Order Fulfillment Costs and 3PL Pricing Models: Everything You Need to Know

Order fulfillment is a vital part of every ecommerce company’s supply chain.

You could be selling the most amazing product in the world, but if you don’t meet customer expectations for fulfillment and shipping, your business could be in trouble. According to a MetaPack report, 38% of customers are likely to never shop with a retailer again following a negative delivery experience.

And with the most popular online retailers offering two-day shipping and free shipping options, customers expect both fast and affordable shipping at the click of a button.

With customer expectations so high, it can seem intimidating to fulfill your orders in-house — and expensive, too. Between packing materials and supplies, warehousing and machinery rental, and labor costs and training, logistics costs can make fulfilling orders in-house time-consuming, expensive, and unsustainable.

That’s where third-party logistics providers, also called 3PLs, come in.

What are 3PLs?

A 3PL is a logistics services provider that allows merchants to outsource the entire ecommerce fulfillment process, including inventory management, picking, packing, and shipping of orders. 3PLs take care of the fulfillment-related tasks that can often be too costly and unproductive to manage in-house.

Partnering with a 3PL can help your business save on fulfillment costs and time, freeing up resources to focus instead on product development, marketing, and business growth.

However, not all 3PLs are created equal, especially when it comes to fulfillment pricing models and 3PL costs. To help figure out which 3PL is best for your ecommerce business, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the different expenses and pricing models involved. Read on to learn how to calculate fulfillment costs for your ecommerce business.

Common 3PL order fulfillment costs

While there are several different fulfillment pricing models, there are many common costs across 3PLs. Here are some of the expenses you may encounter when working with a 3PL.

Onboarding costs

When getting started with a new 3PL, you may encounter onboarding costs to get fulfillment services up and running. Some 3PLs make the onboarding process costly and time-consuming — it can take three to six months to get started with legacy fulfillment providers.

In comparison, ShipBob charges no onboarding fees, and getting started with our integrated technology and fulfillment services is quick, easy, and free. You don’t pay a dime until we receive your inventory at our fulfillment center(s).

“We researched several different fulfillment providers before choosing to partner with ShipBob. We were impressed with the transparency of pricing and services provided by ShipBob, as well as the easy onboarding and tech integration with our Shopify store.”

Nicole Humphreys, Founder, August Effects

Inventory receiving costs

Before a 3PL can start fulfilling orders from your online store, they need to receive your inventory to their fulfillment warehouse. In logistics, receiving refers to the acceptance and storage of incoming inventory. Different 3PLs charge for receiving in different ways, including per-unit, per-pallet, flat rates, or per-hour. At ShipBob, we charge a flat $35 fee for the first two hours of receiving and storing inventory.

Inventory storage costs

When you store your inventory at a 3PL’s fulfillment center, you will be charged for storage space. Warehousing fees can range from per-SKU or per-unit storage to a fixed fee for each bin, shelf, or pallet used.

ShipBob charges for warehousing on a per-shelf, bin, and pallet basis, so you only pay for the space you use on a monthly basis.

Order pick and pack costs

Some 3PL models include pick and pack pricing. Once your customer places an order, the fulfillment process begins with picking, or collecting each ordered item from its designated storage location. Many fulfillment providers charge on a per-pick basis, meaning you pay a fee for each item included in an order.

Other 3PLs, like ShipBob, don’t charge pick fees for orders under a certain number of items (in our case, 10). Then, each item is packed up for shipment.

Packaging costs

Your packaging is often a customer’s first in-person impression of your brand. Some 3PLs will charge for packing materials such as boxes and airfill, as a separate line item, while others include them as part of their fulfillment services.

At ShipBob, for example, plain, standard packing materials — brown boxes, yellow bubble mailers, white poly bags, packing tape, and airfill — are included at no extra cost. Merchants can use custom branded packing materials at an additional cost.

Kitting costs

Some 3PLs offer kitting services. Kitting refers to any unique accommodations for the way in which items are assembled, arranged, or packed before shipping. Common applications for kitting include assembling multiple SKUs or preparing inventory in a particular way during the packing process. Because this service is so specific to each individual client, kitting fees can vary.

Shipping costs

Finally, shipping costs: the amount a 3PL charges to ship an order from their fulfillment center to your customer’s doorstep. Many 3PLs have relationships with major shipping carriers that allow them to pass volume discounts onto their clients. Shipping costs take a variety of factors into account, including shipping speed (such as 2-day shipping), shipping zones, and dimensional weight.

ShipBob passes the (often discounted) cost of shipping from the carrier on to the client.

“It makes it a lot easier to spend marketing dollars when we know exactly what shipping costs are going to be with ShipBob.”

Greg MacDonald, CEO & Founder, Bathorium

Hidden fulfillment costs

At first glance, self-fulfilling ecommerce orders or using a budget 3PL may seem like the most cost-savvy option, but there are expenses — both direct and indirect — that you can’t afford not to factor into your budget. Whether you choose to fulfill orders in-house or work with a traditional 3PL, there are a variety of considerations that can end up hurting your bottom line if your order fulfillment process isn’t optimized.

Here are a few additional supply chain considerations that can hinder your growth:

Inefficiencies and roadblocks

The following manual, outdated processes and limitations can cause you to make common but costly shipping mistakes.

  • No bulk discounts: If you’re not shipping millions of packages each year, you don’t have the leverage to negotiate shipping rates with major carriers. Plus, if you’re only working with one carrier, you may be missing out on a strength of another, such as discounted international shipping costs. If you’re just starting out and shipping a low volume, you’ll also be paying commercial prices for packing materials.
  • Lack of integrated systems: If your processes aren’t connected to the technologies you already use, you lack automation, data to drive decisions, and transparency for customers. This can slow down and even impair your operations.
  • Only shipping from one location: If you are stuck shipping orders out from a single location, you may have to pay higher postage for packages that travel across multiple shipping zones.
  • Trips to the post office: Making several trips to the post office each week is not only time-consuming but can be expensive, too; you’ll need to invest money in gas and vehicle upkeep.
  • High overhead: Choosing to invest in the operational infrastructure to fulfill orders yourself is expensive. This set of fulfillment costs includes warehouse space, forklifts and other equipment, warehouse management software, recruiting and labor costs, workers comp, and liability insurance — not to mention the time it takes to get this all set up.

Keeping customers waiting for their deliveries

When shipments take too long to reach your customers, you may be jeopardizing future business

 53% of consumers say that speed of delivery is an important factor when it comes to evaluating their online orders. The same study found that more than half of shoppers in the US have abandoned an order because delivery was too expensive, and a quarter of shoppers have canceled an order because of slow delivery speeds.

“We partnered with ShipBob to scale up operations in the United States. We’ve seen a reduction of 70% on shipping costs in the US, which helps keep conversions high.”

Greg MacDonald, CEO & Founder, Bathorium

Today’s consumers expect Prime-like service everywhere they shop online. Nobody likes to wait. Slow delivery times can fail to meet customer expectations. When this happens, they are less likely to become repeat customers.

Only focusing on fulfillment

It’s cheesy, but it’s true: time is money. This is especially true if you’re growing a successful ecommerce business: Your to-do list is never-ending, but some tasks are more valuable than others.

Whether you’re making phone calls or emailing back and forth with a traditional 3PL, constantly checking for new orders, or packing your items and driving to the post office to wait in line, you’re missing the opportunity to grow your customer base, develop new products, market your business, and much more.

In other words, you may be losing money by not outsourcing operational tasks to an experienced, affordable 3PL. Outsourcing fulfillment can help you dedicate valuable time to performing what ShipBob client Teri Miyahira calls “high dollar tasks.”

“As a business owner, you should always be in the highest dollar activities bucket to best utilize your time and, ultimately, make the most money for your business,” says Teri, whose namesake beauty brand began outsourcing fulfillment to ShipBob in 2016. “The more time you spend doing high dollar tasks in a given bucket ultimately determines how quickly your company will be able to scale in the long term, especially if you are bootstrapping (like my business) and have zero investment dollars coming in.”

Fulfillment pricing models

Different 3PLs price their fulfillment services in different ways. Here are three of the most common pricing models.

Total fulfillment cost (ShipBob)

ShipBob’s pricing model is reflective of a total fulfillment cost for standard, direct-to-consumer order fulfillment. Rather than cluttering your invoice with line items or hidden fees, this pricing model simplifies fulfillment costs by only charging for receiving, storage, and shipping. Standard picking and packaging incur no additional costs.

This simple pricing model helps ensure that retailers avoid any hidden fees or surprise costs during the fulfillment process.

“I really like that the pricing structure was simple and there were not any additional add-on charges. I didn’t really have any alternatives I was considering, because ShipBob was the easy choice.”

Matt Dryfhout, President & Founder, BAKblade

Amazon FBA

Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), the fulfillment service for products that are sold via the Amazon marketplace and fulfilled by Amazon, uses a unique pricing model

Amazon is able to charge discounted fulfillment fees because they also receive a cut of every sale, called the seller fee. Seller fees mean that merchants often take home less profit on each sale than they would by selling on their own website. Sellers also lose the ability to highlight their brand when they ship via FBA — all packages will send in Amazon-branded boxes, and the entire customer experience and communication will take place via Amazon.

Amazon also charges additional long-term storage fees for inventory that doesn’t sell within a certain time period. Amazon FBA costs are complex, varying based on seasonality, the type and size of the item, and a variety of other factors.

Pick and pack

As the name suggests, the pick-and-pack pricing model includes charges for each individual item picked in the process of assembling an order. The pick and pack fee is essentially there for companies to track and charge for every touchpoint in a packages’ fulfillment lifecycle.

For each individual pick, there usually is between a $0.15 and $5.00 pick fee depending on the fulfillment center. If you ship several items in one order, these fulfillment costs can quickly add up.

How to calculate fulfillment costs per order

Fulfillment services pricing depends on the 3PL pricing model and your business’s specific needs. Here is an example of ShipBob’s simple fulfillment pricing.

Note: Just like there is no one-size-fits-all fulfillment solution, there is no one pricing model that fits all businesses. Reach out directly to our team for a custom fulfillment quote that takes into account your business’s size, needs, and budget.

3PL order fulfillment fees

Fulfillment service How it’s priced Cost
Receiving Flat rate $35 for the first two hours
Storage Per bin, shelf, and pallet $40/pallet/month, $10/shelf/month, $5/bin/month
Pick and pack fees Included in total fulfillment cost Free for the first 10 picks
Standard packaging Included in total fulfillment cost Free
Kitting fees Per-project basis Starting at $0.40/unit/kit
Shipping Carrier pricing passed directly on to client Varies based on destination, weight, dimensions, shipping speed, etc.

If you have unique needs, such as custom packaging, kitting and bundles, custom packing slips, etc., ShipBob can accommodate your business at an additional cost. Quotes are customized to fit each client’s individual needs.

Conclusion

Now that you know more about fulfillment costs and 3PL pricing models, you’re on your way to figuring out which fulfillment strategy is right for your business. That said, we know there is a ton of information out there, and it can be hard to decide what next steps to take. When choosing to outsource fulfillment to a 3PL, make sure you do your research and gain an understanding of potential hidden costs.

If you want to learn more about finding a fulfillment company you can trust to help your business grow, check out our e-guide, “How to Choose a 3PL for Your Ecommerce Business.” This guide covers the right questions to ask a potential 3PL to make sure you’re a mutual fit, which technology and features to look for to achieve faster, more affordable order fulfillment, and much more.

Download the Guide