From small businesses just getting started to the world’s top direct-to-consumer (D2C) ecommerce brands, there’s one universal truth: order fulfillment is hard. Even worse, choosing the fulfillment pricing model that’s right for you is met with challenges.
Streamlining order fulfillment is arguably one of the most important factors in determining an ecommerce brand’s profitability—yet it’s also the most complicated. We can (almost) guarantee nobody loves managing order fulfillment. Except here at Airhouse, of course—and that’s why we’re here to break it down for you.
In this post, we’ll explain everything you need to know to optimize your fulfillment costs. We’ll explore the different types of fulfillment pricing models, questions you should ask when comparing fulfillment providers, and how to choose the right fulfillment solution for your business.
Fulfillment costs represent the sum of all the expenses involved in the course of handling a product from the moment it’s received in the warehouse, to the moment it leaves, including storage, packaging, picking units from the shelves, and shipping. And the goal of understanding fulfillment pricing is to arrive at your per order cost. If you sell a purse, for example, how much, on average, is it going to cost to ship that purse to the customer?
Sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch. The factors that impact fulfillment costs are highly variable. Unlike buying software where there’s a fixed cost per user, for example, D2C fulfillment is subject to a large number of variables that impact pricing, from packaging type and materials, to product dimensions and weight, to the shipping carrier you use. This is made even more complex by the fact that these variables always come from different companies—at minimum, a warehouse, packaging vendor, and shipping carrier.
To arrive at a true per order cost requires analyzing a number of different variables—often up to ten or more. Elements that impact the order-based rate include the pick and pack rate, storage rate per unit, shipping costs and surcharges, shipping fuel costs, packaging and materials costs, and so on.
This high level of variability is exactly what makes optimizing fulfillment pricing so difficult. But getting a handle on this complexity is the only way to achieve your full growth potential.
Fulfillment costs have a huge impact on the success of your business. Research reveals that order delivery and fulfillment costs have the biggest combined impact on the profitability of a company’s order fulfillment strategy.
Before you can optimize your fulfillment costs, you need to understand all of the individual line items that go into the final price. At a high level, there are two main components that make up fulfillment pricing: warehouse fees and shipping fees.
How long does it take to pack an order? How long does it take to receive a case or pallet of inventory when it arrives at the warehouse? These are the types of questions warehouses are weighing when determining their own price structure.
All warehouse fees are fractional measures of hourly employee costs, materials, and/or space. Warehouses set their fees based on the amount of labor required to receive, process, and distribute your products, and vary with the level of efficiency the warehouse is able to achieve across the entire facility, as well as for your specific order processing requirements. The primary reason a fulfillment rate may be higher than expected is because of the amount of labor that's required due to complexity.
The various components that make up your total warehouse charges include:
While a large fraction of shipping costs is related to the cost of fuel, there are a few other key components that also contribute to your total shipping fees. These include:
When you’re comparison shopping between warehouses or third-party logistics providers (3PLs), the first thing you’ll notice is that different companies have different fulfillment pricing models. This understandably makes it difficult to understand and compare your true costs when evaluating different options.
There are two dominant types of fulfillment pricing models: a la carte pricing, like the kind Airhouse offers, and all-in-one pricing models.
Here are the major differences between each type of fulfillment pricing model:
With this pricing model, each fee is a separate line item: pick/pack, picks, shipping, shipping surcharges, packaging, etc. This pricing model provides the most visibility into costs and why they may fluctuate from month to month, and order to order.
While potentially intimidating to those new to fulfillment, this pricing model is popular with growth-oriented and large enterprise brands, because it allows you to truly optimize your costs.
For example, a beverage brand that expects to sell six-packs may notice that people prefer to buy two six-packs at once, which results in higher shipping costs because the products aren’t optimized to ship that way. With this pricing model, that brand can feed this insight back into the manufacturing process and change their pack sizes or packaging methods to lower costs.
With this pricing model, shipping and warehouse fees are collapsed into a single rate for fulfillment, often inclusive of the order base rate, up to a set number of picks, packaging, and shipping. This model is deceptively attractive in its simplicity, especially for companies that sell SKUs of shapes and sizes, or those who don’t understand the ins and outs of shipping rates.
However, this model obscures the details that are actually needed to optimize fulfillment pricing, so you can seldom control the actual shipping method and packaging used to ship your orders. Additionally, with all-in-one pricing models, it’s rare for a warehouse to share rate cards around surcharges, so if you have an order that is usually $7.50 all-in, and suddenly changes to $9.80 on average, you won’t know why. Even worse, you’ll just be stuck with the bill.
Now that you know the types of fulfillment pricing models you may find yourself evaluating, how do you choose the one that’s right for your business?
While an all-inclusive pricing model may be a fine fit for simple products with no shipping complexity, if your product has any shipping complexity to it at all—perhaps you’re sending oversized or heavy goods, for example—an a la carte pricing model is likely going to be your best bet.
But there is more to it than that, of course, and every business is unique. It’s important to fully understand and analyze each fulfillment pricing model in the context of your own needs to determine which is best.
Here are a few questions to ask your fulfillment provider when determining whether an all-in-one or a la carte fulfillment pricing model is best for your business:
While you’ll typically be most successful negotiating your expenses down if you choose a fulfillment provider that leverages an a la carte pricing model, there are a few areas where you’ll likely have the most success in negotiating.
The best negotiation lever you have with a warehouse is volume—the higher volume of orders you have, the more efficiencies a warehouse can achieve in fulfilling your orders. By extension, this may lower your potential costs and increase your negotiating power. For similar reasons, a warehouse is also more likely to be able to offer you a lower cost if you have a very simple product to ship. The more complex your order packaging and processing, the less likely it is that you're going to get a discount—even at a higher volume, as there is a higher floor to the amount of time spent on labor per order.
The bottom line is that if you’re able to increase your order volume and/or decrease product complexity, you’re more likely going to be able to reach a lower per order fulfillment cost.
One way to achieve this is by minimizing the labor required once your product arrives in the warehouse. Remember, order picking is typically the most expensive warehouse activity. If your products arrive at the warehouse already barcoded or you have just a few SKUs for warehouse staff to pick and pack, it’ll be much easier to negotiate a lower fulfillment price.
Understanding these costs is vital to being able to grow an ecommerce company profitably. But, companies often ignore an additional bucket of costs: their own time. Unfortunately, these hidden costs are only apparent once it’s too late. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this issue typically comes to a head with all-in-one pricing models.
Here are a few examples of hidden or “soft” time costs involved in fulfillment:
There’s no way around it—order fulfillment is complex. But with the right fulfillment partner, you can finally tame the fulfillment beast and translate that complexity into your competitive advantage.
Airhouse helps D2C companies like yours get orders from factory to front door—and we’re ready to help you too. With our a la carte fulfillment pricing model and deep logistics expertise, you’ll have the partner you need to scale your business, optimize your fulfillment costs, and achieve your true potential.
Get a free cost analysis from Airhouse.