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Outsourcing Fulfillment

Save time and money--and skip a few headaches--by letting someone else fill your orders.
July 6, 2001

Q: I'm writing a business plan for an online retail clothing site, and I want to run it from home until the company grows. I want to outsource the fulfillment to cut operating expenses. Can you give me some advice?

A: You are smart to consider outsourcing fulfillment--44 percent of online retailers lose money on shipping and handling. B2C Web sites typically have to operate on very thin profit margins, simply because the Web is so pervasive and consumers have the ability to easily compare and contrast prices. If somebody else out there sells the same thing you sell for a nickel less, your customers will know about it. And because the profit margin is so small, by the time you put the product in a box, surround it with Styrofoam packing peanuts and take it down to UPS, you've often lost money. (Have you ever priced packing material at your local office supply store? The cost of Styrofoam peanuts alone can eat up every cent of your profit.)

One advantage of using a fulfillment outsourcer (especially one of the larger ones) is that they are able to buy shipping materials in large quantities in order to receive volume discounts. They can then pass the savings on to their clients. Another plus: When you outsource fulfillment, you don't have to run a large warehouse operation, and this in itself can be a big money-saver. (Buying large amounts of inventory and having that inventory sit is very ineffective and costly.)

Perhaps the greatest advantage is that an outside fulfillment organization is likely to be automated. The contractor-who has invested millions of dollars to create a system that's highly accurate-keeps your costs down, speeds up your processing time and lowers your inventory requirements. They can do this because they don't use a paper-based system, where a warehouse employee takes a piece of paper and walks through the warehouse picking out each product on the order. This approach is naturally prone to error, and a paper-based system's biggest failure is poor picking. A sophisticated fulfillment operation will have an automated system with bar code readers to ensure a higher degree of accuracy.

As you select a fulfillment service, here are some things to keep in mind:

Dan Blacharski has more than 15 years of industry experience, has written several books and writes for a wide variety of trade publications. Currently living in Santa Cruz, California, Blacharski has three entrepreneurial high-tech companies under development, and is also writing the next edition of Entrepreneur Media's How to Become an Internet Entrepreneur.