The Apparel Company’s Guide to Choosing a Fulfillment Partner

An apparel merchant checking a piece of her inventory.

For emerging ecommerce brands or traditional stores going digital, shipping and fulfillment is often the biggest challenge. There’s a pretty steep learning curve and even when you understand the process, fulfillment is one of the most time-consuming, effort-intensive parts of managing an online store. This is particularly true for apparel brands which tend to have more SKUs and more returns to manage. 

As you scale your business online, you might find yourself needing a little help to meet growing customer expectations, especially around shipping speed and cost. Third-party logistics companies (3PLs) like Shopify Fulfillment Network can take on the work of inventory storage, order fulfillment, and even returns, freeing up a ton of time that can be better used growing your business.

But not all 3PLs are created equal. Apparel brands have very specific needs when it comes to fulfillment, so finding the right partner is crucial. 

If you own a clothing or apparel business, here’s what to look for in a 3PL.

Simple inventory distribution and management

All major 3PLs offer inventory storage. That’s one of the core advantages for an ecommerce apparel business—your home or your backstore won’t be overflowing with inventory at all times. 

Not all 3PLs offer inventory distribution and management however. Inventory distribution is when your fulfillment partner sends inventory to different warehouses or fulfillment centers across their network on your behalf.

Inventory distribution has many different benefits. It allows you to:

  • Better address your biggest buyer pools by having inventory closer to them geographically—which also means faster shipping times
  • Prepare for peak season needs 
  • Address inventory shortages in certain fulfillment centers

A good 3PL partner will make sure that your apparel inventory is close to your buyers at all times. This helps to ensure fast, affordable shipping, keeps your customers happy and increases your chances of getting repeat business.

Now, while you want to hand off that work to your fulfillment partner, it’s still your inventory. You’ve invested a lot into it and need to be kept in the loop.  

With that in mind, it’s important to find a 3PL partner that supports simple inventory management, ideally in whatever software you already use to manage your ecommerce store. Wouldn’t it be great to log into your store, track inventory numbers and distribution, see what is stored where, and use that information to make decisions at all stages of your supply chain? This allows you to react quickly to depleting inventory so you never run out of stock. It also allows you to see where and when your customers are most active, so you can use that data in your marketing efforts. 

Finally, clothing and apparel brands tend to have a high number of products or SKUs and often need to rotate inventory based on seasonality. If your 3PL charges you for every inbound inventory shipment, this can quickly eat into your margins. Look for a partner that understands the high inventory turnover of apparel businesses and proves it by offering free inbounding. This is a rare but game-changing offering from a 3PL partner.  

Affordable 2-day shipping

Expectations have never been higher when it comes to shipping. 

A remarkable 67% of U.S. consumers expect delivery in two days or less. And 35% of customers who abandoned carts attributed it to the delivery time being too long.  

The biggest benefit of working with a fulfillment partner is that they have the process honed down to a science, leading to faster shipping times. They’ll pick, pack, and ship out hundreds of orders in a fraction of the time it would take you. Warehouses are optimized for speed and typically take advantage of modern technology to speed up the process. When it comes to apparel specifically, some fulfillment partners can even automate the packing process — meaning goods are slipped into mailers or boxes robotically. 

Fulfillment partners should also be able to hit shipping speeds consistently, 365 days per year. Whether you’re sick, on vacation, or just spending time on other aspects of your business, a good 3PL will take care of shipping your orders on time. 

That’s speed, but what about cost? 

35% of American shoppers expect two-day shipping to be free, and 29% have decided not to purchase because it wasn’t.

One lesser-known benefit of working with a 3PL is that, as high-volume shippers, they’re typically able to negotiate preferential shipping rates with carriers. You can then pass these savings onto your customers, by offering them free or discounted shipping rates, without sacrificing on speed. 

Reliable returns

An apparel merchant putting a returned item back on the rack.

Apparel is the industry with the highest rate of returns. A McKinsey Returns Management Survey saw a 25% return rate for apparel purchased online. This is 5% higher than the average return rate across industries. Other estimates place average ecommerce clothing returns as high as 30-40%.

Why are ecommerce returns so common for apparel merchants? A big part of it comes down to consumers attempting to replace the changing room experience by “bracketing.” Bracketing refers to purchasing multiple items or versions of the same item with the intention of trying them on and returning at least a portion of them. A 2021 Narvar survey found that 58% of consumers do some form of bracketing. That same survey found the top return reasons to be fit, size, and color, illustrating once again why apparel is particularly affected by ecommerce returns. 

There are many different ways to approach this challenge: Include sizing charts and measurements for apparel, increase the quality of your photos and videos, and embrace new technologies to support at-home fitting. 

But ultimately, returns are inevitable. Having a proper reverse logistics system in place is therefore essential if you are to offset the impact of these returns on your bottom line.

A fulfillment partner should be your closest ally in this effort. You need a 3PL that:

  • Will accept returned goods at the warehouse
  • Will follow your specific guidelines for how to treat returned goods, either disposing of them or reentering them into your inventory

If you find a fulfillment partner who checks all of these boxes and offers reliable returns, the benefits can be huge. An impressive 77% of shoppers who have a positive return experience with a new retailer say they’ll buy again.

Increased peak support

If you have an ecommerce clothing or apparel brand, there are probably a couple of days marked off in your yearly calendar: Black Friday and Boxing Day, for example? 

These peak periods are what business owners look forward to the entire year, for obvious reasons: Merchants on Shopify generated sales of nearly $3.1 million per minute during the peak of Black Friday 2021. Apparel, unsurprisingly, was the leading product category.

While peak periods are exciting, they’re also stressful times for store owners. You need to keep up with the increased volume of customer questions and issues. With that in mind, not having to think about shipping and fulfillment can be a huge weight off your back.

A good fulfillment partner will prepare for peak season by proactively communicating with you to ensure you have enough inventory and that it’s well distributed across their network. They’ll also typically increase the level of support during those periods to ensure everything runs smoothly. 

Don’t hesitate to ask your 3PL if they take any of these proactive measures. Your fulfillment partners should take peak periods as seriously as you do.

On the flip side, one common but unfortunate practice among large 3PL players is to increase inventory storage fees during peak periods. Not only do you need a partner who supports you during peak periods, you want one who doesn’t actively make things more difficult and expensive during these stressful times.

Shopify Fulfillment Network — Your partner in apparel fulfillment

Shopify Fulfillment Network is our very own fulfillment solution for Shopify merchants. We’re hyper-focused on meeting the specific fulfillment needs of growing apparel businesses.

Inventory distribution and management

  • SFN distributes inventory across our network of warehouses on your behalf
  • We don’t charge for inbound shipments of inventory, and even over 6 months of free storage per item
  • You can manage your inventory within the SFN app

Affordable 2-day shipping

Reliable returns

  • We will accept returned orders 
  • Will dispose of inventory or return it to circulation based on your requirements

Increase peak support

  • Shopify increases support and development hours during peak periods
  • We do not increase storage fees during peak periods

Want Shopify to be your partner in apparel fulfillment? 

Visit the Shopify Fulfillment Network website and apply today.