Don’t Let Inventory and Shipping Decisions Crash your Website Project
If your website involves selling products (e-commerce) that need to be shipped, your management of inventory and shipping is part of your web development project. Twice in my web development career, the complexity in making decisions about shipping caused the project to fail. Their insistence on trying to fit their process into existing, inexpensive software crashed both the timeline and the budget.
In both cases, the website owners would not consider the simplest options. In both cases, packages for large products could accommodate additional small items and save shipping costs. Although the business owners had the good motive to save their viewers money on the shipping, they could not let go of the idea that the process had to change for e-commerce because the software could not accommodate that practice.
The shipping Difficulties
The difficulty with adding shipping as a software function lies in the variability of shipping costs across the country and in the variability of package dimensions and weights, especially when multiple items are packaged together. Amazon.com has spent years trying to figure this one out. I ordered two copies of the same book. They came in separate packages. Why? Their software picked up some factor that made it more efficient to mail in two packages … or the software failed for that situation.
In both cases where my projects failed, there were large items that could not fit into a fixed price mailing box and small items that could be added to the same box with the large items. The process of writing software that can price shipping for items with an infinite number of possibilities when done manually is very expensive. The more options, the more complicated the software needs to be. Yet the site owners expected the software to be free. Indeed, there was free software available, but only if the site owners would have been willing to work within its capabilities.
Another expensive solution
Another expensive solution for consumer orders is to make your viewers pay in two steps, the first is on your website when they order and pay for the product and then they pay again later when you figure out the shipping. The old way of phone or mail orders can accommodate this process because you can call back with a total price for the order after it’s put together and shipping can be precisely and uniquely calculated. But, ordering with e-commerce generally requires that payment be part of the order process, not part of the delivery process.
For your customer, the benefit of working within the software is convenience and minimizing the time it takes to place an order. And, anything that saves both your viewer and you time, is also a cost savings. If your business has a cult-like following, your clients may overlook the inconvenience of this multi-step order process, but in general, it is a strategy for a lot of abandoned shopping carts.
The Simplest Option
The simplest option is to offer “free” shipping, which is actually just rolling an average shipping price into the product price that shows with each product. Of course, shipping isn’t actually free, and often this option feels dishonest to small business owners. Even when you buy an item at the grocery store, shipping is included in the price you pay. In fact, it is helpful to customers because when they see the price on your page, they know exactly how much they will have to pay without going through entering all their information.
Another concern is that thought of the “free” shipping strategy is that the business will lose money on “free” shipping. But many small businesses lose money on shipping because they don’t account for the labor and materials involved in shipping process. Frequently, they only consider the price they have to pay to the carrier. And, if a business owner takes a half hour to figure out how pack an order to save their customer shipping costs, that business owner has probably lost money on that order.
Case Study: Large, Bulky Products
Jared Coldwell of Ohio Woodlands started his business with a product line of unique hardwood slabs. The slabs were a waste wood product caused by windstorms blowing down trees in their family tree farm. Originally, Jared was selling the slabs to hobby wood workers through eBay, but he wanted a more professional online presence. Shipping is an especially cumbersome process because no two slabs are the same size, shape or weight. And, they are so large that they can’t be shipped through the normal carriers.
A Low Tech Solution
Flat rate shipping boxes are the next easiest solution for products that can be fit into the box sizes that are available. The pricing is not based on location in the US or weight of the package, so it makes it very easy to either use the “free shipping” option or a limited number of shipping prices.
The problem is that if you combine several products into one box, the software doesn’t know that and will charge for each item as if it’s in a separate box. By the time you get to the stage where you are combining orders, the client has already paid the shipping charge for each product. This is an example of why Amazon Prime is actually good for Amazon … the free shipping option reduces their paperwork.
One solution for a client paying for multiple shipping charges would be to include a coupon for a discount on their next order. Of course, this assumes that you are processing each order in-house and have people watching for the double shipping charges.
Shipping and shopping carts
Shopping cart software can calculate shipping per item because you note the shipping price per item. Most shopping carts allow you to add shipping to be graduated through the use of “rules” that you set. Occasionally, I have seen shipping as a % of the price of the product, but that can be a very inaccurate way to calculate shipping. in any case, what you are doing is giving the software the shipping options and it will choose which option to apply order by order.
Let the Carrier Do the Calculations
If you absolutely want to charge the exact shipping price, USPS, UPS, FedEx and other carriers have systems to make the calculations for you. Often, those systems will even print out a mailing label for you because they want the label to be what their transportation system needs. To work with a carrier system, your shopping cart has to be able to integrate with their software. Quality shopping cart software has the option built in to attach your site to various carriers.There are two steps you have to take.
First, you have to set up an account in the carrier’s system. When a customer orders a product, the carrier wants to be paid too, so the connection needs to be secure and also it needs to be able to take payment. That means that the process of connecting your website to the carrier is more complicated than just having an account. Shopping cart products like WooCommerce have already worked to make their products work with carriers, such as FedEx, but you still have to meet the carrier’s account requirements. Also, you may have to pay extra for the functionality that connects the shopping cart to the carrier. For example, the FedEx shipping Add-on for WooCommerce starts at $79.00/yr.
For the carrier software to work, it has to receive correct information about the product, such as the weight and dimensions of the package. That is, the weight and dimensions after the item(s) have been packed. If you have been calculating the measurements as the product goes out the door, you may not realize the time involved. Entering all those measurements into a shopping cart system makes the time more obvious. Taking it a step further, it also means that the more you can standardize your shipping boxes and envelopes, the more you can standardize your packing process, the less likely you are to take a loss on shipping.
It’s important to review the key shipping and software options. It’s important to work towards efficiency and the lowest pricing that is reasonable. But, mostly it’s important to understand that shipping decisions should be made by management, not your web developer.