For many small businesses, the relationship with their customers relies heavily upon the long-distance tether of a shipping company. And as great as an entrepreneur’s products may be, if it costs too much to get them in the hands of consumers, or if the product arrives late or damaged, all that good faith and customer loyalty will quickly disappear. As a result, choosing a shipping provider necessitates using the same diligent approach that a small business owner would use when bringing in a business partner or hiring a new employee. After all, the last step in any sale is the delivery of product and, because of this, your shipping company is essentially a proxy for your business.
The first step in picking a shipping provider involves looking inward at your company’s needs and figuring out your customers’ expectations when it comes to receiving your product. For example, are they buying items from you that, typically, they will want the very next business day or even by some specific time the next day? If so, you’ll need to concentrate your search on the best overnight shipping providers and those with the best guaranteed on-time delivery rates. If you sell delicate, fragile products, you and your customers may be more willing to forego speed for the guarantee of a safe, secure delivery. Oblong, or oddly sized products may require special packaging and handling and therefore the shipper’s ability to provide those services should be your primary criterion when searching for a provider. But if your products fall into the overwhelming majority of items that are relatively unbreakable and able to fit in either the standard flat envelopes or small boxes used by the three major shipping providers—UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service—you might be best served by doing a price comparison first.
Fortunately, the latter has been made much easier thanks to the Internet. Just as there are now entire websites dedicated to examining and comparing prices of airfares, cars, and electronic gadgets, there are now several resources online for doing the same with shipping rates. For example, Shipping Sidekick, asks for only a few pieces of vital parcel information before giving you a handy, straightforward grid comparing times and prices for next day, two-day, three-day, and parcel post deliveries. The website ShipGooder, despite its somewhat awkward name, does much the same thing, although it doesn’t include inputs for estimated values of your product or whether or not you want a parcel pick-up service included in the price. Postal Annex is another, similar comparison site, but it only looks at shipping rates from UPS and FedEx and excludes the Post Office.
For those small companies perfectly satisfied with the USPS’s shipping options, it would still behoove you to investigate one of the many business-based postage and label-printing options out there. These can save both time and money by letting you avoid standing in line at the local Post Office to buy stamps and/or drop off packages. Because there are a few different choices in this niche market, it’s worth digging into the details of all of them before making a selection. One of the most popular is Stamps.com, which, for an affordable monthly subscription fee, provides a five-pound parcel scale and software that lets a business create labels using its existing printers. Other USPS-based alternatives include the similarly software-based Endicia.com or renting a postage meter from a company like Pitney Bowes. These mail meters offer the advantage of being all-in-one machines that let you weigh parcels, print out labels, and automatically refill postage remotely. However, to do a thorough savings calculation, a small business owner should factor in the additional costs of ink, paper, and other supplies associated with each choice before deciding.
Special handling issues
If your small business’s bottom line could be threatened by lots of returns due to fragile products damaged in transit, the different level of TLC exhibited by the major shipping companies might be the most critical aspect in your decision making process. Coincidentally, the editors at Popular Mechanics recently wondered about this very same question and, as a result, commissioned a survey, albeit a small one, of the three shipping companies’ handling. The results, published online in late November were somewhat surprising. Among the big three, the U.S. Postal Service averaged the fewest hard knocks, but was also the most likely to flip or turn a package’s orientation and expose it to the greatest temperature extremes. Still, for small businesses with very specialized, climate-controlled shipping needs, FedEx has recently partnered with the company SenseAware to provide a number of unique package tracking options—like whether the package has been opened or exposed to light, is within a certain temperature range, as well as its exact location—that aren’t yet available to the general public.
Convenience, both customer and company
Few small companies or their customers are going to need such highly specialized shipping specifications, however. Most likely, both business and buyer will be focused on making pickup and dropoff as convenient as possible.
For the customer, this usually involves having a range of timed delivery options—from more expensive next day air to parcel post ground—that fits their schedule and pricing needs. Beyond that, the only other shipping nicety for the customer involves getting a tracking number shortly after purchase so they can follow their purchase’s progress. Here, UPS and FedEx have a slight advantage as every one of their deliveries gets assigned a tracking number, whereas only the USPS Priority and Express Mail services are available with tracking numbers.
As for making parcel pickup as easy as possible on the company, all three major shipping services are now jostling to win over small businesses. After years of losing business to UPS and FedEx’s small business outreach programs, the U.S. Postal Service has recently begun such a campaign—called Shipping Assistant—aimed at companies with smaller, more rudimentary shipping platforms to remind them that its postal carriers can do free pickup in the course of their regular rounds and, to be even more flexible, can do pickup on demand as well at $15.30 for each pickup. In addition, to further compete with UPS and FedEx, the USPS recently rolled out a series of flat-rate, “If it fits, it ships” Priority Mail boxes and envelopes to make cost estimates easier for businesses with infrequent shipping needs.
In conclusion, a business’s shipping needs will vary greatly depending upon its product, volume, and customer expectations. Often, choosing just one shipping solution won’t make sense if you have a wide range of shipping needs, but knowing what you need will make it easier and more cost effective in the long run when making those choices.
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