With a return rate in some parts of the sector upward of 40 percent, it’s a wonder anyone makes a living in the fashion industry.

The competition is stiff and it can be tough to stay ahead of ever-changing trends. On top of that, any footwear company worth its salt will have not hundreds, but thousands of SKUs to track because every shoe comes in a bunch of sizes and often in multiple colors.

It won’t be long before your footwear fulfillment will have to be outsourced to an expert with all the right equipment to track and sort all those shoe boxes. But how do you find the best one?

Footwear Fulfillment is Data Driven

Most 3rd party logistics companies keep some kind of analytics on their warehousing and distribution patterns, but a few random numbers here and there aren’t enough for your shoe store.

You need to know everything that’s going on with your shoes, from which sizes are most popular to what styles are most likely to be returned and the reason why. All of this takes a lot of data and the technology to do something with it.

When you start your search for a footwear fulfillment services provider, start by asking about data points. How much do they have, how much will they share, how can you use it to make your company run more efficiently?

While you’re at it, ask these questions, too:

How does your inventory management work? By far, the biggest challenge with footwear fulfillment is the vast number of SKUs involved.

This is why you want to choose a 3PL that uses bar code scanning or other technology to verify each item in each order. It’s easy to make a small mistake that will lead to a big return later if a picker is pulling shoes without a little help.

Is extra warehouse space available if I need it? What if my needs change month to month? Many retailers need extra storage space in the span leading up to the holiday sales season.

Extra warehouse space means you can try a few things out here and there or build up a huge inventory and unleash it on hapless shoppers come November 23, but if you have to pay for the excess storage the rest of the year, it may not be cost-effective.

Can you handle my returns? There’s a huge difference between forward-facing and reverse logistics.

Any 3PL can send your boxes out the door, but unless the 3PL you’re speaking to has a returns management or reverse logistics team, you may soon be in deep water. Because your industry has such a high return rate, it’s vital that you choose a fulfillment partner that is ready and able to handle returns quickly so you can get inventory back out on the real or virtual sales floor.

The best footwear fulfillment services partner is one that can keep ahead of your customer demands and their returns, will provide you with the space you need and can somehow track all those SKUs your merchandise requires. It also doesn’t hurt to choose one that’s centrally located and near a port so you can import from overseas manufacturers without compromising on the speed packages reach your customers.