17 August 202312 minute read

4PL vs. 3PL: Key Differences And How To Choose One


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Whether you're a budding entrepreneur or an experienced business owner, finding the right logistics solution can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. 

The right logistics management can make all the difference, and that's where fourth-party logistics (4PL) and third-party logistics (3PL) providers come into play.

In this article, I’ll explore the key differences between 4PLs and 3PLs and help you determine which option may be the best fit for your business. 

Key takeaways

  • A 4PL provider acts as a strategic partner, taking responsibility for managing and optimizing your entire supply chain.
  • 4PL logistics offers strategic guidance for supply chain scalability and flexibility, and can help you integrate advanced technologies into your logistics operations.
  • A 3PL provider is a more specialized logistics company focused on specific logistical aspects of your supply chain. 
  • A 3PL can help improve your cost-effectiveness, expansion plans, and operational expertise, or help you prepare for seasonal or peak demand. 
  • You should consider your business's specific needs, scalability requirements, and desire for end-to-end supply chain management when choosing between a 4PL and a 3PL.
  • While 4PL and 3PL providers offer valuable logistics solutions, there are instances where utilizing your own internal delivery team can be advantageous.
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What is a fourth-party logistics provider?

A 4PL logistics provider is a strategic partner that goes beyond traditional logistics solutions. They not only execute logistics operations but also strategize and optimize your entire supply chain. 

Outsourcing to a 4PL lets you focus on your business's core competencies while they coordinate and oversee various logistics processes, including working with multiple 3PLs or partners for seamless operations and strategic alignment with your business goals.

Think of them as trusted advisors who handle the day-to-day logistics while helping you make informed decisions to streamline operations and enhance your business.

What is a lead logistics provider 

A lead logistics provider (LLP) is a specific type of 4PL provider. While both LLPs and 4PLs play a strategic role in managing supply chains, there are some differences between them. 

An LLP is typically a single point of contact that takes the lead in managing and coordinating your entire supply chain. They oversee and optimize all your logistics activities, including transportation, warehousing, inventory management, and order fulfillment. 

The LLP acts as a central point of contact for all your partners and suppliers to maintain smooth operations and efficient delivery of goods.

On the other hand, 4PL is a broader logistics model that takes a strategic, comprehensive approach to supply chain management. Now, let’s get into the details of 4PL.

How the 4PL process works 

When you partner with 4PL providers, they dive deep into understanding your business's logistics needs and goals. They carefully examine your existing supply chain, pinpoint areas that need enhancement, and create a personalized logistics strategy just for you.

Working hand in hand with a network of 3PLs, carriers, and other partners, the 4PL takes charge of coordinating various activities like warehousing, transportation, inventory management, and order fulfillment. Acting as your go-to contact, they oversee and streamline the entire supply chain.

A 4PL may use a control tower to manage your supply chain, which refers to a centralized command center or hub that provides end-to-end visibility, coordination, and control over the entire supply chain. The control tower serves as a nerve center where data from various sources, including suppliers, carriers, and other stakeholders, is collected, analyzed, and monitored in real time.

With the help of cutting-edge technologies and data analytics, 4PL services give you real-time visibility and valuable insights into your logistics operations. Armed with this knowledge, you can make informed decisions, optimize processes, and uncover opportunities for saving money and improving your business performance. 

What is a third-party logistics provider?

A 3PL provider is a specialized logistics company that handles operational support for specific aspects of your supply chain. 

They manage various logistics tasks on your behalf, such as warehousing, transportation, and order fulfillment. Essentially, they handle the intricate details so you can focus on growing your business and getting some well-deserved rest.

Unlike a 4PL, which takes a more comprehensive approach, a 3PL focuses on executing specific logistics tasks efficiently and effectively. 

They have expertise in managing logistics operations and leverage their network of resources to handle these tasks on your behalf.

How the 3PL process works 

When you partner with a 3PL, they take the time to understand your unique logistics requirements and create a customized plan just for you. This plan may involve tasks like storing your products, arranging transportation, and keeping track of inventory. 

By handling these day-to-day logistics operations, a 3PL frees up your time so you can focus on other important aspects of your business.

Using their extensive supply chain network of warehouses, carriers, and distribution centers, a 3PL manages the smooth flow of your goods. They take charge of coordinating shipments, managing inventory levels, and overseeing order fulfillment, guaranteeing that your customers receive their orders on time.

3PLs often make use of advanced technology and systems that give you visibility into your logistics operations. This visibility allows you to keep tabs on your inventory, track shipments, and access valuable performance metrics. 

By entrusting your logistics to a 3PL, you benefit from their expertise, infrastructure, and streamlined processes.

What are first-party logistics, second-party logistics, and fifth-party logistics

First-party logistics (1PL) refers to a company managing its own logistics operations internally without outsourcing to external parties. They have complete control and ownership over their supply chain processes.

Second-party logistics (2PL) involves a direct partnership between two companies: typically a manufacturer or a retailer, and a logistics service provider.

In this arrangement, the logistics service provider assists the company with specific logistics functions, such as transportation or warehousing. The second-party logistics provider works closely with the company to meet their specific logistics needs and requirements.

Fifth-party logistics (5PL), also known as logistics integrators, is a relatively newer concept. It refers to a higher level of supply chain coordination and management where an organization oversees and integrates the operations of multiple 3PLs and 4PLs. 

A 5PL provider acts as a central orchestrator, coordinating the activities of various logistics service providers to optimize the supply chain on behalf of the client. They focus on strategic planning, data analytics, and overall supply chain optimization, leveraging the capabilities of multiple logistics partners.

It's important to note that while first-party, second-party, and fifth-party logistics are recognized terms, the industry mainly uses the terms “3PL” and “4PL” to describe logistics service providers today.

4pl vs 3pl differences

4PL vs 3PL: Key differences

If that’s a lot to take in, don’t worry! I’ll help you to choose the logistics solution that perfectly fits your business's needs and goals. 

Making an informed decision can help you optimize your supply chain and take your business to new heights.

Supply chain management 

A 4PL company takes a big-picture approach to supply chain management. They become your logistics coordinator, collaborating with different 3PLs and partners to optimize every aspect of your supply chain

Their goal is to boost efficiency, increase the level of visibility, and find creative solutions that align with your business objectives.

Meanwhile, 3PL services focus on specific logistics tasks. They handle things like procurement, warehouse management, transportation, inventory management, and reverse logistics.

By allowing a 3PL to take on these aspects of your business, you’ll enjoy smooth logistics execution without having to manage them yourself.

Order fulfillment 

When it comes to order fulfillment, a 4PL goes beyond the physical steps and takes charge of the entire fulfillment process, working with different partners to make sure your orders are delivered on time, correctly, and to the satisfaction of your customers. 

Using technology and data analytics, a 4PL can also optimize your inventory levels and speed up order processing to enhance your overall fulfillment process.

On the other hand, a 3PL focuses mainly on the physical aspects of order fulfillment. They handle tasks like storing inventory, packing and shipping orders, and organizing transportation. 

While they strive for efficient and accurate fulfillment, their main responsibility lies in executing these specific tasks rather than strategically optimizing the entire process.

Customer communication 

A 4PL takes an active approach to customer communication. They act as the bridge between different stakeholders in the supply chain and your customers. 

From providing visibility into shipment status to managing customer inquiries and resolving issues, a 4PL offers a smooth and satisfying experience for your customers. 

By centralizing communication and using their expertise, a 4PL guarantees that your customers are well taken care of.

While a 3PL may also handle customer communication to some extent, their primary focus is on executing logistics tasks. They may offer basic shipment tracking information and respond to customers who ask about order statuses or delivery updates. 

However, the depth and extent of customer communication can vary depending on the specific 3PL provider and the range of services they offer.

Risk management 

4PLs take a proactive approach to supply chain risk management. They work closely with partners, suppliers, and carriers to identify risks, develop contingency plans, and implement strategies to maintain business continuity. 

By monitoring the supply chain, analyzing data, and addressing emerging risks, 4PLs minimize disruptions and protect your business. 

In contrast, while 3PLs manage risks associated with specific logistics functions like warehousing and transportation, their main focus is on efficient execution rather than comprehensive risk management. 

Cost structures 

4PLs typically have a fee-based pricing model that aligns with the performance improvements and efficiencies they bring to your supply chain. 

Their goal is to optimize operations, reduce costs, and improve your overall performance while aligning their pricing with the value they deliver to your business.

Their fees can be based on cost savings achieved, a fixed fee, or a combination of both. The specific cost structure depends on the services they offer and the complexity of your supply chain. 

In contrast, 3PLs often use transactional or service-specific pricing models. They charge for individual logistics services like warehousing, transportation, or order fulfillment based on factors such as volume, weight, or distance. 

3PLs offer transparent pricing, allowing you to understand the costs associated with each service and giving you more control over your expenses. This means you can pay for the specific services you need on a transactional basis.

Scalability and network access 

4PLs have extensive networks and resources that allow them to scale operations and expand into new markets efficiently. They have established relationships with various logistics service providers, carriers, and suppliers, giving them access to a wide range of capabilities and expertise. 

This network access allows 4PLs to offer comprehensive end-to-end supply chain solutions and adapt to changing business needs. As your business grows, they can leverage their network to help you access additional resources, tap into new markets, and optimize your supply chain operations.

While 3PLs also have networks and resources, their scalability and network access may vary based on their size, geographical reach, and specialization. For example, some may only be able to work within certain geographic areas, or only offer certain services. 

But while they may only handle specific logistical areas such as transportation, warehousing, or order fulfillment, this can mean they specialize and excel in these areas. This focused expertise can be great for your business if you need specialized logistics services.

Implementation and transition 

Implementing a 4PL partnership or transitioning to a 4PL arrangement requires careful planning and coordination. 

4PLs take an active role in managing the implementation and transition process, integrating systems, data, and stakeholders across the entire supply chain. They work closely with your business to understand its unique requirements, align processes, and establish effective communication channels. 

Throughout the transition, 4PLs offer support, guidance, and monitoring for the seamless integration of their services.

Onboarding and integrating with a 3PL typically follow established processes developed by the 3PL for new client partnerships. They have experience in integrating businesses into their existing logistics operations, streamlining the implementation process. 

3PLs work with you to understand your business needs, establish service-level agreements, and align processes for a smooth transition. They may offer guidance on data sharing, systems integration, and collaboration between your business and their logistics operations.

choosing between 4pl and 3pl logistics

Choosing between a 4PL and 3PL?

Choosing between 4PLs and 3PLs is a decision that should be tailored to your business's specific needs, goals, resources, and industry dynamics. 

It's important to engage in consultations with potential logistics partners, conduct cost-benefit analyses, and seek feedback from industry peers to help you make an informed decision that aligns with your unique requirements. 

Remember, every business is different, so take the time to evaluate and consider all relevant factors before making your choice. Here are some specifics to help guide your decision.

When should you use a 4PL?

A 4PL can be a valuable asset for businesses with complex supply chains, strategic planning needs, scalability and flexibility requirements, and a desire to leverage advanced technologies in their logistics operations. 

Some ideal situations where partnering with a 4PL has significant benefits include:

  • Complex supply chains: If your business operates with a complex supply chain involving multiple partners, suppliers, and logistics functions, a 4PL can help streamline and optimize the entire process. Their expertise in coordinating and managing diverse logistics operations offers seamless integration and improved efficiency across the supply chain.
  • Strategic decision-making: When you require strategic insights and guidance to enhance your supply chain performance, a 4PL is the way to go. Their role as strategic partners allows them to analyze data, identify bottlenecks, and develop innovative solutions to drive growth and competitive advantage. 
  • Scalability and flexibility: If your business experiences fluctuations in demand or is rapidly growing, a 4PL can offer the scalability and flexibility needed to adapt to changing requirements. They have the resources and network to handle increased volumes, manage seasonal peaks, and expand your operations while ensuring optimal efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
  • Integration of technologies: If you want to use advanced technologies like automation, data analytics, or cloud-based systems in your supply chain, partnering with a 4PL can help. They have the expertise to integrate and manage these technologies effectively for enhanced visibility, data-driven decision-making, and improved overall operational efficiency.

When should you use a 3PL?

A 3PL can offer great advantages in several scenarios, including when you require support with specific logistics functions, aim for cost-effectiveness, plan to expand geographically, need operational expertise, or encounter seasonal or peak demands

Let's explore the ideal scenarios where utilizing a 3PL offers the greatest advantages:

  • Specific logistics functions: If your business needs assistance with specific logistics functions, such as warehousing, transportation, or order fulfillment, a 3PL is an excellent choice. They specialize in these specific areas so you can outsource and streamline these tasks while focusing on your core business activities.
  • Cost-effectiveness: If you want to optimize costs and reduce capital investment in logistics infrastructure, a 3PL can help. They have existing facilities, transportation networks, and expertise in managing logistics operations efficiently. 
  • Geographic expansion: When your business expands into new markets or regions, a 3PL with a global or regional presence can offer valuable support. They have local market knowledge, established networks, and the ability to navigate the complexities of different regions, helping you achieve smooth logistics operations and breaking down barriers to your growth. 
  • Operational expertise: If your business lacks the in-house expertise or resources to manage logistics operations effectively, a 3PL can fill this gap. They bring industry knowledge, best practices, and specialized skills to handle logistics tasks with efficiency and precision, improving overall operational performance.
  • Seasonal or peak demands: If your business experiences seasonal or peak demands, then you can benefit from the scalability and flexibility offered by a 3PL. They can quickly ramp up (or down) operations to match demand fluctuations, helping you maintain timely order fulfillment and customer satisfaction during busy periods.

Additional factors to consider for both 4PLs and 3PLs

When evaluating 4PL and 3PL providers, the following key factors will also help you make a well-informed decision and find the logistics partner that perfectly aligns with your business needs and goals. 

  • Technology and innovation: Both 4PLs and 3PLs use technology and innovation to enhance supply chain visibility, optimize routing and scheduling, track shipments, and give real-time updates. Evaluating the technological capabilities of potential logistics partners will make sure they align with your digital transformation goals and can support your business's future growth.
  • Industry expertise: Some 4PLs and 3PLs specialize in specific sectors like healthcare, e-commerce, or automotive, giving them a deep knowledge of the unique challenges and requirements of those industries. Choosing a partner with relevant industry expertise can bring valuable insights and customized solutions to your business.
  • Cultural fit and alignment: Your logistics partner should understand and align with your business's culture, mission, and customer service standards. A strong cultural fit fosters effective collaboration, communication, and shared goals, resulting in a more successful and harmonious partnership.
  • Performance metrics and reporting: By defining key performance indicators (KPIs) such as on-time delivery rates, inventory accuracy, or customer satisfaction metrics, you can effectively monitor and evaluate the efficiency of logistics operations. Regular reporting intervals and open communication about performance expectations and reporting requirements maintain a productive partnership.
internal delivery team

What about using your own internal delivery team?

While 4PL and 3PL providers offer valuable logistics solutions, there are situations where having your own internal delivery team can be beneficial. 

Let's explore the key advantages:

  • Direct control: With an internal delivery team, you have full control over your logistics operations. You can manage and oversee the entire process, making sure your standards, protocols, and customer service levels are consistently met.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: An internal delivery team offers greater flexibility to respond to changes in your business environment. You can quickly adjust schedules, routes, and delivery methods as needed, promptly meeting customer demands or handling unforeseen circumstances.
  • Customer experience: Using your own delivery team allows you to create a personalized and branded customer experience. Your team members represent your business directly, fostering direct interactions with customers during the delivery process. This engagement enhances customer satisfaction and drives valuable feedback.
  • Specialized services: Depending on your industry or niche, you may require specialized delivery services that align with your unique product requirements. Having an internal team gives you the flexibility to develop and offer tailored services that meet specific customer needs.
  • Cost considerations: While there is an upfront investment for owning and managing your own vehicles, equipment, and personnel, you might see long-term savings by avoiding third-party service fees and contracts. Economies of scale may also make an internal team more cost-effective.

Having your own internal delivery team grants you direct control, flexibility, and a personalized experience for your customers. It’s especially helpful when your business has unique requirements like a focus on brand identity and specialized services, or if you want to control costs.

By weighing these factors against your business goals and resources, you can make an informed decision on the most suitable logistics approach for your specific needs.

Manage your own deliveries with Circuit for Teams

If you prefer to manage your own deliveries and maintain control over your logistics operations, Circuit for Teams offers a powerful solution. Our delivery management platform empowers you to optimize routes, track drivers in real time, and streamline your delivery processes. 

With a user-friendly interface and robust features, Circuit for Teams can help your business enhance efficiency, reduce costs, and deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Ready to take control of your deliveries? Sign up for Circuit for Teams today and unlock the full potential of your logistics operations.

About the author

Heather Reinblatt
Heather ReinblattContributor

Heather Reinblatt is a managing editor currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. She spends her free time reading, trying new recipes, and cuddling her cat Paisley. You can find Heather on LinkedIn.


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