The hardest – and most important – lesson for any small business owner is that you can’t do everything yourself. When it comes to shipping, cost-conscious e-commerce entrepreneurs might be tempted to ship products to customers on their own. But once orders start picking up, you need to focus on managing growth, not schlepping to a mail center or untangling logistics problems.
“Small businesses are effective in the product they offer,” says John Haber, CEO of Spend Management Experts in Atlanta. “Shipping is not a core process.” Complicating matters, online retailers like Amazon have set a high bar for customer service that companies of all sizes are now expected to meet, says Hal Altman, president and co-founder of Motivational Fulfillment & Logistical Services in Chino, Calif. Customers expect every small businesses will be able compete with retailers that have more resources and more finely tuned logistics programs.
The solutions can be simple, but unfortunately, business owners too often believe shipping software or outsourcing is just too costly, Haber notes. In reality, a rapidly scaling business can’t afford not to automate or delegate shipping, he says, since such solutions can boost productivity, improve security and even improve the overall customer experience. These efficiencies are the backbone for growth, whether you develop it or hire it. “If you want to be successful, you have to have the infrastructure in place,” Haber says.
If shipping is starting to overwhelm you, you might be ready for one of these three solutions.
Third-party apps. Software offered by third party vendors including ShipStation, ShipRush, ShipWorks, and ShippingEasy integrate with a variety of marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon and Ebay, and carriers to provide real-time ordering, tracking, and fulfillment, says Jason Malinak, an accountant in Colorado Springs, Colo. After advising his wife on her own Etsy venture, Malinak wrote the e-book Etsy-preneurship (Wiley, 2012) to help Etsy sellers run their businesses.
The biggest advantage of third-party apps is that all your shipping resources are in one place and many, if not most, tasks are automated, says Malinak. The apps import customer data from your business’ website, generate shipping labels, packing slips, and tracking numbers while offering buyers customized shipping preferences and rates.
But choose your app wisely, Malinak cautions. Depending on the nature of your business, not every feature will be necessary, like international shipping options, for example.
Haber suggests researching app options at Capterra, an information portal for software solutions, including shipping software. Small business owners should also look at how their competition ships from their e-commerce sites, he says, adding the focus should be on “who makes ordering online easy?”
In-house staff. If handling shipping overwhelms handling other tasks in your business, hiring a full- or part-time employee as an extra set of hands may be the answer. If you’re not sure if you’re ready to outsource, Haber recommends doing a cost-benefit analysis that considers whether this is a seasonal problem that can be solved with a temporary employee or if this situation requires a permanent hire. He says you could consider the time you’ll save delegating duties such as negotiating rates with carriers and monitoring the overall process.
Outside vendors. When sales truly skyrocket, you might need to outsource to a fulfillment company. Outsourcing takes the day-to-day shipping and tracking, along with tasks like inventory management and quality control to a specialist. These vendors can even offer proactive notifications about back orders and other shipping delays, Altman says. Some companies will also advise you on ways to decrease postage costs or other efficiencies. If you go this route, do a cost comparison between vendors to understand the market, the services available and how you’ll be charged.
Altman says there’s no magic number of sales or products to ship before outsourcing becomes the most practical option. Shipping is a major expense for an e-commerce business and one you shouldn’t take on until you’ve determined your own capabilities. Make sure to develop a plan that increases marketing and advertising so that you can boost orders and covers the expenses of whichever expansion plan you choose.
Don’t think you’re ready to outsource center yet? You might research your options anyway to find a solution you can grow into when the time comes.