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May 12, 2021

5 Questions To Ask Your eCommerce Fulfillment Partner

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Outsourcing your order fulfillment processes can improve efficiency and help you keep up with growing demand. However, you need an eCommerce fulfillment partner who can deliver value for your business and adapt their services to meet your unique needs.

As you evaluate your current vendor or start your search for a new fulfillment partner, use these five questions to assess their performance:

#1 What services do you offer?

At first, this may seem like a simple question. You'd expect most fulfillment partners to offer the same set of standard fulfillment services, right? But not all providers are created equal.

Some fulfillment partners, like third-party logistics providers (3PLs), offer a variety of additional services and support solutions outside of simple pick, pack, and ship processes for your eCommerce orders.

Your fulfillment partner should handle essential warehousing services like receiving, storage, assembly, and shipping. They should also provide 24/7 visibility into their processes and day-to-day performance with a Warehouse Management System (WMS).

As you explore each partner's value-added services, look for features like:

  • Supply procurement: sourcing cost-effective packaging and shipping materials
  • Print brokering: working with external vendors to print inserts and other paper goods
  • Inventory consolidation: evaluating inventory levels and adjusting to match demand
  • Freight evaluations: reviewing shipping processes to ensure you're getting the best deal
  • Light manufacturing: kitting popular products and seasonal multi-item packages
  • Special handling: adhering to retailer handling and assembly requirements
  • Distribution pushes: shipping time-sensitive orders through direct mail

You need the right mix of ongoing guidance and innovative fulfillment solutions to support your business now and as it grows. Above all, look for a partner that's willing to work with you every step of the way and adapt their services to create a tailored solution that meets your needs effectively.

#2 How do you handle unexpected surges in orders?

No matter how in-depth your planning and forecasting efforts are, last-minute bulk orders will still pop up from time to time. It's impossible to prevent these surges, but having the right partner by your side can help you get back on track quickly without delaying delivery dates or throwing together messy packages.

Before fulfillment begins, establish and maintain clear service-level agreements (SLAs) with your 3PL or fulfillment partner. SLAs define guidelines for routine order turnaround and outline protocols for rush orders and other unexpected scenarios.

You may establish a single SLA that accounts for your entire retailer network, or you may need separate agreements for each. Either way, your fulfillment partner should take your expectations into account and use them to build out detailed agreements that mutually benefit your business and theirs, with cost and industry best practices in mind.

Next, ask about communication and planning. Your eCommerce fulfillment partner should schedule regular check-ins with your team to:

  • Review past supply + demand ratios
  • Discuss upcoming orders
  • Plan for high-demand seasons or holidays

These check-ins should be conversational, but your partner shouldn't expect you to bring every potential topic to light yourself. If they've taken the time to understand your business and develop a strong partnership with you, they'll automatically forecast upcoming changes in demand based on past performance and the seasonality of your specific industry.

#3 Can your warehousing software connect with external systems?

Efficient, accurate fulfillment operations require complete, real-time visibility into inventory levels, order processing details, and fulfillment status. This combination is challenging to balance in disparate systems.

As you evaluate fulfillment partners, assess which systems they use to record and share warehouse data. Additionally, ask about cart management solutions, like integrated shopping cart software that:

  1. Shares real-time inventory information with shoppers
  2. Reflects carrier shipping options during checkout
  3. Flows new orders directly into a WMS system

A reliable cart solution connects the front end of your business to the backend, creating a frictionless customer solution and enabling warehouse teams to process and fulfill orders efficiently.

Your partner should also automate inventory, order status, and performance updates through their WMS, which reduces the risk of human error and promotes cross-team visibility. Streamlining these communications through a single source improves alignment and prevents frustrating re-work that could result from miscommunication or a recurring inefficiency in your fulfillment process.

If you work with multiple retailers, your fulfillment partner may use custom Electronic Data Interface (EDI) software integrations. EDI software helps retailers and warehouse staff transfer critical documentation in real-time, adding another layer of connectivity and visibility to your fulfillment operations and improving communication across channels.

#4 How do you ensure order accuracy?

When customers or retailers place an order, they expect to receive the correct products on or before the promised delivery date. Accurate order fulfillment is essential to business success, and it starts in the inbound.

Your eCommerce fulfillment partner should establish detail receiving guidelines to ensure vendors deliver the right products and label them correctly for processing and picking. This simplifies inventory management and keeps warehouse shelves organized since like items are always labeled correctly and stored in the right place.

As teams begin packing orders, your partner should leverage custom assembly guides to account for retail handling requirements and other packing notes. These guides will establish best practices and walk warehouse teams through each step of assembly with pre-defined specifications around:

  • Hangtags and branding elements
  • Required or restricted packing materials
  • Kitting, promotional inserts, or marketing collateral

While assembly and handling guides drive efficiency and accuracy on the warehouse floor, they shouldn't be the only tool your partner uses to keep orders on track. Post-packing quality assurance evaluations add another layer to review. QA teams conduct a final packing list, measurement, and weight check, noting any discrepancies and following up with assembly teams to correct orders before they leave the warehouse.

#5 Can your services scale with my business?

Order fulfillment is at the heart of your eCommerce business. Without a reliable warehouse team and trusted fulfillment partner, your innovative products won't make their way to retail partners or your customers.

When you outsource this essential practice, you should think of the new partnership as a long-term investment, not a quick fix for overwhelming backorders or a temporary replacement for your DIY garage-based packing and shipping operations.

Be sure your eCommerce fulfillment partner can meet your current and future business needs with value-added services and expert consulting. They should take the time to understand your brand upfront, then use data-driven metrics and industry expertise to identify new opportunities. You'll also want to make sure they can back up each new strategy with specialized services and reliable support staff.

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A 3PL partner offers robust fulfillment services to keep your daily operations running smoothly, plus the guidance and expertise you need to grow your eCommerce brand with confidence.

As you shop around, you may use the questions above to guide your candidate interviews. However, the right partner won't simply check the boxes; they'll want to work with you to identify and implement right-fit fulfillment solutions.

Download the free tip sheet, 5 Critical Questions Your 3PL Should Be Asking You, to add another critical layer to your evaluation process.

5 Critical Questions

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