Aug 17, 2010

E-commerce? Don’t forget the shipping

One of the most common problems that trips up aspiring e-commerce store owners is the issue of shipping. When I’m helping a client plan their e-commerce project, one of the first questions I like to ask is: “How do you plan on getting your products into the hands of your customers?”

About half the time, I discover that they haven’t given the subject any thought at all. It doesn’t surprise me. There are so many things to consider and so many issues to address with the start-up of a new online store, that I can’t really blame folks for not going into too much detail in planning for something that may initially appear “automatic” to them.

The e-commerce engine that NetSource uses for the majority of our online storefronts is Early Impact’s ProductCart. It’s a very robust, full-featured system that includes integration capable of acquiring accurate, ‘live’ shipping cost quotes from the major carriers in North America (UPS, FedEx, US Postal Service and Canada Post).

The process of generating those live shipping quotes is an automated process — but in order to achieve that automation, some critical information has to be provided to the system by the store owner.

What’s the single, most critical piece of information the automated shipping modules require? Product weights. All of the shipping calculations are weight-based, with some modifications available for over-sized packages and for orders that require multiple packages in the same shipment. E-commerce owners who either don’t have, or cannot acquire, product weights simply can’t take advantage of the various automated shipping calculators.

In addition, the store owner will need to acquire a shippers’ account AND an online account with the shipping provider involved. Is the website an extension of a bricks-and-mortar business that already uses a standard carrier for shipping? That helps to an extent, but a specialized ‘online tools’ account generally still has to be established.

As developers, in order to integrate the shipping tools into your website, we’ll need your shipping account information from the carrier(s) you intend to use. If you plan on using either the US Postal Service or Canada Post, you’ll have to set up online shipping accounts with those services and forward the information to us.

And remember: The most important piece of information the shipping services need is the weight of all the products in the store. Without those product weights, automated shipping quotes won’t work.

E-commerce stores that either will use a drop-shipping service or will require freight shipping for heavier items are a bit more complicated and usually require some sort of custom shipping solution. That doesn’t necessarily mean the shipping setup will cost an arm and leg — but it does mean some detailed planning is required while the website project is still in its earliest stages.

Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to get started. If you’re not sure of the answers, that’s OK. Your project consultant can help you out.

  • Do you currently ship products? If so, do you already have an online account with your shipping provider? You can use one or more carriers to ship products to your online customers, but your developers will need your shipping account information in order to automate shipping calculations.
  • Do you have (or can you get) weight information for your products? Online shipping costs are typically calculated based on total weight.  In order to get an accurate cost from the USPS (or other carrier), and then pass that charge along to your customer, you’ll need accurate weights. Otherwise you’re likely to charge too much or too little for shipping costs.
  • If you don’t plan to ship by weight, do you have a shipping table? For instance, some online retailers charge a flat rate for the first item and an additional flat rate for each additional item.  Or some retailers charge by total purchase so that shipping might be $6.95 for purchases up to $75, $7.95 for purchases between $75 and $100, and so on. This approach tends to work the best for retailers who sell products that are mostly the same size and weight.
  • Does it make sense to offer free shipping? Many retailers encourage large orders by offering free shipping over a certain purchase amount like $100.
  • Do you have over-sized products that will require special handling and charges?
  • Do you have products that require multiple packages? For instance, perhaps you always package and mail fragile teacups separately, no matter what else a customer has ordered with it.
  • Will your online shop be using drop-ship services? Will you be using more than one drop-ship location?
  • Will you be shipping products that require freight shipping?

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