While researching fulfillment providers, you will likely come across two different terms: ‘3PL’ and ‘4PL’. While 3PLs are much more common, both terms relate to the outsourcing of fulfillment and ecommerce logistics services, so it’s important to understand the difference between the two.
In this article, you’ll learn the major differences between a 3PL and a 4PL to help you decide which type of logistics provider makes the most sense for your business.
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Fourth-party logistics (4PL) providers, also called lead logistics providers (LLPs) are a type of logistics company that takes on some of the same roles as third-party logistics (3PL) providers while also having more accountability and responsibility in the process.
This is reflected in managing and delegating parts of the supply chain, including the transportation of goods, shipping orders to end customers, and managing multiple 3PLs.
The 3PLs within a 4PL’s network are operated independently and utilize a separate operational system. Each 3PL sets its standards and processes related to security and customer service.
With a 4PL, you outsource the logistics management and services of a 3PL provider as well as functions higher and lower in the ecommerce supply chain like overseeing freight forwarders and last-mile logistics.
The 4PL manages the relationship with different 3PL providers, in addition to other logistics tasks such as transportation, inventory management, and technology. Examples of a 4PL company include Shopify Fulfillment Network, Deliverr, and ShipHero.
There are advantages and disadvantages to working with a 4PL. In terms of scalability, 4PLs can add warehouses to their network quickly, which allows merchants to expand their distribution network fast.
But there are some key disadvantages, including the lack of quality control, customer support, and inconsistency. Below is an overview of how 4PLs work.
4PLs act as the single point of contact for operational support and communication with other vendors. This helps streamline logistics processes for the merchant since the 4PL takes on a more strategic, operational role.
With a 4PL, the customer doesn’t have to worry about managing relationships with multiple vendors, finding ways to optimize the retail supply chain, or making decisions on logistics.
However, since every warehouse within a 4PL’s network operates independently, it can cause inconsistencies in fulfillment.
Not always the case, but most 4PLs do not own or lease assets. Instead, they coordinate transportation, warehousing, and shipping services with other logistics companies. A 4PL works with other vendors, including a 3PL, to find ways to optimize the customer’s supply chain.
When ecommerce businesses outsource fulfillment to a 3PL, they work directly with their 3PL partner who manages the entire fulfillment process. Ecommerce businesses outsource fulfillment to a single 3PL partner so they can eliminate managing a warehouse and spend less time tracking inventory, packing boxes, and shipping orders.
Unlike a 3PL, a 4PL adds an additional degree of separation between the merchant and the 3PL as they manage the relationship with the 3PL instead.
Here are some key differences between a 3PL and a 4PL.
A 3PL focuses on order fulfillment, which includes warehousing, picking and packing orders, and shipping packages. A 4PL takes it a step further by managing the entire supply chain, including fulfillment, transportation, and technology. With a 4PL company, a merchant works directly with the 4PL to resolve any issues that arise throughout the supply chain and with other vendors.
Unlike a 4PL, by partnering with a 3PL, a merchant can work directly with the 3PL to find ways to optimize fulfillment. For instance, ShipBob is a 3PL that partners with merchants to decide which fulfillment center locations to store inventory based on where their customers are.
Since a 3PL operates all fulfillment center locations within their network using warehouse management system (WMS), merchants are given access to data and analytics, from demand forecasting tools to shipping data, which helps the merchant make better decisions. Real-time inventory levels can be tracked and viewed from one dashboard as a single source of truth.
Since the 4PL is the merchant’s main point of contact, all communication is filtered through the 4PL to the different 3PLs. This can cause delays in resolving issues since the 4PL acts as the middleman during this process, rather than the merchant working directly with the 3PL. With this type of customer service, there is no ownership on the 3PL level, which can be a frustrating experience for the merchant.
With a 3PL partner, you’re given access to the same customer service team (in some cases, a dedicated account manager). This way, issues are resolved faster and you’re able to work with a team that understands your account.
The goal of a 4PL is to manage and oversee the entire supply chain on behalf of the merchant, including the relationship with a 3PL. Here is an example of how a 4PL would work in partnership with an ecommerce business.
A 4PL will coordinate transportation of finished goods, oftentimes starting from the manufacturer and then sent to one or several warehouses that are operated by a 3PL company.
After your products are transported to one or more warehouses, a 3PL service will take care of the day-to-day fulfillment tasks, such as receiving and storing inventory, picking and packing boxes, and shipping orders.
Inventory management is managed by the 4PL using technology that centralizes inventory tracking. When working with a 4PL, the 4PL provides the technology, such as inventory management software, which gives the merchant visibility into inventory levels in one place.
(Note: A tech-enabled 3PL also provides inventory management tools that integrate with a WMS, so merchants can track inventory across all warehouses in real-time.)
The final stage of a 4PL’s process is last-mile delivery. The 4PL will manage relationships with a 3PL and/or carriers that will pick up orders from the 3PL’s warehouse and ship orders out.
3PLs are by far the most common logistics model for ecommerce businesses, while 4PLs remove the merchant one degree further from the supply chain. 4PLs act as a consultant or head of logistics who outsources all supply chain tasks, unlike a 3PL who serves as a fulfillment team.
Here is an overview of the different phases of an ecommerce business and the logistics model that is typically best suited for each stage.
If you’re a startup business, you can begin by fulfilling orders in-house. Keep in mind that this model is oftentimes not scalable, as packing and shipping orders can be a time-consuming task, which can take you away from other important aspects of your business like product development or marketing.
As you grow, outsourcing fulfillment is one of the best ways to scale more efficiently. A 3PL will take care of the order fulfillment process for you, including ecommerce warehousing, inventory management, picking and packing, and working with carriers to ship orders to customers.
“We are growing really fast and won’t slow down anytime soon. With ShipBob, we have the option to use more of their warehouses to further reduce shipping costs. Because ShipBob has a lot of people to handle our orders and additional warehouses we can expand into, we can scale up with ease as we continue to grow quickly. If we ran our own warehouse, it would be much harder to hire people and we’d inevitably outgrow the space.”
Oded Harth, CEO & Co-Founder of MDacne
ShipBob is a 3PL that offers international fulfillment center locations and best-in-class technology to help merchants save on shipping costs and speed up transit times.
If you’re looking to partner with a logistics company that will manage your supply chain for you, a 4PL might be an option worth considering. However, a 4PL can add another layer of separation from you and your supply chain, which means less control. Because of this lack of control, many fast-growing ecommerce businesses continue to work with a 3PL that they can grow with over time.
“As we started to hit that first inflection point of growth, it became apparent we needed to look for a 3PL that could help us expand geographically in the US and also drive down shipping costs and expenses.”
Michael Peters, VP of E-Commerce Operations at TB12
If you want more out of a 3PL than just a picking and packing service, we’ve got you covered. ShipBob is an end-to-end fulfillment partner for your business, and lets you accomplish more while your business grows.
ShipBob is a truly global logistics platform that fulfills multichannel orders. Out of the box, ShipBob is a one-stop-shop to hand off fulfillment. You get full access to our:
Our mission is to help you be more successful online, and your needs are constantly evolving — so we are always adding new fulfillment centers and innovating new features, capabilities, channels, and integrations for our customers, so that we can support you in the long run.
To do this, we listen closely to customer feedback for actionable takeaways. Here are just a few enhancements to our fulfillment infrastructure and technology that we’ve implemented based on our customers’ needs:
ShipBob aims to simplify complex 3PL pricing. Our total fulfillment cost model includes picking, packing and shipping all bundled into one line item so you can easily calculate your costs:
And at ShipBob, you will not be charged line items for:
We also offer additional value-added services like returns process, kitting, B2B orders, and much more. Read below for a full breakdown of our pricing, or request a quote tailored to your specific needs!
|Receiving||Flat rate||$25 for the first two hours ($40/man hour after the first two hours)|
|Storage||Monthly charge||$40 per pallet/month, $10 per shelf/month, $5 per bin/month|
|Pick and pack||Included in the cost||Free for the first four picks in an order, then $0.20 per pick for the fifth pick and after|
|Standard packing||Included in the cost||Free plain boxes, mailers, tape, and dunnage used to pack orders|
|Shipping||Specific to the order||Varies based on destination, weight, dimensions, shipping service, and more|
ShipBob is not a 4PL but a 3PL that offers on-demand logistics solutions, premium technology, and best-in-class customer service and expertise.
Managing fulfillment yourself can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly, while partnering with a 4PL can lead to even less control and inconsistencies.
ShipBob works with fast-growing ecommerce businesses to help them scale their business with Amazon-level logistics.With ShipBob, you can spend less time on logistics and save money in the long run all while still having full transparency and visibility inside the entire supply chain.
With an international fulfillment network powered by the same WMS, ShipBob makes it easy to expand into new locations based on where your customers are. You can track inventory in real time, view inventory allocation, and analyze SKU performance, all from one dashboard. You’re also given control over your supply chain with access to our analytics and reporting tool to make data-driven decisions.
Lastly, ShipBob provides access to a premium customer support team. No matter where you store inventory, you get access to support from a team that understands your needs. This ensures fast resolution so you can keep your business running smoothly.
“Overall, we are so appreciative of how merchant-focused ShipBob is. ShipBob has been so helpful in making sure we and our customers are taken care of, and it’s been such a rewarding partnership.
We feel like ShipBob is a partner that’s in it together with us. We never get the sense that ShipBob is just interested in getting our fulfillment fees. It is much more than that — they really care about our success and what makes us successful as a company.”
No matter what size your business is, you have options on how to manage your supply chain. Although a 4PL can manage the entire supply chain for you, the most common logistics company is a 3PL.
The right 3PL partner will go beyond just fulfillment by working with you to optimize your supply chain and help you make better decisions for your business.
“I felt like I couldn’t grow until I moved to ShipBob. Our old 3PL was slowing us down. Now I am encouraged to sell more with them. My CPA even said to me, ‘thank god you switched to ShipBob.’”
Courtney Lee, founder of Prymal
To learn more about how ShipBob can help your growing business, click the button below to request a quote. To learn more about how ShipBob’s logistics capabilities compare to other 3PLs, read this review.