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Understanding E-Commerce Fulfillment: A Beginner's Guide


Last Update: March 6, 2024


The e-commerce industry has drastically transformed the landscape of retail over the past two decades.

With this booming growth comes the critical challenge of e-commerce fulfillment – the behind-the-scenes process that enables businesses to deliver products to customers' doorsteps efficiently and reliably.

In this comprehensive article, we delve into the nuts and bolts of e-commerce fulfillment, aiming to provide beginners with a clear understanding of how to optimize this key operation.

The Foundation of E-Commerce Fulfillment

At its core, e-commerce fulfillment encompasses all the steps involved in receiving, processing, and delivering online orders to customers.

This process begins the moment a customer clicks the "buy" button and doesn't end until they're holding their purchase in their hands.

While it sounds simple in theory, the fulfillment process is a complex orchestration of logistics, technology, and customer service.

E-commerce fulfillment encompasses several steps, starting from receiving inventory to the delivery of products to the end customer. These steps are:

  1. Receiving Inventory: Merchandise is received and stored in a warehouse or fulfillment center.
  2. Inventory Storage: Efficiently organizing products to expedite the picking process.
  3. Order Processing: Picking, packing, and preparing orders for shipment once a customer makes a purchase.
  4. Shipping: Engaging carriers and sending out the orders to the correct addresses.
  5. Returns Processing: Handling product returns with an efficient and friendly policy.

Step 1: Receiving Inventory

Efficient e-commerce starts with receiving inventory. It’s crucial that when stock arrives at your warehouse or fulfillment center, it is checked for accuracy and damage.

Proper barcoding and storage systems enable seamless tracking of stock levels, which can be integral in managing inventory turnover rates and preventing stockouts or overstocking.

Step 2: Inventory Storage

Inventory storage or warehousing is much more than just stashing products on shelves. It’s about optimizing space and organizing products strategically.

Employing a well-thought-out storage system aids in reducing the time it takes to pick and pack products when an order is placed.

It's wise to place top-selling items closer to packing stations to minimize picking time.

Step 3: Order Processing

Once an order is placed, the clock starts ticking. The fulfillment process must ensure that the right items are picked from the warehouse and packaged in the right container with the right documentation.

Companies like Amazon have set the bar high, often processing and dispatching orders the same day they are placed, thanks to their finely tuned fulfillment operations.

Step 4: Shipping

The "last mile" of the fulfillment process is shipping: getting the order from the warehouse to the customer’s doorstep.

This stage involves decisions about shipping methods, carriers, and tracking. Transparency is key.

According to a 2018 Pitney Bowes survey, 93% of consumers want to stay informed and receive updates throughout the delivery process.

Step 5: Returns Processing

Returns are inevitable in e-commerce, and how a company handles them can significantly influence customer satisfaction.

A clear, customer-friendly return policy and process make it more likely for customers to shop with you again.

Easy returns are a competitive advantage – a 2020 report from Narvar found that 96% of consumers would shop again with a retailer that provided an “easy” or “very easy” return experience.

Why It Matters

Effective e-commerce fulfillment is pivotal for a seamless customer experience. It impacts how quickly a customer receives their purchase, the condition it arrives in, and their satisfaction with the ordering process.

In today’s competitive online marketplace, excelling in fulfillment can be a significant differentiator, turning first-time buyers into loyal customers.

Now let's dive deeper into each of these steps and explore strategies to enhance your e-commerce fulfillment.

Types of Order Fulfillment

1. Self-Fulfillment

In this model, the e-commerce business handles the entire fulfillment process in-house, literally 'doing it themselves'. This includes storage, order processing, packaging, and shipping.

Example: A home-based small business selling handmade soap might store their products at home, package orders in their spare room, and make regular trips to the post office to send purchases to customers.

Advantages: Complete control over the fulfillment process, direct touch with the product, and ideal for new businesses or low volume orders.

Disadvantages: It can be time-consuming and may limit the company's growth capacity due to storage and processing constraints.

2. Third-Party Logistics (3PL)

In this model, outsourcing the order fulfillment process to a third-party logistics provider happens. They handle storage, order processing, and shipping on behalf of the business.

Example: A medium-sized online boutique might contract a 3PL, who stores their products in a warehouse, and packs and ships orders as they come in.

Advantages: Helps you scale your business, freeing up time for other aspects like marketing and customer service.

Disadvantages: It can be expensive for low-volume retailers, less control over the fulfillment process, and potential for customer service issues.

3. Dropshipping

Here, the retailer doesn't hold physical stock. Instead, when a customer places an order, it is sent directly to the supplier or manufacturer, who ships the product to the customer.

Example: An online electronics store can order gadgets directly from a manufacturer whenever a customer makes a purchase, eliminating the need for inventory management and order fulfillment.

Advantages: Low start-up costs, no need for inventory management, and a wide range of products can be offered.

Disadvantages: Little control over delivery and product quality, potential customer service issues, and low-profit margins.

4. Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA)

With FBA, retailers store their products in Amazon's fulfillment centers. When customers place orders, Amazon packs and ships the products.

Example: An online toy store can send its inventory to Amazon. When a customer places an order, Amazon staff package and ship the toy directly to the customer.

Advantages: Hassle-free shipping and returns, next-day delivery for Prime members, and massive reach of the Amazon marketplace.

Disadvantages: High fees, strict regulations, and dependency on Amazon which is also a competitor for many sellers.

5. Hybrid Fulfillment

A hybrid model combines different order fulfillment types, depended on the needs of the business. The business might handle some orders in-house and outsource others to a 3PL or use dropshipping for certain products.

Example: A furniture retailer might manage small items like lamps and cushions in-house, but use a 3PL for bulky items like sofas and tables.

Advantages: Flexibility and cost-efficiency, and ability to adapt to changing business needs.

Disadvantages: Requires careful management to ensure all components run smoothly.

Enhancing E-Commerce Fulfillment Strategies

1. Incorporating Technology:

Modern fulfillment centers are increasingly turning to technology such as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), which streamline operations and provide real-time inventory data.

Automation and robots are also becoming prevalent, assisting with picking and packing duties and enhancing efficiency.

Sanka is an all-encompassing e-commerce data platform designed to centralize and streamline crucial business data for e-commerce managers.

Integrating products, campaigns, customers, and more into one unified system, Sanka's platform empowers businesses to expedite growth, save time, and enhance profits effectively.

It boasts a robust set of features encompassing market research, e-commerce analytics, marketing, CRM, and order management solutions.

Trusted by over 1000 clients, Sanka also offers onboarding support, free migration services, and 24/7 issue resolution—all aimed at consolidating tools and automating processes, thereby boosting return on investment for businesses big and small.

2. Analyzing Data:

Data is gold in the digital age. Through data analytics, you can predict trends, understand customer buying patterns, and manage inventory more effectively.

By analyzing past sales data, companies like Walmart and Target can stock products in anticipation of high demand during peak seasons.

3. Picking the Right Partners:

Choosing the right shipping and logistics partners is vital. FedEx, UPS, and DHL offer various solutions tailored to e-commerce businesses.

Some businesses might find that regional carriers or third-party logistics providers (3PLs) offer more cost-effective solutions.

4. Prioritizing Customer Communication:

Communicating with customers throughout the fulfillment process builds trust and reduces anxiety around their purchase.

This can include confirmation emails, tracking information, and updates on any delays.

5. Optimizing Packaging:

Packaging is more than a box; it's a brand experience and a cost factor. Lightweight, durable, and size-appropriate packaging reduces shipping costs and environmental impact.

It can also be designed to delight the customer and reinforce brand identity.

6. Considering Eco-Friendly Practices:

Sustainable practices are not just good for the environment; they are becoming an expectation.

Bio-degradable packaging materials, carpooling delivery systems, and solar-powered warehouses are just a few ways businesses are becoming more eco-friendly.

7. Planning for Scale:

Your fulfillment strategy should accommodate growth. Scalable solutions might include flexible warehouse leases or partnerships with fulfillment services that can expand with your business.

8. Addressing International Fulfillment:

If you're shipping internationally, you'll need to consider additional factors such as customs, duties, and international shipping laws.

Companies like Shopify and BigCommerce offer platforms that manage these complexities.

9. Assessing and Improving Continuously:

The e-commerce landscape is constantly evolving. Continuous assessment and improvement of your fulfillment process will ensure you stay competitive.

This could mean regular training for your staff, staying updated on best practices in warehousing and logistics, or investing in new technologies.


E-commerce fulfillment is a complex process, but it's manageable with careful planning and strategic execution.

By understanding and optimizing each step of the process, from receiving inventory to processing returns, businesses can build a robust fulfillment operation that supports customer satisfaction and bottom-line growth.

Remember, at the core of e-commerce fulfillment is the promise to get the right product to the right customer at the right time.

Deliver on that promise consistently, and your e-commerce business will be poised for success in the vast and competitive landscape of digital retail.

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