Contract Logistics: Everything You Need To Know

Warehouse logistics

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If you are looking to get first introduction to contract logistics (3rd party logistics) or, equally, if you are looking to strengthen your knowledge and offer customers better experience in your business, the following is for you.

What is Contract Logistics?

Before we break it down to details, let us firstly look at an example of a global end-to-end supply chain. It is the supply chain of a large pharmaceutical company. Its prime activities include design, research, development, manufacturing and marketing of pharmaceutical and consumer health-related products. It has more than 30,000 SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) across 50 manufacturing plants worldwide.

Contract logistics in a global end-to-end pharma supply chain

Observing the simplified supply chain map above, we can see that this pharmaceutical company outsources its logistics in different phases. From Research and Development, to manufacturing, from warehousing to distribution to trading partners, it uses external suppliers in seafreight, airfreight, overland transportation, control towers, and logistics centers.

By Wikipedia definition, these services are all provided by 3rd party logistics (3PL) service providers. Logistics management is an important component of many companies’ profitability and overall success. While some companies manage their own logistics, others find it more efficient to hire specialized contract logistics companies to manage their logistics for them.

3PL is defined as “a firm that provides multiple logistics services for use by customers. Preferably, these services are integrated, or bundled together, by the provider. Among the services 3PLs provide are transportation, warehousing, cross-docking, inventory management, packaging, and freight forwarding.“


Thus contract logistics covers a much broader scope than warehousing and distribution. Contract logistics is the outsourcing of resource management tasks to a third-party company. Contract logistics companies handle activities such as designing and planning supply chains, designing facilities, warehousing, transporting and distributing goods, processing orders and collecting payments, managing inventory and even providing certain aspects of customer service.

Why use contract logistics?


Perhaps surprisingly, the primary motivation is not always cost. It is flexibility. This is true especially for FMCG companies or retailers that need preparation of less-than-full-case orders – 3PLs are more price-competitive in simpler full-case or full-pallet orders.

A contract logistics partner will have more ability to absorb volume increases and fluctuations than an in-house operation. The ability to share facilities and labour allows contract logistics company to move resources around and respond in ways the manufacturer cannot. This has strong appeal to FMCG companies that have intense launch and promotional cycles that can create distortions in regular flows. Also ecommerce companies looking to penetrate more deeply into a market may find that working with contract logistics partner offers an agile way to establish a presence.

Improvement of business practices

When distribution is in-house, much commercial inefficiency that negatively impact logistics costs falls – fairly or not – on the shoulders of the supply chain managers, who are strongly encouraged to lower their per order and share of revenue costs. Yet often the drivers of the costs are behaviours that are outside the scope of a logistics manager. The nature of the order profile can strongly influence logistics cost. Order frequency, order minimums, preparations specifications and paperwork requirements are examples of how commercial teams can negotiate terms with a customer and have outsized impacts on fulfillment costs.

The transition to a 3PL exposes the different practices around order management, laying bare the real drivers of logistics inefficiencies. If this sounds familiar, it may be because this is the foundation of cost-to-serve, the method of looking at order treatment costs at the customer level, from order reception through fulfillment to returns and cash collection. The transparency of working with a 3PL is a vector for giving cost-to-serve a big boost.

Better efficiency

Building an in-house facility can take 15 months (read our article “How much time Is needed to build a warehouse“), but starting up with a 3PL can be done in weeks. Take for example a producer of large home appliances who is entering a new market in Europe. Such products lend themselves poorly to the efficiencies of automation, and the volume is relatively low. In this case working with a 3PL makes a lot of sense.


Salary costs can be lower than running your own logistics operations. Also, significantly lower regulatory costs drive down the outsourcing price tag. Furthermore, by handling business in another country, businesses are able to take advantage of lower tax rates.

Contract Logistics Companies

Types of 3PL Companies

Four key capabilities of 3PLs are:

– Warehousing

– Transportation 

– Distribution

– Shipping and receiving

While smaller 3PLs may offer better response times, greater flexibility or expertise in specific domain or geography, larger providers tend to have more complete full-service capability and global reach. Waredock has partnered with both large 3PL providers as well as small specialized boutiques. We help solve distribution challenges of our customers in a wide range of industries. Our core solution is a cross border distribution infrastructure that provides our customers a single point of contact while having access to a growing network of over 50 warehouses and distribution centers in Europe and Northern America.

Biggest Global 3PL Companies

On both the domestic and global level, a consolidation trend in the 3PL industry is gathering storm as more 3PLs aim to keep pace with the continued “Amazonization” of the global market.

There’s also  geographic 3PL expansion designed to speed up delivery times.

As of 2019 October the biggest global 3PL providers are:

3PL Provider2018 Gross Revenue
in million USD
1DHL Supply Chain & Global Forwarding28 120
2Kuehne+Nagel25 320
3DB Schenker19 968
4Nippon Express18 781
5C.H.Robinson16 631
6DSV12 411
7XPO Logistics10 850
8Sinotrans10 549
9UPS Supply Chain
9 814
10J.B. Hunt8 214
11Expeditors8 138
12DACHSER7 602
13CEVA Logistics7 356
14GEODIS6 645
15Hitachi Transport
6 283
16Panalpina6 156
6 082
18Toll Group5 980
19CJ Logistics5 618
20GEFCO5 440
21Bolloré Logistics5 415
22Kintetsu World
5 310
4 875
24Yusen Logistics/
NYK Logistics
4 715
25Agility4 400

Contract Logistics Market Size in Europe

The contract logistics market has been growing for many years but the market for 3PLs providers exploded following the birth and exponential growth of ecommerce. The biggest growth in Europe is expected in countries like Romania, Slovakia and Poland, according to Transport Intelligence market report:

Country201420152016Forecast 2020Forecast Total % Growth 2016-2020
Czech Republic65869972682814,00%

How to Choose A 3PL Partner?

The right 3PL partner can make or break your logistics, customer service, and ability to adapt to change. Trusting someone with sales, inventory, and other sensitive information is a significant risk.

Recent survey data points to gaps between the customer expectation in digitalization and the ability of traditional 3PLs to respond: only 35% of 3PL customers feel that their 3PL can support their Big Data initiatives, for example, and only 65% of 3PLs customers are satisfied with their 3PLs IT capabilities.

We at Waredock have created a checklist below to help you evaluate 3PL partners conveniently. But before you do that we want to let you know that Waredock is building a cross-border warehouse and fulfillment network and you can be part of it. Learn more about fulfillment or warehouse storage and sign up here!

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