What Is Dropshipping and How Does It Work?

Introduction: Understanding the Dropshipping Business Model in 2023

Dropshipping has become an increasingly popular ecommerce business model over the past few years. The dropshipping model allows entrepreneurs to start an online business and sell products without having to handle inventory or shipping.

Brief definition of dropshipping

Dropshipping is a retail fulfillment method where the seller does not actually keep goods in stock. Instead, the seller purchases inventory as needed from a third party to fulfill orders. The dropshipping supplier packages and ships the product directly to the customer on behalf of the seller. The seller gets the profit margin on the sale without handling any inventory.

Overview of how dropshipping works

In the dropshipping business model, the retailer or online seller partners with a wholesale supplier or manufacturer to ship orders to customers. When a customer places an order on the dropshipping store, the store owner purchases the item from the supplier, and the supplier directly ships it to the customer.

So the typical workflow goes like this:

  • Customer places order on dropshipping store
  • Store owner purchases order from supplier
  • Supplier packages and ships product directly to customer
  • Customer receives order shipped from supplier, not retailer

Preview of benefits of dropshipping

Some key advantages of the dropshipping model for ecommerce businesses include:

  • Low overhead costs since no warehouse or inventory required
  • Low startup costs to launch an online dropshipping store
  • Easy to scale and add new products from suppliers
  • Suppliers handle packaging and shipping

In 2023, dropshipping remains an attractive business model for entrepreneurs to start an ecommerce business with minimal upfront investment.

Key players involved: seller, dropshipping supplier, customer

There are three main parties involved in the typical dropshipping workflow:

  • Seller: The retailer who owns the online store and sells to customers
  • Supplier: The wholesaler who supplies inventory and fulfills orders
  • Customer: The person who buys from the dropshipping store

The seller markets to and acquires customers, while handling minimal inventory. The supplier serves as a fulfillment center storing and shipping products directly to customers on behalf of the seller.

This concludes a high-level overview of what dropshipping is and how it works as an ecommerce model. Stay tuned for more in-depth information in subsequent chapters.

What is Dropshipping?

Now that we’ve covered a brief overview of dropshipping, let’s look at a more detailed definition of what this ecommerce model entails.

Definition of the dropshipping business model

Dropshipping is a retail business model where store owners do not actually keep goods in stock. Instead, the store owner purchases inventory as needed from a third party—usually a wholesaler or manufacturer—to fulfill orders.

The dropshipping supplier packages and ships the product directly to the customer on behalf of the store owner. The store owner gets the profit margin on the sale, without needing to hold any inventory or ship products themselves.

So in summary, dropshipping allows entrepreneurs to run ecommerce stores and sell products, without investing in inventory upfront. The suppliers essentially handle product fulfillment and shipping for the store owner’s sales.

Roles of key players: seller, supplier, manufacturer

There are three main parties involved in a dropshipping operation:

The Seller

  • Owns the online store
  • Markets products, acquires customers
  • Processes orders from customers
  • Purchases inventory from suppliers to fulfill orders
  • Earns profit margin on customer orders

The Supplier

  • Takes orders from dropshipping sellers
  • Holds inventory and warehouses products
  • Packages and ships orders directly to customers
  • May provide tracking info to dropshipping sellers

The Manufacturer

  • Produces the actual products
  • Supplies inventory to the wholesale supplier
  • Usually does not interact directly with dropshipping sellers

So in summary, the seller acts as the retailer facing the customers. The suppliers behind the scenes handle inventory storage, packing and shipping to customers on behalf of the seller.

This concludes an overview explaining the dropshipping business model and how it differs from traditional ecommerce.

How Does Dropshipping Work?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what dropshipping is, let’s look at how the dropshipping business model works in more detail. This chapter provides an in-depth overview of the steps involved in a typical dropshipping workflow.

Step-by-step overview of the dropshipping process

The dropshipping process involves three main steps:

  1. Customer places an order on the dropshipping store. The customer browses the online store, selects a product, and completes checkout to place an order.
  2. The store owner purchases the order from the supplier. The store owner receives the order notification and then purchases the item from the chosen dropshipping supplier.
  3. The supplier packages and ships the order directly to the customer. The supplier receives the purchase order from the store owner, prepares the shipment, and sends it directly to the customer’s shipping address provided during checkout.

So in summary, the store owner acts as the middleman between the customer and the dropshipping supplier who fulfills the order. The supplier ships the product in the store’s packaging so the customer is often unaware that the item is being directly fulfilled by a third-party.

Logistics in a typical dropshipping workflow

The logistics of a dropshipping operation depend on agreements between the seller and their suppliers. Most suppliers today are set up to seamlessly integrate with online stores through API connections.

Popular platforms like Shopify make it easy to connect your store to suppliers like Oberlo that feed product catalogs and process orders through Shopify for fulfillment. This helps automate the purchasing and fulfillment steps for store owners.

For custom suppliers, the store owner usually has to manually place the order by purchasing the item from the supplier after receiving the customer’s order. Then the supplier takes over packaging and shipping the product.

Starting a dropshipping business: Agreements between sellers and suppliers

When starting a dropshipping business, you need to establish agreements with your chosen suppliers for product catalogs, pricing, order processing, and fulfillment terms. Key details to iron out include:

  • Pricing – Wholesale vs. retail pricing
  • Order processing workflow
  • Fulfillment and shipping methods
  • Packaging customization options
  • Minimum order quantities
  • Return and refund policy

This covers the essential steps and logistics involved in the typical order fulfillment process for a dropshipping business model. Stay tuned for more insights on the pros and cons of dropshipping in upcoming chapters. Here is a draft of the next chapter:

Dropshipping FAQs

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what dropshipping is and how it works, let’s look at some frequently asked questions about this business model. This chapter answers common dropshipping questions for those considering starting a dropshipping business.

Common dropshipping questions answered

How does dropshipping work on platforms like Shopify?

Shopify makes it easy to get started with dropshipping. You can build an online store through Shopify and connect it to dropshipping suppliers to import products and process orders for fulfillment. Apps like Oberlo integrate with Shopify to automate supplier connections. When an order comes in, Oberlo automatically sends it to your chosen supplier for fulfillment.

What should my business plan include when I start dropshipping?

Your dropshipping business plan should include:

  • Your chosen product niche and target audience
  • Research on competitor businesses and pricing
  • Suppliers you plan to work with and terms negotiated
  • Ecommerce platform choice (Shopify, WooCommerce, etc)
  • Marketing and advertising strategies to attract customers
  • Customer service protocols for queries and returns
  • Projected startup costs and operational expenses
  • Expected profit margins on products ordered
  • Future growth opportunities once established

Covering these key areas will help set your dropshipping business up for success. Test out assumptions in your business plan carefully during the startup phase. Adjust strategies as you learn more about your suppliers, logistics costs, conversion rates, profit margins, and target audience.

How much does it cost to start a dropshipping business?

The great benefit of dropshipping is low startup costs compared to traditional retail businesses. With dropshipping, you avoid investing in a warehouse and inventory upfront. To start a barebones dropshipping store, you only need:

  • A Shopify basic plan ($29/month)
  • Domain name ($12/year)
  • Product images and descriptions
  • Initial ad spend budget (e.g. $100/month)

So you can launch a simple dropshipping store for under $200 upfront. As sales grow, invest more in marketing and branding to scale.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Dropshipping

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how dropshipping works, let’s dive into the key pros and cons of this ecommerce fulfillment model. There are some compelling benefits that make dropshipping an attractive option for online retailers and entrepreneurs. But there are also downsides to consider when deciding if dropshipping is right for your business.

Benefits of Dropshipping

Some of the major advantages of running a dropshipping business include:

Low Overhead Costs

With dropshipping, you avoid all costs associated with purchasing, storing and managing inventory. There is no need for a warehouse or retail space, so overhead expenses are minimal.

Low Startup Costs

You can launch a dropshipping business for very little upfront investment. Without buying inventory, startup costs are much lower than traditional brick and mortar retail.

Easy to Scale

Scaling a dropshipping store is easier than traditional ecommerce that requires purchasing more inventory. You can add new products from suppliers without managing more stock.

Suppliers Handle Shipping

Order fulfillment tasks like packaging and shipping are handled by your suppliers. You avoid the hassle of shipping out customer orders yourself.


It’s easy to pivot and test new products by finding new suppliers. You have flexibility missing from investing in large batches of inventory.

Pitfalls of the Dropshipping Model

Despite the advantages, potential downsides of dropshipping include:

Low Profit Margins

After paying your supplier’s wholesale price plus shipping costs, profit margins per item may be low. High sales volumes are needed to generate profits.

Inventory Issues

If your supplier has an out of stock item, you cannot fulfill orders until inventory is replenished. This can lead to negative customer experiences.

Quality Control Challenges

Relying on third-party suppliers means less control over product quality and presentation. Defects can damage your brand.

Slower Shipping Times

Having suppliers ship items often means slower shipping speeds compared to stocking inventory yourself. Customers expect fast delivery.

In summary, dropshipping provides advantages like low overhead and easy scalability but the disadvantages around profit margins, quality control, and shipping times should be considered carefully.

Is Dropshipping Right For You?

Now that you understand the basics of how dropshipping works as a business model, how do you know if it’s the right ecommerce choice for your business? This chapter provides some self-assessment questions to see if dropshipping aligns with your goals and capabilities.

Self-assessment questions

Before diving into launching a dropshipping business, take some time to reflect on questions like:

How do you want to build your brand?

With dropshipping, customers don’t know your suppliers are fulfilling orders behind the scenes. This can make branding more challenging than selling your own branded goods. Do you have a strong brand identity and marketing strategy to build awareness?

What to consider when choosing the best dropshipping suppliers?

  • How much control do you want over product quality?
  • How quickly do you need to be able to ship products to customers?
  • Who will handle returns and refunds?
  • Can you manage fulfillment issues and inventory problems smoothly?

Vetting suppliers carefully is crucial to provide a seamless customer experience. Make sure to align on policies.

How much capital can you invest upfront?

While startup costs are low, you need budget for licensing, marketing, web hosting, and other expenses. Conservatively estimate your operating costs for the first few months before bringing in revenue.

What profit margin do you need to earn?

Research typical margins for your products after subtracting supplier costs and shipping fees. Make sure the math works given your revenue targets.

Can you handle supply chain hiccups gracefully?

Dropshipping means reliance on suppliers for inventory and shipping. Are you able to smoothly handle mistakes and delays? Managing issues tactfully is key.

Carefully reflecting on questions like these will help you determine if dropshipping matches your business goals, risk tolerance, and capabilities. Weigh the pros and cons and self-assess before moving forward.

Alternatives to Dropshipping

While dropshipping has some clear benefits, it also comes with downsides like thin margins and lack of quality control. Depending on your business goals, there may be better ecommerce models and alternatives worth considering.

Third-party fulfillment services

Third-party logistics (3PL) providers are fulfillment centers that handle warehousing, packaging, and shipping for your ecommerce business. This allows you to focus on sales, marketing, and product development.

Benefits compared to dropshipping include:

  • Faster shipping times when inventory stored domestically
  • More control over branding and customer experience
  • Ability to quality check products before shipment

Downsides tend to be higher overhead costs than pure dropshipping.

Creating your own branded products

Rather than selling unbranded items through dropshipping, you can create your own products. Benefits include:

  • Full control over product quality and branding
  • Higher margins when cutting out middlemen
  • Ability to build brand recognition and loyalty

Downsides are higher startup costs and risks around managing suppliers overseas.

Affiliate marketing

With affiliate marketing, you earn commissions promoting and selling other companies’ products without handling product fulfillment.

Benefits compared to dropshipping include:

  • No physical products to ship or inventory to manage
  • Recurring revenue from existing affiliate partnerships
  • Low overhead to start an affiliate website

The main downside is lower revenue per sale when earning commission vs selling your own products.

Other business models

There are many other ecommerce and online business models to consider beyond dropshipping, such as:

  • Selling digital products
  • Service-based businesses
  • Brick and mortar retail
  • Wholesaling and distributing

Evaluate your skills, interests, and risk appetite to choose the right model. Dropshipping is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

The key is finding the best business structure aligned with your goals for scale, control, profit margins, and overhead.

How to Start Dropshipping

If you’ve decided that starting a dropshipping business is the right ecommerce model for you, here are the key steps to launch your own dropshipping store:

Steps to start dropshipping

Choose a niche

Selecting a focused product niche is vital so you can tailor your brand and marketing to a specific target audience. Research in-demand and high margin products to sell within your niche.

Find dropshipping suppliers

Search for suppliers and wholesalers that work with dropshippers. Look for good supplier reliability, product quality and order fulfillment speed. Integrations, API access and inventory visibility are a plus.

Build an online store

Create your online storefront to showcase and sell your products. Shopify is the most popular platform for managing a dropshipping ecommerce site. But WooCommerce, BigCommerce, and others work too.

Set up payment processing

To collect payments, you’ll need a merchant account, payment gateway like Stripe or PayPal, and possibly a credit card processor. Shopify offers built-in payment processing options.

Register business entity

Officially register your dropshipping business as a legal entity like a sole proprietorship, LLC, or corporation. This provides necessary permits and protections.

Handle accounting

Set up an accounting system to manage income, expenses, taxes, invoices, and other financial records. QuickBooks Online or Xero are popular choices.

Launch and market your store

With your suppliers, products, online store and business setup ready – start promoting your store! Run ads, promote on social media, seek influencer partnerships and use SEO to attract your first customers.

Use promotional strategies and launch discounts to incentivize purchases and initial positive reviews to build credibility. Let the dropshipping income start rolling in!

Be prepared to continually refine your product selection, suppliers, marketing strategies, branding and store experience based on data and customer feedback once launched. Patience and iterating will be key.

Keys to Dropshipping Success in 2023

Launching a successful dropshipping business takes strategic planning and excellent execution. Here are some best practices for optimizing your odds of thriving with a dropshipping model in 2023:

Best practices for dropshipping success

Choosing the right niche

Carefully select a niche with high demand and low competition. Avoid oversaturated markets and instead find underserved niche needs you can uniquely cater to.

Building a strong brand identity

Since customers won’t know you’re dropshipping, focus on branding to seem like a premium retailer. Craft a compelling brand story, professional logo, consistent imaging, and clear packaging.

Creating a high-quality website

Invest in a fast, modern, and fully secure ecommerce site with excellent photography and convincing copy. Prioritize site speed, mobile optimization, and a seamless user experience.

Managing multiple suppliers

Don’t rely on a single supplier. Have relationships with multiple vendors to pivot if inventory and fulfillment issues arise.

Automating order processing

Use automation tools as much as possible to streamline order placement with your suppliers and avoid manual errors.

Excellent customer service

Respond to customer inquiries instantly and process returns/refunds quickly. This level of service minimizes negative experiences around fulfillment delays.

Optimizing for conversions

Use SEO, site analytics, A/B testing, reviews and email nurturing to continually refine your site and increase conversion rates over time.

Building a thriving dropshipping business takes work. But following best practices around branding, automation, customer service, and conversion optimization will help set you up for success.

In this guide, we covered everything you need to know about the dropshipping ecommerce model – from how it works to pros and cons to tips for success. To recap:

Summary of key points

  • Dropshipping allows online sellers to fulfill orders without holding inventory
  • Suppliers store and ship products directly to customers on behalf of the dropshipper
  • Benefits include low overhead costs and easy scalability
  • But low margins, product quality control, and slower shipping times are downsides

Pros and cons revisited

The main advantages of dropshipping include:

  • Minimal startup costs
  • No need for warehouse space or inventory costs
  • Ability to easily test and pivot to new product offerings
  • Suppliers handling fulfillment and shipping tasks

Disadvantages to consider:

  • Low profit margins after paying wholesale supplier costs
  • Reliance on suppliers for stock and shipping speed
  • Limited quality control for customers
  • Highly competitive niche markets

Final recommendations

Ultimately, the pros and cons will be dependent on your specific business goals and risk tolerance. But here are some final recommendations on whether dropshipping is right for you:

  • Dropshipping excels for entrepreneurs seeking to bootstrap an online business quickly and cheaply. The ease of starting with minimal capital can be a huge plus.
  • However, to scale a truly thriving brand long-term, focusing on sourcing your own branded inventory and managing fulfillment in-house is ideal.
  • If going the dropshipping route, obsess over supplier vetting and relationship building. Also build top-notch brand assets and customer service to mimic premium retailers.
  • Understand that dropshipping has become extremely competitive. You must differentiate yourself in your niche.

Weigh these factors carefully against your own capabilities, product ideas, and business goals. Use this guide to make an informed decision about whether dropshipping is the right ecommerce model for your business in 2023 and beyond.

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