How to Find the Right 3PL Partner for Your Apparel Brand
For any direct-to-consumer brand, order fulfillment is likely your biggest headache and often, your single biggest cost line item. When you reach a tipping point, it’s time to look for a fulfillment or third party logistics (3PL) provider. These companies specialize in inventory warehousing, packing and shipping, freeing you to focus on other aspects of the business.
Choosing a 3PL or fulfillment provider to manage the process for you is an important step toward managing your company’s growth. Because they will be entrusted with all of your inventory, the consequences of a poor choice can be catastrophic, while those of a good choice could be life-changing for a brand. For apparel brands, here are 9 key things to look for:
1. Ability to scale quickly as your brand grows
Ecommerce brands can experience meteoric growth at the drop of a hat. If your brand is one of the lucky ones, the last thing you need is a 3PL that can’t keep up with orders or doesn’t have the technology to switch to B2B fulfillment when that big-box retailer decides to carry your brand. Automation, robotics and ease of technological integrations can mean the difference between success and failure. Much better to ask about these capabilities before you need them.
2. Customized storage options
How quickly will your inbound merchandise be received and, therefore, sellable? With some 3PLs, unboxing, sorting and shelving your products is a manual operation that can take several days, due to the multiple steps. Other 3PLs can customize storage to your carton sizes, maximizing your storage space per SKU and eliminating the need for hand sorting. This means your products are available in your storefront faster.
3. Ability to manage a high SKU count
Fulfillment for apparel brands differs from fulfillment for other products in that your 3PL must be able to manage a high SKU count to accommodate various sizes, colors and the constant seasonal turnover. Most 3PLs will tell you they can do this, but not all have the technology to do it well. Ask about the systems and automation they have in place for sorting, packing, managing turnover, and tracking to make the process more efficient and prevent inventory nightmares.
4. Customized returns processing
Returns are an unavoidable cost of doing business for all online brands, but a significantly larger problem for apparel brands. Finding a 3PL that can streamline this process is essential to getting returned items quickly back into sellable inventory. Technology, staffing and customization are key differentiators here. Your 3PL’s warehouse management system should easily integrate with any Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) system you have in place to streamline the process and reduce or eliminate blind returns. A good 3PL will also customize the returns process to your specifications, from inspection to refurbishment, restocking and/or disposition.
5. Custom packaging
With apparel brands, image is everything. Unfortunately, many 3PLs have a one-size-fits-all mentality. If delivering a unique customer experience is important to your brand, make sure your 3PL will accommodate your unique requests, such as branded packaging, sustainable packaging, or custom packing materials and inserts. Don’t settle for a 3PL that doesn’t put your brand before its own.
6. Ability to adapt to changing needs
Do your future plans include expanding your product line to include footwear or accessories? Make sure your 3PL can handle these types of products. 3PLs that are set up for small-package DTC fulfillment offer efficiencies that can’t be matched by giant distribution companies or local one-off providers. Ask whether they service brands with similar needs. Ask about the systems they have in place, such as robotics, automation, and paperless tracking, that keep costs (and inaccuracies) low.
7. Integrated systems
When you trust your inventory to a 3PL, you’ll be relying on their systems for accurate, real-time data. You’ll need to be able to see and prioritize orders, monitor inventory levels and shipment status. Their warehouse management platform must be able to exchange real-time data with your order and inventory management systems, as well as with all of the various shopping platforms, marketplaces and retailers where your products may be sold, various payment systems, and domestic and international shipping carriers. It’s incredibly complex, and each entity involved is constantly upgrading or changing technological requirements. Look for a fulfillment provider that is committed to keeping up.
8. Discounts on shipping
Every 3PL will tell you they can reduce your shipping costs, but it’s not just about bulk discounts. Look for a fulfillment company with multiple fulfillment centers so you can move your product closer to your customers, and one that maintains relationships with more than one shipping carrier. If the Covid-19 pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that redundancies can be a good thing. Having options can prevent bottlenecks and allow for flexibility in routing shipments the most cost-effective way.
9. Clear communication
Your relationship with your fulfillment partner will depend on clear, two-way communication. Expectations and responsibilities should be clearly defined in a set of standard operating procedures for your brand that covers all aspects of the fulfillment process, from warehousing to transport to systems support. In addition, you should have a clear channel of communication in the event that something needs immediate attention. Ask any potential partner about the procedures and policies they have in place for managing expectations and disputes.
When choosing a 3PL you are ultimately putting your brand in their hands. Trust your instincts and choose the 3PL that accommodates your needs, has your best interests in mind and is investing in the systems and technologies to help you grow.