location where a third-party logistics (3PL) provider fulfills customer orders for ecommerce retailers. It is often larger in size and scale than a typical warehouse that an individual company might own or rent. The main function of a fulfillment center is to ship product orders to customers and assist sellers in managing this vital, yet often difficult process.
How does a fulfillment center operate?
A fulfillment center is the hub for all of the logistics processes required to get a seller’s product to their customer. This is also known as the order fulfillment process.
Inventory is stored conveniently in a 3PL’s fulfillment center in preparation to fill customer’s orders. After a customer completes a purchase, inventory is picked from the fulfillment center shelves, packed, and then prepared for shipment.
These business-to-consumer (B2C) orders fulfilled by a 3PL are often shipped directly to an individual home. Fulfillment centers can also be used for B2B orders, often a large volume product that is sent out to larger retailers.
When a seller outsources their fulfillment to a 3PL, the 3PL handles the processes on the seller’s behalf. This can include storage, receiving, packing, and shipping, negotiating lower shipping rates, among many other helpful aspects of order fulfillment.
When a seller outsources its fulfillment to a 3PL it can make it easier to manage inventory, save time to allow the seller to focus on more important business tasks, and even improve customer service.
What are the main differences between fulfillment centers and warehouses?
As stated earlier, while often used interchangeably there are several significant differences between a fulfillment center and a warehouse and the roles each play in the process of getting products to customers.
The main role of a warehouse is simply to store inventory, while a fulfillment center is designed to meet customer expectations around the process of ordering and having products delivered on time. This is possible because sellers store their inventory in a 3PL fulfillment center located near their customer, helping to reduce shipping time and cost.
Long-term vs. Short-term Storage
A warehouse is a part of a 3PL’s fulfillment center, where it stores a seller’s inventory, however the main goal of a fulfillment center is to easily manage the processes that happens between the time a customer places an order and the order is delivered to their home or business.
In a best case, inventory will not be in a fulfillment center for longer than 30 days. If inventory needs to be in a fulfillment center longer, this might be considered long-term storage, and most 3PLs will charge a higher warehousing fee. Ideally the seller and 3PL will be in close contact often about inventory levels. It’s important for a seller to maintain an appropriate amount of their products, relative to how often customers are making orders, so that the 3PL fulfillment center has enough product on hand to meet customer demand.
A warehouse tends to be inactive because it’s used purely for storing inventory. An order fulfillment center is quite the opposite, bustling with activity constantly. A 3PL provides end-to-end order fulfillment services at its fulfillment center including:
- Receiving inventory
- Picking products
- Kitting items if necessary
- Packing boxes
- Preparing shipping labels
- Shipping orders
- Managing returns
Operationally in a warehouse, the activity occurs only when inventory is added or sent out. There are rarely any additional services offered.
Frequency of Pickups by Shipping Companies
A 3PL often has established relationships with multiple shipping companies. Since a fulfillment center operates to provide B2B and B2C orders as soon as they are placed, they need multiple companies to pick up shipments at a minimum once a day, sometimes more as needed. This helps to ensure that orders will be delivered in the time frame guaranteed to the customer.
Depending on how a seller chooses to have their products shipped, the shipping providers might need to pick up any orders with special delivery times such as same-day or next-day at certain times to ensure on-time delivery. Sometimes certain carriers will have a regular time that they schedule pickups, both for domestic and international shipments.
Usually a fulfillment company will have a cutoff time for orders to be placed to the delivery speed chosen by the customer. For example, an order might need to be placed my noon in order to guarantee next-day delivery.
warehouse, on the other hand, will usually have less frequent pickups scheduled, since it is cost-effective to send out all items at the same time, regardless of the speed requested by the customer.
The freight companies that warehouses use often insist on a certain time to pick up the orders, which can cause a delay in the delivery time and allow for less flexibility in shipping options for the seller.
Benefits of a 3PL fulfillment center
Outsource inventory storage and management
If a seller is not a huge company shipping thousands of items a day, the hassle of managing a warehouse may be more expensive and time consuming than it is worth. Allowing a fulfillment center to handle these tasks can be much more efficient. A good indicator that it might be time to utilize a fulfillment center is when a seller can no longer keep up with managing the flow of orders incoming and being able to ship them out on time.
Allowing the seller to focus on the big picture
While taking orders, picking out products, packing boxes, and shipping are critical components a product company’s bottom line, these tasks can also be easily outsourced to an experienced 3PL. For a growing business, giving these tasks over to an expert (the 3PL) means more time can be spent on business operations like customer service, marketing, and strategic planning.
Leveraging expertise and specialization
Managing logistics can be frustrating and challenging for any seller. It adds an extra layer on top of all the other business operations that need to be handled. A 3PL fulfillment center can handle the complex processes and all moving parts involved, with ease and efficiency. From order processing, inventory management, packing and shipping, fulfillment companies have been handling these tasks for years. They have the best technology and relationships to get products to customers (or businesses) quickly and cheaply. In the long run, outsourcing logistics and fulfillment to an experienced 3PL is very cost-effective for the seller.
Automate the fulfillment process
Modern 3PL fulfillment companies utilize the latest technology for their operations. This allows every step of the fulfillment process to be captured and documented in real time. Each customer order is automatically sent to a fulfillment center to get picked, packed, and shipped. And once the order is shipped, tracking information can be sent back to the seller as well as the customer to ensure that all goes properly.
By having logistics management software a 3PL can track and collect data on a seller’s inventory through the year. This information can be helpful to predict business, or benchmark growth.
Often a 3PL also has the technology infrastructure to share their digital tools with sellers. DCL, for example, has a mobile app called eFactory, in which sellers can see the status of their inventory, monitor orders, and get updates more easily, and at their convenience. Being a business owner is a 24/7 job, and being able to check on shipping, fulfillment and inventory from a smartphone is so helpful.
While the terms warehouse and fulfillment center are frequently used interchangeably, the need for a simple warehouse space is much different than being able to utilize complete fulfillment services via a fulfillment center.
What works best for any individual seller comes down to the type of service they need. A warehousing service that only stores inventory could prove valuable if longer terms storage is needed, or the company is still operating some of the fulfillment in-house. Alternatively, if a seller is needing fast turn around for large orders, working with a 3PL to handle the fulfillment, customer shipping, and end-to-end logistics, is probably the best option to help grow that seller’s business.
There are many benefits to working with a third party logistics company (3PL), if you are seeking logistics support we’d love to hear from you. You can read DCL’s list of services to learn more, or check out the many companies we work with to ensure great logistics support. Send us a note to connect about how we can help your company grow.