What Are Third-Party Logistics?

Third-party logistics, or 3PL, is a term used to describe out-sourcing e-commerce logistics functions to third-party companies. Some functions people choose to outsource to 3PL providers include:

  • Inventory management
  • Receiving
  • Inventory storage and warehousing
  • Inspection
  • Packaging
  • Packing and shipping services
  • Fulfillment
  • Returns

3PL companies provide a wide range of logistics services and solutions for companies looking to outsource these functions and others. Some third-party logistics suppliers offer a complete suite of integrated logistics solutions, while others specialize in specific niches or industries.

Third-party logistics providers exist in one of two main forms: large or small. Big companies have  a large staff, while smaller companies have a small staff. Which one should you choose to partner with? Consider the following:

Small 3PLs

The main benefit of working with a small 3PL is that you’ll get a more personalized approach and form closer relationships with your 3PL team. Since they have fewer clients, they have more time to dedicate to fostering a relationship with you and making sure your needs stay met.

The downside to a small 3PL is they often don’t have the capacity to adequately handle the ups and downs that happen in logistics throughout the year. This means that during holiday rushes, they may have difficulty shipping your items in a timely manner. Small 3PL companies may also have warehouse size limitations. If you’re overstocked, they may not have room in their warehouse for your products.

Large 3PLs

The major benefit of working with a large 3PL provider is reliability. Typically, these large companies are better able to navigate sudden order onslaughts. They’re also more likely to have room in their warehouses for larger orders and inventory back-ups.

The downside of partnering with a large 3PL is the lack of personalization. No one will know your products on the level a small 3PL would. Instead, you might be just another barcode.


Types of 3PL Providers

The four types of third-party logistics providers are:


This type of 3PL offers basic logistics services, including transportation and storage.

Service Developer

This 3PL offers basic logistics services as well as IT infrastructure and management. This is the ideal partner for companies that need more security and compliance management.

Customer Adapter

This provider handles most of a client’s logistics management, from the entire shipping process to carrier negotiation and relationship management.

Customer Developer

This 3PL is the most expensive option, as it fully takes over all logistics activities. This is the best option for high-volume businesses.


In conclusion, Third-party logistics (3PL) companies offer a range of logistics services to businesses, aiding in crucial operations such as inventory management, warehousing, packaging, and shipping, among others. The choice between small and large 3PL providers hinges upon the specific needs and priorities of a business, where the former provides a more personalized experience and the latter offers greater reliability and capacity. It is essential to consider the potential trade-offs, such as the potential constraints during peak times with smaller providers, or the impersonal treatment that might be experienced with larger providers. Further, there are different types of 3PL providers — Standard, Service Developer, Customer Adapter, and Customer Developer — each with their unique offerings and capabilities. The selection of a suitable 3PL provider should thus be an informed decision based on an understanding of their distinct advantages and potential limitations in light of the specific requirements and objectives of the business.

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