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1. What is international fulfillment?

International fulfillment: A quick guide for ecommerce enterprises

In today's interconnected world, expanding your ecommerce business beyond borders has become essential to staying competitive.

As your brand gains popularity, reaching customers in new markets becomes inevitable. However, to ensure a seamless experience for your global customers, you need to master the art of international fulfillment.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the ins and outs of shipping internationally and equip you with the knowledge you need to take your ecommerce enterprise to new heights.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • International fulfillment involves the delivery of products to customers in different countries.

  • International fulfillment helps expand reach, improve customer satisfaction, and optimize the supply chain.

  • There are two main types of international fulfillment: cross-border fulfillment and localized fulfillment, each with its own benefits and considerations.

  • Signs that indicate readiness for international fulfillment include a growing customer base in foreign markets, increased international orders, and a need for streamlined logistics.

  • Collaborating with international fulfillment services can bring advantages such as network access, expertise in global shipping regulations, and cost savings.

  • The ecommerce industry offers various fulfillment options, including traditional shipping, dropshipping, and direct-to-consumer models.

  • Print on demand (POD) is beneficial for international markets, allowing businesses to produce custom-made products on demand and minimize inventory risks.

  • Costs and challenges associated with global fulfillment include shipping fees, customs duties, language barriers, cultural differences, and varying regulatory requirements.

  • Choosing the right international fulfillment partner is crucial, considering factors like logistics expertise, warehouse network, technology capabilities, and reputation for reliability and customer service.

What is international fulfillment?

International fulfillment refers to the process of delivering products to customers located outside your home country. It is a crucial aspect of expanding your ecommerce business globally and tapping into new markets. To ensure successful international fulfillment, you need to establish a comprehensive system that encompasses various elements such as order processing, shipping, customs clearance, and customer service.

International cross-border fulfillment vs. international localized fulfillment

There are two main global approaches to ecommerce order fulfillment: international cross-border fulfillment and international localized fulfillment. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial in determining the most suitable strategy for your ecommerce enterprise.

International fulfillment with cross-border shipping

International cross-border fulfillment entails shipping products directly from your home country to customers worldwide. This approach may involve partnering with global shipping carriers, utilizing fulfillment centers strategically located around the world, or leveraging technology platforms that facilitate international shipping.

Advantages of international fulfillment with cross-border shipping
  • Reach a global customer base: Cross-border fulfillment allows you to reach a global customer base without the need for local infrastructure. By shipping directly from your home country, you can offer your products to customers in various countries, expanding your market reach.

  • Ensure efficient and reliable delivery: Partnering with a global shipping carrier can provide you with access to their extensive networks, ensuring efficient and reliable delivery. 

However, there are some challenges associated with international cross-border fulfillment.

Challenges of international fulfillment with cross-border shipping
  • Higher shipping costs: Shipping costs can be higher compared to localized fulfillment, as products need to travel longer distances. 

  • Complicated regulations: Customs and import regulations also need to be considered, as they can add complexity and potential delays to the shipping process.

  • Poor customer experience: Customers may experience longer delivery times, which can impact their overall satisfaction.

International fulfillment with local shipping

On the other hand, international localized fulfillment involves setting up distribution centers or partnering with local logistics providers in the countries you wish to target. 

Advantages of international fulfillment with local shipping
  • Faster delivery times: By establishing distribution centers or partnering with local logistics providers, you can store your products closer to your target customers. This proximity enables faster delivery times, as the products don't need to travel long distances.

  • Reduced shipping costs: Reduced shipping costs are also a benefit, as local shipping rates are often lower compared to international rates.

  • More localized customer experience: Fulfilling orders internationally while producing them locally provides a more localized customer experience. Leveraging nearby production facilities and distribution centers cuts down on delivery times and costs while enhancing customer satisfaction.

Despite the glaring benefits of international localized fulfillment, it does prevent a few key challenges that can be tricky to navigate.

Challenges of international fulfillment with local shipping

  • Increased investment and resource allocation: International localized fulfillment demands additional investment and management resources. Setting up distribution centers or partnering with local logistics providers incurs extra costs and logistical considerations.

  • Establishing local partnerships: Building relationships with local partners is essential to international localized fulfillment. This can pose a challenge for many businesses selling globally.

  • Complex coordination and inventory management: Managing inventory across multiple locations and coordinating operations between different fulfillment centers presents a challenge. It requires efficient coordination, inventory tracking systems, and streamlined communication to ensure smooth operations and timely order fulfillment.

Choosing between international cross-border fulfillment and international localized fulfillment depends on various factors such as your target markets, order volume, shipping costs, and the level of control you want to maintain over the fulfillment process. 

It is vital to carefully evaluate these factors and consider the unique needs and goals of your ecommerce business before deciding on the most suitable approach.

Understanding the costs of international fulfillment

When you compare having your own warehouse and hiring workers with using a fulfillment center, the latter is much easier to navigate. However, you need to factor in extra costs, such as import duties, when you ship orders to certain countries. Usually, it is the end customer who has to bear these costs, and the amount can vary depending on the products being imported. To ensure smooth sailing, make sure your customers are aware of the costs of purchasing your products in their country.

When it comes to educating yourself on global fulfillment, be it global dropshipping fulfillment or D2C fulfillment, the International Trade Administration’s (ITA) country’s commercial guide is a good place to start. These guides have relevant information about market conditions, opportunities, regulations, and business customs for over 125 countries and are prepared by trade and industry experts at US embassies worldwide. 

But remember, if you're shipping products within the same country, the customer will not be liable to pay any extra costs. That's another reason to be smart about the order fulfillment process and collaborate with international fulfillment companies to optimize the supply chain of your ecommerce or dropshipping business.

In places where the fulfillment process might be slow, your products could be deprioritized to give precedence to products deemed essential. However, with an on-demand warehousing system, you can strategically circumvent this issue.

Furthermore, if your sales have declined lately, discuss the matter with your fulfillment partner. In case you’re about to get one on board, explain how your sales have underperformed and try to negotiate a pickup fee that favors both you and the newly onboarded fulfillment partner. Ask about possible discounts or see if they can cut receiving costs altogether. If you have direct contact with carriers, negotiate costs with them or try to find new ways to have your products picked up. 

Diversifying the supply chain can affect your global operations, and as long as people are willing to buy from global companies, setting up global fulfillment operations can be beneficial. 

International commerce is burgeoning with new opportunities for online retailers. In 2021, the global cross-border online shopping market was worth roughly $785 billion, which is expected to grow to $7.9 trillion by 2030. So, if you want to build an international brand, offering your international audiences the same experience as your domestic ones is key.

Eight benefits of using a 3PL for global fulfillment

02_Eight benefits of using a 3PL for global fulfillment

Partnering with a third-party logistics provider (3PL) can revolutionize your international fulfillment process. Here are eight benefits of entrusting your global fulfillment to a reliable 3PL:

  1. Expertise and experience: 3PLs deeply understand international logistics and can leverage their experience to optimize your fulfillment operations.

  2. Network of distribution centers: 3PLs often have warehouses strategically located around the world, enabling faster and more efficient order processing and shipping.

  3. Global shipping solutions: 3PLs have established partnerships with global shipping carriers, ensuring competitive shipping rates and reliable delivery services.

  4. Customs clearance: Navigating customs regulations is a complex process, but 3PLs have the expertise to handle customs clearance smoothly, minimizing delays and avoiding penalties.

  5. Scalability: As your international business grows, a 3PL can scale your fulfillment operations to meet increased demand without the need for significant upfront investment.

  6. Operational efficiency: 3PLs employ advanced technologies and systems to streamline the fulfillment process, improving efficiency and reducing errors.

  7. Cost savings: By leveraging a 3PL, you can reduce warehousing, personnel, and shipping costs, improving your bottom line.

  8. Focus on core competencies: Outsourcing your international fulfillment allows you to focus on your core business activities, such as marketing, product development, and customer engagement.

By harnessing the expertise and resources of a 3PL, you can optimize your international fulfillment operations and deliver an exceptional customer experience.

Global fulfillment challenges

Expanding internationally also entails various costs, considerations, and challenges that ecommerce businesses need to navigate effectively. Here are seven factors to keep in mind when planning your global dropshipping fulfillment strategy:

  1. Shipping costs: Shipping international orders can be expensive, and costs can vary significantly based on factors such as package weight, dimensions, shipping speed, and destination country.

  2. Customs duties and taxes: Different countries have different rules and regulations regarding customs duties and taxes. You need to factor in these additional costs when setting prices and profit margins for your international products.

  3. Return logistics: Managing returns from international customers can be complex and costly. You need to establish efficient return processes and consider potential additional shipping costs.

  4. Language and cultural barriers: Communicating effectively with international customers requires overcoming language barriers and understanding cultural nuances. Localization of product descriptions, customer support, and marketing materials is crucial for success.

  5. Inventory management: Accurate inventory management becomes even more critical when dealing with multiple warehouses and international shipments. Implementing robust inventory tracking systems can help avoid stockouts and backorders.

  6. Regulatory compliance: International trade regulations and customs procedures can be intricate and ever-changing. Staying up to date with the legal requirements of each country you operate in is vital to prevent any disruptions in your international fulfillment operations.

  7. Customer expectations: International customers have high expectations when it comes to shopping experiences. Meeting their demands for fast shipping, tracking visibility, and responsive customer support is essential to maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty.

By proactively addressing these costs, considerations, and challenges, you can formulate a robust international fulfillment strategy that sets the foundation for sustainable cross-border success.

Signs your business is ready for an international fulfillment service

03_Signs your business is ready for an international fulfillment service

Expanding your business internationally can open up a world of opportunities. As your international sales continue to grow, it becomes crucial to have a robust fulfillment infrastructure that can support your expansion.

Here are some signs that your business is ready to start outsourcing fulfillment to a worldwide fulfillment center:

1. You struggle to meet customer demands for timely delivery and tracking

One of the key indicators that your business is ready for an international fulfillment partner is the struggle to meet customer demands for timely delivery and tracking visibility in international markets.

Customers expect their orders to be delivered promptly and want to be able to track their packages every step of the way. By working with an experienced fulfillment partner, you can ensure that your customers receive their orders on time and have full visibility into the shipping process.

2. You want to focus on the core aspects of your business

Another sign that your business is ready for an international fulfillment partner is the desire to focus on the core aspects of your business.

As your business expands globally, the complexities of international logistics can become overwhelming. By partnering with a fulfillment provider who specializes in international shipping, you can free up your time and resources to focus on what you do best - running and growing your business.

3. You want to minimize risk and ensure compliance with international shipping regulations

Minimizing risk and ensuring compliance with international shipping regulations and customs requirements is another crucial factor to consider when determining if your business is ready for an international fulfillment partner.

Navigating the intricacies of international shipping can be challenging, and non-compliance can lead to delays, fines, and even the seizure of your products. By working with a knowledgeable fulfillment partner, you can rest assured that your shipments will comply with all regulations and requirements, minimizing the risk of any issues arising.

Partnering with an experienced international fulfillment provider can be a game-changer for your ecommerce business. With their expertise and global network, they can help you navigate the complexities of international shipping, streamline your operations, and ensure a seamless customer experience. By alleviating the challenges associated with international expansion, they empower your business to thrive on a global scale.

Understanding global fulfillment options for ecommerce businesses

04_Understanding global fulfillment options for ecommerce businesses

When it comes to global fulfillment, ecommerce businesses have several options to consider. Each option has its unique advantages and considerations, catering to different business models and goals.

1. Self-fulfillment

Self-fulfillment is when an ecommerce business takes complete control of its inventory, storage, packaging, and shipping.

While it offers a higher level of control and the ability to minimize shipping errors, it can be difficult to scale, particularly for international markets. Self-fulfillment often requires a significant investment in logistics, infrastructure, and human resources.

Depending on the volume and spread of your sales, it can also lead to increased shipping times and costs.

2. Third-party logistics (3PL)

3PL providers take on the responsibility of storing, packing, and shipping products on behalf of the ecommerce businesses. They have established infrastructure and expertise in dealing with complex logistical issues. This allows businesses to focus on their core operations while the 3PL manages the logistical side of things.

Some well-known 3PL providers offer global services, making it easier for ecommerce businesses to expand their reach.

3. Dropshipping

Dropshipping is a business model where the ecommerce store doesn't hold the products it sells in stock. Instead, when a store sells a product, it purchases the item from a third party and has it shipped directly to the customer.

This method significantly reduces the risks and responsibilities associated with logistics but also reduces the control over customer experience.

4. Hybrid Fulfillment

Some ecommerce businesses choose a hybrid approach, combining self-fulfillment, 3PL, and dropshipping to cater to different segments of their market. This approach allows flexibility and can be adjusted according to the changing needs of the business.

Every business is unique, and the best fulfillment method for your ecommerce business will depend on various factors such as your business model, the nature of your products, your target markets, and your resources.

How to choose the right international fulfillment partner

When outsourcing production, selecting a reliable international fulfillment partner is essential to your business' success. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating potential partners:

  • Industry expertise: Look for a fulfillment partner with experience working with ecommerce businesses in your industry or niche. Their knowledge of industry-specific requirements can streamline the fulfillment process and enhance customer satisfaction.

  • Global network: Evaluate the extent and reach of a fulfillment partner's global network. A well-established network of distribution centers in your target markets can expedite shipping, reduce costs, and enhance customer experience.

  • Technology and integrations: Assess the technology and systems a potential partner uses. Seamless integration between their fulfillment platform and your ecommerce platform is essential for smooth order processing and real-time inventory sync.

  • Scalability: Consider a fulfillment partner's ability to scale as your business grows. Flexibility and the capacity to handle increasing order volumes are essential for future-proofing your international fulfillment operations.

  • Customer service: Prompt and effective customer service is paramount in the world of ecommerce. Evaluate a potential partner's customer support capabilities to ensure they align with your customer service standards.

  • Pricing and cost structure: Compare pricing models and cost structures offered by various fulfillment partners to ensure they fit your budget and align with your expected order volumes and growth projections.

  • References and reviews: Seek testimonials and reviews from existing clients to gauge a fulfillment partner's reputation, reliability, and level of service. References can provide valuable insights into their performance and customer satisfaction levels.

By conducting thorough research and due diligence, you can identify the right international fulfillment partner that will seamlessly integrate with your operations, meet your specific needs, and drive your business forward.

The role of print on demand in international fulfillment

05_The role of print on demand in international fulfillment

The rise of print on demand (POD) services has dramatically transformed the landscape of international fulfillment for ecommerce businesses. POD allows you to customize and deliver products on demand without the need for inventory. Here's how POD contributes to international fulfillment:

  • Reduced risk: With POD, you can offer a wide variety of products without the need to invest in bulk inventory upfront, minimizing the risk of unsold stock in international markets.

  • Flexibility: Working with a POD company allows you to benefit from the increased flexibility that comes with being able to add or remove products from the product line as necessary, including wall art, t-shirts, tote bags, phone cases, and mugs. Additionally, you can easily adapt your designs to several products at once.

  • Localization: POD enables you to easily customize products to cater to the preferences and cultural nuances of different international markets, enhancing customer satisfaction and driving sales.

  • Efficient and sustainable fulfillment: POD providers often have global production facilities or partnerships, allowing for faster production and delivery times in international markets while minimizing environmental impact.

  • Cost savings: By eliminating the need for warehousing and inventory management, POD can help ecommerce businesses reduce their overall fulfillment costs, especially in international markets.

  • Consistently high-quality products: Print on demand for international fulfillment ensures consistently high-quality products as each item is individually produced under strict quality control standards, regardless of the location. It reduces inventory risks and maintains a uniform brand experience for customers worldwide.

By harnessing the power of print on demand, you can create personalized products for your international customers, enhance your brand's visibility, and optimize your global fulfillment process.

Drive international growth with print on demand

As ecommerce continues to break geographical barriers, international fulfillment has become a critical component for expanding your business globally.

By understanding the intricacies of international fulfillment, differentiating between cross-border and localized approaches, recognizing signs for partnering with a 3PL, and harnessing the power of print on demand, you can overcome the challenges and unlock the benefits of global expansion.

Remember to consider the costs and considerations of international fulfillment, address the challenges proactively, and carefully select a reliable international fulfillment partner. With the right strategy, resources, and mindset, you can take your ecommerce enterprise to new heights and captivate customers worldwide.

With Gelato's print on demand platform and network of 130+ production hubs, you can effortlessly sell your custom products internationally while leaving the order fulfillment to us. 

Start selling globally with Gelato and capitalize on the convenience and security of localized production to propel your business to new heights.

International fulfillment FAQs

What does a fulfillment company do?

A fulfillment company manages the storage, packing, and shipping processes for businesses. When a customer places an order, the fulfillment company ensures that the right product is shipped to the right customer on time. This includes tasks like inventory management, order processing, packing, shipping, and even handling returns. The goal is to help businesses streamline their operations and enhance customer satisfaction.

What is an example of a fulfillment company?

Gelato is an excellent example of a global print on demand fulfillment company. Gelato facilitates custom product creation and manages the subsequent processes of production and shipping to customers worldwide. With 130+ production hubs in 32 countries, we allow businesses to deliver orders swiftly and reduce shipping costs.

What are the different types of fulfillment?

The different types of fulfillment include self-fulfillment, third-party fulfillment, and dropshipping. Self-fulfillment is when the business itself handles all fulfillment tasks, while third-party fulfillment involves outsourcing these tasks. Dropshipping is a form of fulfillment where a business sells products that are shipped directly to the customer from the manufacturer or wholesaler.

What is global fulfillment?

Global fulfillment is the process of storing, packing, and delivering products to customers across the world. Companies with global fulfillment capabilities, like Gelato, can effectively reach customers in multiple countries by leveraging their wide network of production hubs and partnerships with local shipping providers.

What is the difference between logistics and fulfillment?

While both logistics and fulfillment play critical roles in supply chain management, they represent different aspects of the process.

Logistics generally refers to the broader process of coordinating and managing resources to meet customer needs, which may include transportation, warehousing, and inventory management.

Fulfillment, on the other hand, is a subset of logistics focused specifically on tasks involved in delivering a product to a customer after an order has been placed.

What is sustainable fulfillment?

Sustainable fulfillment is an approach that prioritizes environmentally friendly practices in the process of delivering products to customers. This can include strategies such as reducing waste in packaging, optimizing delivery routes to lower carbon emissions, using renewable energy in warehouses, and producing items closer to the delivery point.

Gelato's print on demand model is an example of sustainable fulfillment, as products are produced only when ordered, reducing waste and overproduction. Additionally, our 130+ production hubs in 32 countries decrease delivery distances and, therefore, environmental impact.


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