Although standard delivery times for the big-name carriers are well-known, always tell customers that the arrival of a shipment is affected by such things as product availability and time of year. For example, high-volume demands during holidays can bog down shipments.
There are a variety of factors that determine the cost of shipping, but, in general, USPS offers the least expensive services. "For Second Day, also known as Priority Mail, [USPS rates] are half the price or less," says Art Avery, principal consultant at Avery & Associates, an e-commerce distribution and logistics consulting firm located in Allentown, Penn-sylvania. "UPS prefers to ship to businesses and from large shippers, and they allow large shippers to get discounts off the published UPS and FedEx rates."
In addition, Avery says, shipping to a "business ZIP code"-that is, one where a lot of businesses are located-costs $1 less than the official rates. The extra dollar you'd otherwise pay covers the extra travel and fewer package stops residential deliveries require.
Another advantage of USPS, says Avery, is it's the only service that delivers to P.O. boxes. One drawback, though: USPS isn't quite as technologically astute as the other carriers-although that may improve in the future.
FedEx generally offers the most expensive service, but its new two-to-five-day home-delivery program may become an enticing option. The program allows customers to schedule their delivery-even in the evenings. And UPS' recent announcement that it plans to open a series of pack-and-ship stores this year will give customers a new way to pick up their packages. For details about these and other services, check out the carriers' Web sites: www.usps.gov or www.uspsprioritymail.com for USPS, www.fedex.com for FedEx and www.ups.com for UPS.
But meeting customer needs doesn't stop there. Shoppers won't want to calculate shipping costs themselves, so make sure your shopping-cart system works in conjunction with the carrier's software to calculate those charges automatically. You can even set up your system to configure shipping options based on a set percentage of order costs-giving you the ability to offer free shipping for orders above a set threshold.
Handling returns is another opportunity (sometimes missed) to make customers happy. Fact: About one-quarter of all online purchases are returned. To keep customers, you've got to have a no-hassle return strategy in place. Customers like return policies that say they can return products within 30 days for a prompt refund. Smart companies go so far as to insert return labels in their packages. Others put return forms on their Web sites; then they can send authorization to their customers via e-mail and notify a carrier to go pick up the package within one business day.
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.