Unleashing Efficiency: 3PL Warehousing in Retail Distribution

Explore the reasons retail distribution companies partner with third-party logistics providers and the role that 3PLs play in warehousing within the retail distribution industry

The impact of 3PLs in retail distribution is undeniable. Retailers that outsource distribution to 3PLs have reported up to a 25% reduction in logistics costs and a 30% improvement in order accuracy. Additionally, with the rise of e-commerce, online retail sales are projected to reach a staggering $6.51 trillion globally by the end of 2023. To meet the skyrocketing demand, more and more businesses are turning to 3PLs for their warehousing and distribution needs.

In this blog, we will explore the role of 3PLs in retail distribution warehousing. We will also learn how 3PLs drive efficiency, scalability, and cost-effectiveness to help businesses thrive in the competitive retail landscape.

Unpacking Inventory Management

Inventory management is more than just knowing what’s in stock. It involves tracking and managing every item that enters or leaves a warehouse and maintaining optimum inventory levels to meet customer demand, all while avoiding overstock or stockouts that can hurt the bottom line.

Tracking and Transparency

Effective inventory management starts with the tracking of goods. 3PLs use sophisticated WMS to monitor and manage stock levels in real time. These systems provide detailed visibility into inventory, enabling companies to know precisely what is in stock, where it is located, and when it is scheduled to be shipped or replenished. This is achieved through WMS software that links directly with barcode scanners, radio frequency identification tags (RFID), or Internet of Things (IoT) devices that track product movement. The technology provides immediate updates and accurate data, preventing discrepancies and out-of-stock situations.

Customer Access

Many 3PL providers offer their clients direct access to the WMS. This enables businesses to view their inventory data in real-time, track orders, and even adjust inventory levels or shipping schedules. This level of access provides a high degree of control and transparency, improving client satisfaction

Demand Forecasting

3PLs utilize WMS configured with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies to perform demand forecasting. This enables them to maintain optimal inventory levels – enough to meet customer demand but not so much that money is wasted on excess stock or storage.

For instance, Nike collaborates with a 3PL for its demand forecasting. This partnership enabled Nike to reduce its inventory by 20% in a single quarter in 2021, leading to increased profits.

Safety Stock Management

Safety stock management is a crucial aspect of inventory management, providing a buffer against sudden increases in demand or disruptions in the supply chain. Well-managed safety stock can prevent stockouts and ensure customer satisfaction.

Detailed Inventory Reporting

Detailed inventory reporting gives businesses a comprehensive overview of their inventory, including quantity, location, status, and more. Regular inventory audits and cycle counts are conducted to ensure the physical inventory matches the data in the WMS. Discrepancies can be quickly identified and rectified, maintaining the accuracy of the inventory data.

Order Fulfillment: The 3PL Advantage

Order fulfillment encompasses all the steps a business takes from the moment an order is placed until the product reaches the customer’s hands. This involves receiving the order, processing it, picking the item from the warehouse, packing it securely, and finally shipping it to the customer.

By leveraging the expertise and capabilities of 3PLs, businesses can significantly streamline their order fulfillment process. Let’s look at how 3PLs contribute to each step of this process.

Order Receipt and Processing

3PLs can integrate their systems with a retailer’s e-commerce platform, ensuring a seamless exchange of information. When an order is placed, it’s automatically received and processed by the 3PL’s system, which kicks off the fulfillment process.

Picking and Packing

Upon receipt of an order, employees, or automated systems at the 3PL’s warehouse locate and pick up the ordered item from the storage area. They then pack the product securely to prevent damage during shipping. 3PLs often have standardized procedures and quality checks in place to minimize errors during this critical stage.


Once the order is packed, 3PLs take care of shipping the product to the customer. This involves selecting the most cost-effective and reliable carrier, preparing shipping documents, and ensuring the package is dispatched on time. 3PLs can also provide tracking information, enabling customers and businesses to monitor the shipment’s progress.

Datex Fast Fact

According to Statista, in 2022 the average B2C pick and pack fee was $3.13 per single item while the average B2B pick and pack fee for a single item was $4.33.

Understanding Storage and Distribution

By partnering with a 3PL, retail distribution businesses can optimize their storage and distribution processes. Let’s explore how.

Optimized Storage Solutions

3PLs offer flexible storage solutions that can adapt to a business’s unique needs. They use smart warehousing techniques and advanced warehouse management systems (WMS) to maximize space utilization, maintain inventory accuracy, and streamline picking processes.

Warehouse Layout Design

3PLs meticulously plan warehouse layouts to maximize space usage and streamline operations. This involves strategically positioning fast-moving products for easy access, setting up appropriate storage systems for different product types, and ensuring the safe and efficient movement of goods within the warehouse.

Advanced Storage Systems

Utilizing various storage systems such as pallet racking, mezzanine flooring, and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), 3PLs can significantly increase the storage capacity of a warehouse. They choose the most appropriate systems based on the nature of the products, the available space, and the specific needs of the retail business.

Slotting Optimization

Through the process of slotting optimization, 3PLs analyze product movement patterns and strategically assign products to specific warehouse locations. This not only improves picking efficiency but also reduces the travel time and effort involved in handling products.

Multi-Location Distribution

3PLs often operate a network of warehouses or distribution centers spread across different locations. This geographic dispersion allows businesses to store their products closer to their customers, reducing transit times, improving delivery speed, and potentially saving on shipping costs.

Extensive Fulfillment Network

3PLs often have an extensive network of warehouses and distribution centers spread across various strategic locations. This allows businesses to store their products closer to their customers, which can significantly reduce shipping times and costs.


Datex Fast Fact

A recent McKinsey report suggests that there will be a shortage of nearly 190 million square feet of warehouse space within the next five years, increasing the need for 3PL investment in strategic warehousing locations.

Integrated Distribution

With their expertise in logistics and supply chain management, 3PLs can seamlessly integrate distribution with other parts of the retail operation. This includes synchronizing inventory management, order processing, and transportation logistics to ensure that products move more efficiently from storage to delivery.

Improved Customer Satisfaction

Customer satisfaction is no longer just about the quality of the products; it extends to the entire buying journey, right from the order placement to the delivery of the product. Efficient distribution is integral to this process.  A well-executed storage and distribution strategy can lead to faster delivery times, lower shipping costs, and better service levels, all of which contribute to enhanced customer satisfaction.

Quick and Efficient Delivery

With strategically located distribution centers and sophisticated inventory management systems, 3PLs can ensure quick and efficient delivery of orders. They can manage inventory levels to avoid stock-outs and leverage their transportation networks to reduce delivery times.

Responsive Customer Service

Many 3PLs provide customer service support, handling queries and issues related to deliveries. With access to real-time data about orders and deliveries, they can provide accurate information to customers, resolving issues promptly.

Flexible Delivery Options

By offering services like same-day delivery, time-slot delivery, and click-and-collect, 3PLs can provide the flexibility that today’s customers expect. This not only enhances the customer experience but also gives retailers a competitive edge.

Scalability: How 3PLs Support Business Growth

In the context of warehousing and logistics, scalability refers to the ability to handle an increasing amount of work or to adapt to changing needs efficiently. For a retail business, this might mean the ability to handle more orders during peak shopping seasons or expand storage capacity when adding new product lines.

3PLs provide an invaluable service to retail businesses by offering scalable warehousing solutions. Let’s dive deeper into how they enable this.

Flexible Space and Resources

One of the significant advantages of partnering with a 3PL is access to flexible warehousing space. A 3PL can increase or decrease the amount of space dedicated to a business based on demand fluctuations. This flexibility extends to resources like manpower and equipment, too. In peak periods, a 3PL can deploy more workers and equipment to manage the increased workload, ensuring timely order fulfillment.

Dynamic Pricing

Most 3PLs offer dynamic pricing models, meaning that businesses only pay for the resources they use. This model is advantageous for companies with seasonal demand variations—they won’t be burdened with the fixed costs of maintaining a large warehouse and staff during off-peak periods.

Geographic Expansion

As a business grows, it may seek to expand its customer base geographically. A 3PL with a broad distribution network can make this process easier, offering existing infrastructure in new markets. This capability allows businesses to test new markets without making substantial upfront investments.

Focus on Core Competencies

By outsourcing their warehousing needs to a scalable 3PL, retail businesses can focus on their core competencies, such as product development or marketing strategies. This focus can expedite growth by allowing the business to dedicate more resources to strategic initiatives.

The Importance of Technological Integration

In today’s digital era, the seamless integration of various technologies is essential for the efficient operation of any business, including retail distribution. This includes everything from inventory management systems and order processing platforms to customer relationship management (CRM) software and data analytics tools.

Smart Warehousing

Smart warehousing has emerged as a game-changing approach to traditional warehousing operations. By integrating advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics, smart warehousing is transforming the way goods are stored, managed, and distributed.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

AGVs are robotic vehicles that navigate autonomously within the warehouse to transport goods. These vehicles are equipped with sensors and use predefined routes or mapping systems to move products safely and efficiently. AGVs can handle various tasks, such as moving pallets, picking up and delivering items, and replenishing stock.

Pick-and-Place Robots

Pick-and-place robots are designed to automate the process of picking items from one location and placing them in another. These robots use advanced vision systems and robotic arms to identify and handle products with precision. They can work alongside human operators or independently, depending on the specific task and requirements.

Robotic Palletizing and Depalletizing

Robotic palletizing and depalletizing systems automate the process of stacking or de-stacking pallets. These robots can handle various product types and sizes, improving the speed and accuracy of pallet loading and unloading operations. They minimize the risk of injuries associated with manual pallet handling.

Automated Packaging Systems

Automated packaging systems streamline the packaging process by automating tasks such as product counting, labeling, wrapping, and sealing. These systems use machinery and robotics to increase packaging speed, improve consistency, and reduce errors.

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)

3PLs leverage sophisticated WMS to manage inventory levels, streamline order fulfillment, and improve warehouse operations. These systems provide real-time visibility into warehouse logistics, enabling 3PLs and their clients to make data-driven decisions.

Value-added Services

3PL WMS supports value-added services such as kitting, labeling, bundling, and customization of products. These services can be seamlessly integrated into the WMS, enabling retailers to offer additional options to their customers without the need for extensive infrastructure investment.

Multi-client Capabilities

3PL WMS is designed to handle the complex requirements of managing inventory and operations for multiple retail clients. It enables 3PLs to seamlessly allocate storage space, manage inventory across clients, and facilitate efficient order processing for each retailer.

Datex Fast Fact

Multi-client fulfillment can lead to cost savings of between 7 and 9 percent, compared to dedicated fulfillment.

Streamlined Receiving and Put-away

WMS streamlines the receiving process by automating data capture and matching received items with purchase orders. It directs warehouse staff to the appropriate put-away locations, ensuring efficient allocation of inventory within the warehouse.

Customized Workflows

3PLs tailor the WMS to match the specific requirements of their retail clients. They configure workflows, picking strategies, and order fulfillment processes based on the retailer’s unique needs, ensuring efficient and accurate execution.

Datex Fast Fact

Multi-client fulfillment can lead to cost savings of between 7 and 9 percent, compared to dedicated fulfillment.

E-commerce Integration

Most 3PLs can seamlessly integrate their systems with various e-commerce platforms. This means when a customer places an order online, the information is instantly transmitted to the 3PL for processing. This integration not only eliminates manual data entry but also reduces the likelihood of errors and speeds up order fulfillment.

E-commerce integration involves harmonizing various online retail systems such as the online storefront, payment gateway, inventory management, and shipping. This synchronization ensures real-time updates across platforms, improves order processing efficiency, and enhances customer experience, which is vital in today’s fast-paced retail environment.

Multi-Channel Fulfillment

If a retailer sells through multiple online channels, 3PLs can integrate with all these platforms, managing inventory and order fulfillment across channels from a single system. This simplifies operations for the retailer and provides a consistent experience for customers.

Transportation Management Systems (TMS)

By integrating TMS, 3PLs can optimize route planning, carrier selection, and shipping costs. These systems can also provide real-time tracking information, ensuring transparency and accountability in the delivery process.

Freight Consolidation

TMS enables 3PLs to consolidate shipments, grouping smaller loads into a single transportation method, to reduce costs and improve efficiency. This is particularly beneficial in retail distribution, where there can be a high volume of small, frequent orders.

Cost Efficiency: The Economic Advantages of Partnering with 3PLs

In an increasingly competitive retail landscape, businesses are continually seeking ways to minimize operational expenses without compromising the quality of their products or services. For companies managing their logistics, the cost of warehousing operations, personnel, equipment, technology, and transportation can quickly add up, impacting the bottom line.

Lower Capital Investment

By using a 3PL, businesses can avoid the substantial capital expenditure associated with acquiring, maintaining, and upgrading their own warehousing facilities and transportation fleet. Instead, they can access state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology through their 3PL partner.

Variable Cost Model

3PLs typically operate on a variable cost model, meaning you pay for what you use. This model contrasts with the fixed costs associated with owning a warehouse, where expenses like rent, utilities, and personnel salaries remain constant regardless of how much of the warehouse’s capacity is used.

Economies of Scale

3PLs serve multiple clients, allowing them to achieve economies of scale that individual businesses often can’t. They can negotiate better freight rates due to their volume of shipments, and their larger warehousing operations can run more efficiently.

Consolidated Purchasing Power

3PLs handle logistics operations for multiple clients, resulting in a larger volume of purchases for services such as transportation, warehousing, and packaging materials. This provides them with stronger negotiating power, enabling them to secure better rates and terms from vendors, carriers, and suppliers. These cost savings are then passed on to their retail partners.

Expertise and Compliance: How 3PLs Elevate Retail Distribution

Expertise and compliance in warehousing logistics are closely intertwined.

Expertise refers to the specialized knowledge and skill set required to effectively manage various aspects of logistics, from inventory management and order fulfillment to transportation and customer service.

Compliance, on the other hand, refers to adhering to a range of regulations that govern logistics operations. These might include occupational safety and health standards, customs regulations, environmental regulations, and industry-specific standards.

Industry Expertise

3PLs have accumulated years of experience in managing logistics for a wide variety of clients. They understand the nuances of warehouse management, inventory control, order fulfillment, and transportation logistics. They’re also familiar with the unique challenges and opportunities of the retail industry, which enables them to provide solutions tailored to the specific needs of retail businesses.

Regulatory Compliance

Keeping up with the myriad of regulations that apply to warehousing and logistics can be a full-time job. By partnering with a 3PL, businesses can offload this responsibility. 3PLs have dedicated compliance teams that stay abreast of the latest regulatory changes and ensure that their operations are always in compliance. This can help businesses avoid costly fines, legal issues, and reputational damage.

Safety Standards

3PLs uphold rigorous safety standards to protect their employees and the stored inventory. They follow best practices for occupational safety and health, use the appropriate equipment and protective gear, and provide regular safety training to their staff. This commitment to safety can reduce the risk of accidents and associated costs.


In today’s competitive retail landscape, staying ahead requires agility, efficiency, and customer-centricity. 3PL warehousing serves as a strategic enabler, providing retailers with the infrastructure, scalability, and operational excellence needed to thrive. Whether it’s optimizing inventory storage, implementing advanced technologies, or ensuring timely order fulfillment, 3PLs are the driving force behind the success of retail distribution companies.

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Industry Specific WMS


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