eCommerce has so many components that taking care of everything yourself can quickly become overwhelming and inefficient. You need to use tools, outsourcing, and automation to improve your business and maximize profits.

To run a profitable eCommerce business, you absolutely have to ensure that your order fulfillment is effective and affordable, and one of the ways to do this is by outsourcing fulfillment to a third-party fulfillment company (3PL).

Outsourcing can save a lot of time, and it means you can trust the experts to do what they do best while you get to focus on what you do best. While outsourcing things like your eCommerce fulfillment can be a boon to your business, the downside is that nobody will do your fulfillment for free. 

In this guide, we look at what you can expect to pay when outsourcing to a fulfillment center—and four ways to save more money.

What Is a Fulfillment Center (or 3PL)?

A fulfillment center (3PL) warehouse

A fulfillment center is also called a third-party logistics company (3PL). This is a logistics service that does fulfillment, warehousing, and inventory management on your behalf. 

However, fulfillment costs have a very real effect on your bottom line. There will be a cost to move products from your warehouse to your customers. The 3PL will pass on the costs for receiving, storing, and shipping products directly back to you. Sometimes these fees are charged per hour, by space, or per unit. It all depends on your business model and the 3PL you choose. 

The benefits of outsourcing to a 3PL

Keep in mind that plenty of brands still do fulfillment in-house, either because they’re still growing or because it’s too expensive to outsource fulfillment right now. That’s okay! But at a certain point, your business will require outsourcing fulfillment to stay competitive. Fortunately, we think the benefits are worth the costs: 

  • Ship faster: Your customers expect 2-day shipping. Do you have the infrastructure to handle that? Your 3PL will allow you to ship from multiple locations to reach more customers faster.
  • Reduce overhead costs: It sounds like a contradiction, but hiring someone to handle fulfillment can save you more money. Instead of investing in machines, employees, and infrastructure to handle fulfillment in-house, you can instead use your resources to market and sell more products. This works because fulfillment centers usually cost less for storage and shipping, anyway. Their shipping costs are usually much lower (to the tune of 15 - 25%) than what you would be able to find yourself. These bulk rates make fulfillment centers a no-brainer for eCommerce pros.
  • Improve accuracy: Outsourcing to a 3PL means they handle picking, packing, shipping, and returns. This is great if you don’t have the internal bandwidth to fulfill orders yourself. Since a 3PL does this daily, its processes are fast and accurate, leading to fewer fulfillment headaches. 

Common Outsourcing Fulfillment Costs

A fulfillment center worker packing a dropshipping order.

Outsourcing fulfillment benefits your business, but it still comes at a cost. 

You need to know how your 3PL prices everything because every provider differs. Although these common fees will give you an idea of what to look out for, your costs will differ based on industry, inventory size, and more. 

Fulfillment companies typically charge eight types of fees, but the four major fees are intake or inventory receiving fees, storage fees, fulfillment or pick and pack fees, and shipping fees. 

At a high level, you will look at paying the following fees in these four categories.

💰 Typical Third-Party Fulfillment Services Pricing 

  • Intake fees: $25–$50 per hour, $0.25 per unit, or $5–$15 per pallet
  • Storage fees: $5–$40 per pallet monthly
  • Fulfillment (Pick and Pack) fees: $0.25 - $3 per item or $3–$5 fulfillment cost per order
  • Shipping fees: These will vary based on your size, weight, and destination of the products that have been ordered. Shipping fees are usually your biggest cost, but most fulfillment companies typically cost 10%–50% less than standard shipping rates.

However, it is important to understand all of the costs related to using a 3PL provider before choosing one, so let's have an in-depth look at all eight common fulfillment costs.

💵1 - Initial setup fees

Fortunately, you only have to pay a setup fee once. This is a fee to get everything up and running with your supplier, ranging from $100 - $1,000. Generally speaking, the bigger and more complex your business, the higher the initial setup fee will be. 

💵 2 - Intake fees

Any time the 3PL receives products from your supplier, it takes the fulfillment center time to add them to their system, organize them, etc. That's why you'll pay an intake fee whenever inventory arrives at the warehouse. 

Depending on the 3PL, you might pay this fee by:

  • Hour ($20 - $50 is standard)
  • Unit (usually $0.25  per unit)
  • Pallets (usually $5 - $15 each)

💵 3 - Storage fees

You’ll pay a storage fee to hold all of your inventory before shipping it out to the customer. These storage fees are based on how much space you take up in terms of:

  • Pallets ($5 - $15 per pallet per month)
  • Cubic feet ($0.30 - $0.55 per cubic foot per month)
  • Bins for smaller items ($1 - $250 per bin per month)

There’s obviously an advantage to storing smaller or more collapsible products to get more bang for your buck with a 3PL, so keep that in mind. 

💵 4 - Fulfillment fees

Fulfillment fees are also known as pick and pack fees. This fee covers the costs associated with fulfillment workers going through the warehouse, picking up the products, and packaging them for the customer. 

Depending on your 3PL, the fulfillment fee will cover the worker’s time for picking and packing. Most 3PLs will include packing materials like boxes, tape, and bubble wrap with this fee, but double-check with your fulfillment center to make sure.

Most fulfillment fees are a flat fee per item or cost a percentage of the item’s retail value. You can expect to pay $0.25 - $3 per item in fulfillment fees. 

💵 5 - Shipping fees

Fulfillment centers pass on the cost of shipping products to you. But there’s good news: you can take advantage of the 3PL’s shipping volume discounts to save on shipping costs, usually to the tune of 10 - 30% off.

Regarding fees, it’s hard to ballpark an average because product sizes and carrier charges differ greatly. You can expect to pay $2 - $25+ on shipping, depending on your 3PL agreement, products, customer addresses, product size and weight, and more. 

A fulfilment center worker packing an order for shipping.

💵 6 - Return fees

Sometimes customers will need to return items—it happens! But remember that you’ll have to pay a fee to your fulfillment center to process the return. That’s because the 3PL must re-process or dispose of the inventory. 

You’ll typically pay for return fees at an hourly rate. It’s common to pay $30 - $50 per hour for fulfillment employees to process your returns. 

💵 7 - Kitting fees

More complex products might require kitting or combining your products into one set. For example, you might need kitting if you’re putting multiple SKUs together in one package as a product bundle. 

Kitting fees cover the costs of paying expert workers to assemble your products in a particular way before shipping. Kitting fees are more of a custom job, so make sure you let your 3PL know you need custom kitting. Kitting fees are usually paid per hour, typically around $60/hour.

💵 8 - Account management fees

The last type of fee you might see when outsourcing fulfillment is an account management fee. This is a flat fee you pay every month for someone to manage your account. It includes things like:

  • Customer service calls
  • Inventory updates
  • General activities needed to fulfill your orders

Your fulfillment center will inform you how much account management costs monthly and what it includes. You’ll usually see a flat-rate account management fee in the $75 - $200 range every month.

Four Tips to Save Money on eCommerce Fulfillment

A dropshipper saving money by outsourcing fulfillment.

Outsourcing fulfillment saves your business more time and frees you up to focus on more important tasks. But after seeing how much it costs to outsource fulfillment, you might think it’s not worth the effort. 

Fortunately, there are several ways you can reduce your fulfillment costs and run a tighter eCommerce business in the process. Follow these 4 tips to reduce how much you spend on fulfillment. 

💰 1 - Unlock volume discounts

Fulfillment centers are ideal for dropshippers who have high order volumes. This means that if you play your cards right, you can access bulk discounts that will make fulfillment worthwhile. 

The more you order from a fulfillment center, the less you pay in per-unit or per-order fulfillment costs. Volume discounts significantly reduce these costs, too: getting a 15% discount for fulfilling bulk inventory is not uncommon. Some 3PLs will even give you a discount on pallet storage and pick and pack fees in exchange for bulk orders.

💰 2 - Negotiate better contract terms

Want better savings on your fulfillment costs? Negotiate them! Always try to negotiate your fulfillment contract. 

You have more bargaining power the longer you’ve been with a fulfillment provider. You can also score better terms if you lock into a longer-term contract. Just keep in mind that this will bond you to the fulfillment center for longer, so think carefully before signing on the dotted line. 

💰 3 - Avoid hidden costs

Don’t pay more than you need to. Be on the lookout for these hidden fulfillment costs:

  • Integration costs: You need systems that talk to your 3PL. After all, you don’t want to process hundreds of orders manually! Spark Shipping is the only automated solution for this. Use it to get better data, run a more transparent business, and ensure order accuracy.
  • Expedited shipping: If you offer 2-day shipping to customers, your 3PL might charge extra for this service. Read the fine print to ensure you know exactly what you’re paying for.
  • International orders: Are there “gotcha” fees for international shipping? This is usually added on to pay for tariffs or duties. Again, read the fine print. For this reason, you should also carefully calculate the costs of shipping to customers in foreign countries. 

💰 4 - Do the math

The last way to save money on outsourcing fulfillment is to do the math. This will help you find the best fulfillment service and understand the financial benefits of outsourcing. 

This means figuring out: 

  • How much inventory do you need to store, in terms of either units or square feet? 
  • Your average number of orders every month to estimate pick, pack, and ship costs. 
  • 3PL pricing (their fees and if they charge by unit, space, hour, etc.). 

From here, add everything up to see approximately how much your total fulfillment costs will be monthly. 

Of course, figuring out exactly how much you’ll spend when you outsource is hard. It depends greatly on the fulfillment center, your business, products, customers, and more. 

Compare outsourcing costs to how much it would cost for you to do fulfillment internally, if it’s more efficient (or cheaper) to handle orders, storage, and shipping yourself, more power to you.

Sometimes the numbers will work out in favor of outsourcing, and other times they won’t. The point is that you should always calculate fulfillment costs to see if outsourcing is wise for your eCommerce business. 

The Bottom Line


Customers are shopping online more than ever. But most of them are ignorant of the work it takes to put a product in their hands! As a dropshipper, you’re part of an intricate system that gets products from point A all the way to point Z. Know what to expect from your 3PL if you choose to outsource fulfillment. You can also slash your fulfillment costs with a few smart tricks to see better ROI. 

But we know that fulfillment is just one half of the puzzle. Spark Shipping’s system automatically sends orders to your fulfillment center. We’re the only eCommerce automation solution with intelligent order routing, so you can map your products to multiple vendors as needed. 

Ready to save more time? Try Spark Shipping now.