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How Smaller Product Companies Can Automate Shipping Processes If you aren't quite shipping high enough volumes to demand use of a third party, you'll need to work at setting up an in-house system.

By Adam Callinan

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When you're starting a new business, at least one that is shipping a physical product, how you fulfill and ship your orders becomes tremendously important. It's not just the printing of packing and shipping slips that you must consider, but also the various sizes of boxes or packages, the filler to occupy the extra space so the contents aren't rattling around and almost more important, how you communicate with customers as to how their packages were shipped and when to expect it.

If you're in the position to have your orders fulfilled by a third-party-logistics (3PL) company, also known as a fulfillment provider, then most of these details are more than likely already sorted out. But if you're a new company or aren't quite shipping high enough volumes to demand use of a 3PL, you'll really need to work at automating your in-house order processing and shipping.

Related: 7 Tips for Reducing Your Shipping Costs

The good news is that there are some options, many of which are readily accessible and provide great solutions to get your orders out the door with the least amount of headache possible.

Should you go straight into fulfillment?

I've written a lot about automation, particularly about the use of third parties to execute tasks so you don't find yourself managing employees, but order fulfillment requires a bit more explanation. When you're starting out or still small, meaning that you ship less than 500 orders per week, the reality of going to a high-quality third-party fulfillment center isn't great.

There are a couple of reasons for this: to start, you're just not doing enough volume to get them excited and, as a result, you have no leverage. If you're early in the business, you also shouldn't give up control of the process yet as it's an extremely important part of building your customer experience, while ensuring that it's done with 100 percent accuracy and as inexpensively as possible.

This last point, with respect to accuracy, is vital because if your new fulfillment partner makes a mistake, such as shipping the wrong product to the wrong people or losing 20 percent of your inventory -- both of which happened at BottleKeeper with our first fulfillment company -- it's considerably more painful because you don't have the size or inventory volume to make up for it.

Control the process early on.

Instead of taking on the risk and additional expense, you should ship your orders manually and leverage technology to make it as simple and streamlined as possible -- at least until you get to the point that you're shipping higher volumes and third-party fulfillment makes more sense.

Related: The Postal Service Emerges as Shipping Powerhouse for Small Businesses

There are a number of shipping programs available that aim to make shipping orders that were taken via your ecommerce platform as easy as possible. Start by creating a Stamps.com account, which you can do in minutes and allows you to take advantage of inexpensive and fast shipping options -- starting with first class and moving through a list of priority and flat-rate choices.

Once you've got that set up, head to Shipstation.com, which is an inexpensive platform that will connect directly to the vast majority of off-the-shelf ecommerce shopping carts and will provide a litany of tools to streamline your shipping processes. Shipstation is actually owned by Stamps.com, so it has the details worked out quite well.

Use the automations.

Some of the key options that you should pay particular attention to in Shipstation are the automations, which allow you to create templates for inbound orders. Again, it will sync regularly with your shopping cart so that you can dictate exactly how you want a particular order or product to be processed.

Think along the lines of package size, order weights, shipping providers and pre-determined options. Once your automations are setup, your orders will come into the system and all you'll need to do is hit "print" -- then your packing slips and shipping labels will be complete, printed and ready to go.

There are far too many customizations to mention with Shipstation, so take advantage of its free trial and great customer support, and play around with the system to see if it might be a means of automating, what is likely, a very time-consuming part of your business.

Have any other questions about shipping products? Post them in the comments section below.

Related: 3 Ways to Be More Savvy About Free Shipping

Adam Callinan

Entrepreneur and Venture Investor

Adam Callinan is a founder at BottleKeeper, the fast-paced and sarcasm-infused solution to the warm beer and broken bottle epidemics that have plagued the world for centuries. Callinan is also a founding partner at Beachwood Ventures, a Los Angeles-based early-stage and non-traditional venture-capital firm at the intersection of technology and entertainment. As an entrepreneur, Callinan has spent over a decade building small businesses in and around technology, medical devices and consumer products, which most recently includes an exit in 2013. Callinan lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife Katie.

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