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What Is A Fulfillment Center? How To Outsource Your Fulfillment

What Is A Fulfillment Center? How To Outsource Your Fulfillment

As orders roll in, ecommerce store owners need a reliable and efficient way to manage inventory, process orders, and ship products to customers in a timely manner. Fulfillment centers can provide a solution.

By partnering with a fulfillment center, online retailers can tap into a high-tech system that handles everything from receiving and storing inventory to picking, packing, and shipping orders.They also provide real-time tracking and updates to the store owner and the customer.

Keep reading to discover how fulfillment centers work, the advantages they offer for your ecommerce store’s growth, and the potential challenges to consider when deciding if outsourcing fulfillment is the right move for your business.

What is a fulfillment center?

A fulfillment center, alternatively known as a distribution center or third-party logistics (3PL) service, is a facility that stores, processes, and ships products to customers on behalf of ecommerce businesses. These centers are designed to handle large volumes of inventory and orders efficiently, using warehouse management systems (WMS), inventory management systems, and automated equipment for accurate and timely delivery.

Fulfillment centers play an important role in the ecommerce supply chain by optimizing the order fulfillment process, reducing costs and delivery times, and improving customer satisfaction.

How do fulfillment centers work?

Fulfillment centers are the backbone of ecommerce operations, ensuring that online customer orders are processed, packaged, and shipped to customers. The order fulfillment process covers the following tasks:

  • Inventory management. When a seller’s products arrive at the fulfillment center, they are logged and stored, then tracked using WMS and inventory tracking software to ensure accurate stock levels and real-time updates.
  • Order processing. Once a customer places a purchase order with an ecommerce store, the fulfillment center receives the order details and uses them to locate the items stored in inventory.
  • Picking and packing. Fulfillment center staff pick the ordered items from the shelves and pack them securely, along with any necessary labels, inserts, or branding materials.
  • Shipping. The fulfillment center staff chooses the appropriate shipping carrier and method based on factors such as delivery speed, cost, and destination before sending it out for delivery.
  • Returns processing. Fulfillment centers also handle product returns on behalf of ecommerce businesses so that when a customer returns an item, they can inspect and restock or dispose of it.

Fulfillment centers vs. warehouses

Warehouses and fulfillment centers both hold inventory, but there are some key differences:

  • Primary purpose and function. Warehouses are primarily used for storage, while fulfillment centers are designed to process and ship orders to customers. Fulfillment services offer product picking, packing, and shipping.
  • Operations and technology. Warehouses typically involve more manual labor and less automation than fulfillment centers, whereas fulfillment providers invest in advanced technology, such as WMS and automated conveyor belts, to streamline operations and improve efficiency.
  • Value-added services. Fulfillment centers often provide customized packaging and branding options for ecommerce businesses, whereas warehouses generally do not offer these fulfillment services.
  • Returns. A fulfillment company may also handle returns processing and customer service on behalf of the seller, whereas warehouses typically do not.
  • Specialization. Warehouses cater to a wide range of industries and products, while fulfillment centers specialize in ecommerce order processing and are designed to handle a high volume of small, individual orders.
  • Target market. Fulfillment providers are experts in optimizing the order fulfillment process for online businesses, while warehouses typically specialize in brick-and-mortar businesses.

Benefits of fulfillment centers for ecommerce

Fulfillment centers offer a range of advantages for ecommerce businesses looking to streamline their operations and improve customer satisfaction. By outsourcing inventory management, order processing, and shipping to a dedicated fulfillment provider, online retailers can enjoy these benefits: 

Streamlined order processing

Fulfillment centers use technology and specialized workflows to process orders efficiently, reducing the time from when a customer clicks Buy to when the package is shipped. By outsourcing your order fulfillment services to a dedicated provider, you can take advantage of their expertise and infrastructure, enabling your business to scale operations without significant capital investment in warehouse space, staff, and equipment.

This approach to order processing and shipping allows your ecommerce business to provide faster, more reliable service to your customers, ultimately improving satisfaction and brand loyalty.

Reduced shipping costs

By partnering with a fulfillment provider, your ecommerce business can take advantage of negotiated rates with shipping carriers, resulting in lower shipping costs compared to handling fulfillment in-house. Fulfillment center operations are strategically located in key geographic areas, cutting shipping distances and lowering delivery times to your customers.

By distributing your inventory across multiple fulfillment centers, you can further reduce shipping costs and transit times by storing products closer to your customers. This helps your business offer more competitive shipping options, improving customer satisfaction.

Scalability and flexibility

As your ecommerce business grows, most fulfillment centers offer the scalability and flexibility to handle increasing order volumes and seasonal fluctuations, meaning you don’t need to invest in additional warehouse space or staff. By outsourcing fulfillment to a third party, ecommerce companies can focus on marketing campaigns, product development, and customer service.

Fulfillment centers are designed to handle varying levels of demand, giving you the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions and customer preferences.

Improved inventory management

Fulfillment centers receive inventory for your business and store it in their fulfillment warehouse, using advanced inventory management systems to track and monitor stock levels accurately. By outsourcing your inventory management to a fulfillment provider, you can reduce the risk of overselling or stockouts, as well as minimize the costs associated with holding excess inventory.

Most fulfillment centers offer transparent reporting and ecommerce analytics tools, letting you monitor your inventory levels, sales trends, and product performance to make informed decisions about restocking and product assortment.

Access to advanced technology

Fulfillment centers invest heavily in technology and automation to streamline operations and improve efficiency, which can be expensive for individual ecommerce businesses to implement on their own. By partnering with a fulfillment provider, your online store can benefit from state-of-the-art warehouse management systems, automated conveyor belts, and robotic picking technology, all of which work together to optimize the order fulfillment process.

They also offer seamless integration with popular ecommerce platforms like Shopify. This allows for real-time data synchronization and automated order processing, reducing the need for manual intervention and minimizing the risk of errors.

Drawbacks of fulfillment centers

While outsourcing fulfillment to a third-party provider offers numerous benefits, it’s essential to consider the potential drawbacks as well. Here are a few points to keep in mind: 

Higher costs

Outsourcing fulfillment to a third party can be more expensive than handling fulfillment in-house—particularly if your inventory turnover rate is relatively low. Fulfillment warehouses charge fees for receiving, storing, shipping, returning, and packaging products, which can add up quickly. The longer your inventory sits or the more complicated your products are to pack, the higher those costs may be.

Carefully compare the costs of outsourcing against the expenses of operating your own fulfillment centers to determine the most cost-effective solution.

Limited control

When outsourcing fulfillment, ecommerce businesses relinquish some control over the process, relying on the fulfillment provider to handle their inventory, orders, and shipping. This can be particularly challenging for businesses with unique or complex products that require special handling or packaging.

Not all fulfillment centers are equipped to handle such requirements, limiting the options available to your business. 

Potential for errors

Although fulfillment warehouses strive for accuracy, there is always the potential for errors in inventory management and order processing. These errors can lead to delayed or incorrect shipments, reducing customer satisfaction.

Establish clear communication channels to quickly identify and resolve any issues that arise.


By outsourcing fulfillment, ecommerce companies place a significant portion of their operations in the hands of a third party. If the fulfillment center experiences system outages, labor shortages, or natural disasters, it can have a negative impact on your business’s ability to serve its customers.

Thoroughly vet potential fulfillment partners and have contingency plans in place to mitigate the risk of disruptions to your operations.

Speed up fulfillment times with Shopify

Shopify comes with built-in tools to help you track, prioritize, and fulfill orders from one place, so you can get orders out the door sooner and exceed customer expectations.

Explore order management on Shopify

Fulfillment center FAQ

Are fulfillment centers better than warehouses?

Fulfillment centers are better suited for ecommerce businesses that require fast order processing, shipping, and delivery. Businesses that primarily need long-term storage and fulfill orders infrequently may find warehouses more suitable.

How do you choose between a fulfillment center and a warehouse?

When choosing between a fulfillment center and a warehouse, consider your business needs, such as order volume, shipping requirements, and the level of customization and automation required. If your focus is on ecommerce and fast order processing, a fulfillment center may be the better choice, while a warehouse may be more suitable for long-term storage and bulk shipping.

How do Amazon fulfillment centers work?

Amazon fulfillment centers work by storing products from various sellers, processing orders, and shipping them to customers. When a customer places an order on Amazon, the fulfillment center staff picks, packs, and ships the item (often within 24 hours) using Amazon’s logistics network and technology.

This article originally appeared on Shopify and is available here for further discovery.
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