Don’t Let Inventory and Shipping Decisions Crash your Website Project
Shipping should be the easy part.

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 these decisions caused the project to fail. In both cases, the website owners would not consider the simplest options. Although, they 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. Their insistence on trying to fit their process into existing, inexpensive software crashed both the timeline and the budget.

There is no magic fairy dust here. Shipping decisions can only be made by the website owner or management. The developer can only present the options.

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. The process of painstakingly trying to minimize shipping pricing when small items can be added into a box with large items got stuck when site owners couldn’t decide on a specific way to deal with combined orders.

In both cases, there were large items that could not fit into a fixed price mailing box. 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. The site owners expected the software to be free.

The Crazy solution

The crazy solution 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 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. The benefit is convenience and minimizing the time it takes to place an order.  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. 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.

Jared Coldwell of Ohio Woodlands started his business with a product line of unique hardwood slabs that were a waste wood product created by windstorms in their family tree farm. After about an hour of discussion of various ways to handle shipping costs and pricing, Jared settled for the “free shipping” option. Even with the high cost of shipping such large items, it’s a convenience for Jared’s customers to just see the one price. By watching his overall shipping costs in comparison to what he is adding to the price of his products, he can make adjustments up and down without concern to his clients. The more regularly sized products are, the easier it is to calculate how much to add to the price to accommodate free shipping.

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. And, if you combine orders into one box, slip in a coupon or coupon code for the next 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.

Second, each item in your inventory has to have a weight and dimensions recorded.


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