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E-commerce Tips & Trends

Fulfillment Centers vs. Warehouses: What Are the Differences?

Published on June 18, 2024

People working in a fulfillment center

As an entrepreneur or small business on the verge of growth, you might wonder about the difference between fulfillment centers and distribution centers.

Luckily for you, as someone with experience scaling an e-com business, I'll break it down from that perspective, explaining why you might choose one over the other. Trust me, understanding this can make a huge difference in your e-commerce game.

Let's help you make informed decisions as your business scales!

What is a Fulfillment Center?

Picture a fulfillment center (FC) as the bustling heart of online retail. It's where the magic happens for e-commerce businesses.

Unlike the bulk storage of warehouses, FCs handle smaller quantities and single units. Their job? To pick individual products for customer orders, whether you're selling directly to consumers or to other businesses.

What Does a Fulfillment Center Do?

Understanding what fulfillment centers do is where it gets interesting. FCs are not just about storing stuff - they're smart about it. Many are using AI to analyze shopping behavior and predict volumes and create models for efficient storage to support higher productivity in pick-packing.

Imagine this: they know that customers often buy headsets with portable chargers, so they store these items close together. It's all about efficiency, making sure pickers aren't running up and down aisles like they're in a marathon.

Here's a breakdown of their key functions:

  1. Order fulfillment: This is where the magic happens. When an order comes in, FC staff (or robots, in some cases) quickly pick, pack, and prepare the items for shipping.
  2. Carrier coordination: FCs have close relationships with shipping carriers, resulting in better rates for you and more reliable delivery for your customers.
  3. Returns processing: In the world of e-commerce, returns are common. FCs handle returns, refurbish, and restock items efficiently.
  4. Inventory management: FCs usually keep about four weeks of inventory to balance meeting demand and avoiding excess.

One of the biggest perks? FCs that work with multiple retailers can negotiate better shipping rates. That's a win for you and your customers.

However, it's worth noting that storage fees can be higher than in distribution centers. This is because FCs are constantly working with your inventory, not just storing it.

What is a Warehouse?

A warehouse with a fork lift

When I say warehouse, I'm really talking about what's often called a distribution center (DC). Think of these as the heavyweight champions of storage. They're built for massive volumes. We're talking skids and pallets, not individual items.

DCs are all about long-term storage and moving entire truckloads of products. Let me give you an example. Mattel receives a gigantic shipment from overseas to supply all their retailers in Canada. The DC stores this massive inventory and then distributes it to retailers like Toys R Us or Walmart.

DCs don't usually interact directly with carriers for individual orders, unlike fulfillment centers. They focus on moving caseloads and truckloads of products.

What's the Difference Between a Warehouse & a Fulfillment Center?

Here's the thing: fulfillment center and warehouses are like apples and oranges. They operate very differently. Some retailers have tried to merge the two but, trust me, it usually ends in a headache.

The biggest differences? FCs are designed for picking and packing individual orders, while DCs are all about moving bulk quantities. The technology, labor, and logistic processes are all different.

I've seen retailers try to use their stores for online orders. It might sound great in theory since you're close to the customer, right? But it can backfire.

Stores often lack real-time inventory updates, leading to canceled orders. Even worse, your e-commerce demand could empty shelves, leaving in-store customers staring at empty racks. Not a good look.

Here’s a breakdown of the key differences between these two types of facilities:

 

Fulfillment Centers

Distribution Centers

Volume and handling

Handle individual units, picking and packing single customer orders.

Handle massive shipments and container loads.

Storage duration

Products come and go faster than you can say "shipped"!

Products are like long-term residents in a comfy hotel for your inventory.

Technology

Use AI-driven storage, automated picking, and real-time inventory tracking.

Use more traditional technologies.

Customer interaction

Act as the last stop before your product reaches the customer.

Rarely interacts with individual consumers.

Shipping

Ship individual orders straight to customers with speed and efficiency.

Send out pallets and truckloads to retailers or FCs.

Inventory accuracy

Real-time tracking. Your online store will never oversell.

Might only update inventory at the end of the day.

Labor and equipment

Require workers with picking skills and tech for efficient order processing.

Need staff and gear for moving pallets and loading trucks.

Order processing and packing

Focused on individual orders. Quick picking, secure packing, and speedy shipping.

Focused on moving large quantities. Pallets are their best friends.

Returns processing

Equipped for individual returns. They assess, refurbish, and restock.

Might handle bulk returns from retailers.

Customer service

Deeply involved in the customer experience.

Limited direct impact on individual customers.

Value-added services

Offer custom packaging, gift wrapping, bundle creation, etc.

Might offer services for retailers, like price tagging.

Costs & Pricing

Now, let's talk money. Yes, FCs might have higher storage fees than DCs. But don't be scared. The savings you get from their efficient processes, better shipping rates, and flexible labor can make up for it.

  • DCs: Pricing is primarily based on monthly square footage usage. It's straightforward but can be costly if you're not utilizing the space efficiently.
  • FCs: Pricing is more complex, but often more aligned with your actual needs. It typically includes:
    • Labor costs: This covers receiving, pick-packing, and hands-on work with your products.
    • Facility management fees
    • Rent or space usage fees
    • Potential charges for equipment use (conveyors, sorters, etc.)

Should You Be Using a Fulfillment Center?

The simple answer: If you're spending more time with tape guns than spreadsheets, it's probably time for a fulfillment center.

When your business is growing so fast that handling fulfillment in-house is becoming a nightmare or when you need to manage seasonal spikes without maintaining year-round capacity, it’s probably time for a fulfillment center.

Take Toy Stores, for example. They can see 40-50% of their volume in the last three months of the year. An FC lets them flex up for the holiday rush without paying for unused space the rest of the year.

FCs excel at complex tasks like building product bundles and processing returns, which are the headaches you'll be glad to hand off.

Consider switching to a fulfillment center when:

  • If packing boxes is taking up more time than growing your business, it's time to outsource.

  • You need to manage seasonal demand fluctuations. For example, in the toy business, an FC can help you ramp up for the holiday rush without maintaining year-round capacity.

  • You want to leverage shared technology and labor efficiencies. FCs give you access to advanced systems and skilled workers without the overhead.

  • You need complex services like bundle creation, custom packaging, or sophisticated returns processing.

  • You want better carrier rates and guarantees. FCs' high volume means better shipping terms.

  • You want to expand into new markets. FCs often have multiple locations, so you can store inventory closer to your customers.

  • You want to offer faster shipping options to your customers. Many FCs can support same-day or next-day delivery in major markets.

How to Choose the Right Fulfillment Center

When you're ready to make the leap, think long-term. Look for an FC that can grow with you. Consider sharing space with businesses with complementary seasonality. Selling toys? Partner with an outdoor furniture brand. You'll peak at different times, making the most of the space.

Analyze your sales data from the past 12–18 months to understand your needs. Consider the future. Things like micro hubs and easy returns are becoming increasingly important.

Conclusion

We've covered a lot of ground here. Understanding the differences between fulfillment centers and distribution centers is more than logistics trivia. It's important for optimizing your e-commerce supply chain.

As we look to the future, the line between FCs and DCs might blur, with more micro-hubs in rural areas. These smaller facilities will help reduce delivery times, cut shipping costs, and lower the environmental impact of e-commerce. Exciting times!

Leveraging the right fulfillment center can be a game-changer. It enhances customer experience with faster, more reliable shipping, and helps manage costs by paying for what you use rather than maintaining excess capacity. It also frees you up to focus your business to stand out from your competition.


About the Author

tara conway

TARA CONWAY

Advisor, Digital Pioneer, Speaker, Ecommerce, and Logistics Expert

Tara Conway is an advisor, digital pioneer, and expert in ecommerce and logistics. She is a prominent speaker at conferences like eTail Canada and DX3, and she mentors female founders in logistics and tech. Tara's career is defined by resilience and innovation, drawing on her real-world experience and a Bachelor's degree in Commerce from the University of Guelph.


Actively involved in women-centric communities like Coralus and Ladies Who Logistic, Tara supports female founders by helping them navigate challenges and seize opportunities. Outside of work, she is a certified dog trainer with four Australian Shepherds and enjoys golfing. Tara's mission is to create opportunities and meaningful connections, inspiring and supporting her community.

 

More details on Tara Conway here

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