Most retailers are in the final stages of preparation for handling the increase in orders that comes in the second half of the year. Based on last year’s results and current forecasts, e-commerce sales will continue to grow in the coming years: according to Forrester Research, e-tail will increase to nine percent of total retail sales in 2016, up from seven percent in both 2012 and 2011. Customers have come to expect speedy, trackable, reliable delivery. Are you ready to meet the customer expectations of delivery times and always knowing where their order is at any moment? 

The real question is: Are you ready to deliver? Are you ready to meet customer expectations of speed, visibility, and the ever-increasing presumption of “free shipping”?

If not, now is the time to assess your capabilities. Today’s transportation technology allows for much of what you have been doing manually — often times in duplication — to be automated. Automating the shipping process from order to delivery is not just a matter of operational efficiency; it is a customer service necessity. Regardless of the size of your organization, a small website e-tailer or a large retail operation a managing multi-channel fulfillment network, you need to contain costs while at the same time being more visible and communicative. That is what will create a long-term, positive, and profitable customer experience.

Better Cost Management

It all starts with planning — your experience in the 2011 holiday season is the baseline for your planning for 2012. You probably have a good handle on your sales during this time period — but did you experience stockouts or backorders of your products? Were there fluctuations in your inventory shipments from your suppliers that caused you to expedite delivery to your customers? Can you easily manage your inbound shipments from suppliers to give greater inventory control and reduced carrying costs? These situations can not only drive increased costs for your company, but may result in lost sales and customers. You may benefit from a shipping management solution that easily integrates to your internal company systems — including order and warehouse management systems — and can manage your inbound shipments. This can be the link that helps you plan and execute the entire fulfillment cycle. 

Shipping offers have become a strong marketing element of retail and e-commerce. At the peak of the last holiday season, 100% of the top e-commerce shippers had some type of free shipping offer. Since many customers now use free shipping and/or returns as key criteria for their buying decision, you’ll need to incorporate these offers to remain competitive. 

You may offer free shipping with a minimum order value, multiple product orders, or for customers in your membership programs; your shipping solution should be able to incorporate and automate these business rules. Whatever offer you promote for your products, access to multiple carriers and services will provide you with the flexibility and options to remain profitable.

Along with the national parcel carriers, the USPS and regional parcel carriers provide attractive services with fewer and lower cost assessorial fees. Accessorial fees such as address correction, residential surcharges, and fuel surcharges can make up 30% of your shipping expense — and many times is not known until you receive your invoice after shipment. With access to a shipping management solution, you would gain access to all these carriers and visibility to all the shipment charges upfront prior to shipment. This is important not only in free shipping offers, but critical when shipping costs are passed along to the customer. 

The sheer volume of orders during the peak season could offer a great opportunity for cost saving with optimization techniques. Can you consolidate parcels for an LTL shipment for a store-to- store shipment, or bundle multiple orders to the same address? Using a shipping management solution can not only help identify these opportunities, but execute the shipment in the most cost- effective way possible. Finally, now is the time to enhance your carrier payment process. Are you currently receiving and paying your invoices electronically? Do you have an auditing process in place to validate the charges from your carriers? With your shipments reaching peak volume, having an automated system that can identify billing and service errors can minimize overpayment and significantly impact your profitability. 

Improving the Fulfillment Process 

In addition to choosing the best carriers and services for your shipments, automating the fulfillment process can reduce costly errors that come from manual entries and multiple data sources. Using a shipping management solution that is capable of supporting multiple shopping sites can accurately and quickly return the shipment information back to the correct site. The actual fulfillment of orders should be just as easy — automatic imports of orders or scheduled order download times should be available to ensure you can quickly ship. Additionally, access to strong reporting functionality can allow you to achieve operational efficiencies. Shipment activity and carrier detail reporting can provide details on your operation that can assist in carrier negotiations and identify trends to drive improved future planning, such as increasing warehouse personnel resources during peak periods. Most importantly, a shipping solution needs to be flexible enough to grow with you. The ability to add additional technologies in a dynamic marketplace will mean that you will always be innovating and finding ways to reduce costs while maximizing operational excellence. 

Delight Your Customer 

Never forget you are only as good as the customers’ perception of you — which comes 100% from their user experience. Cost management and improved efficiencies only matter if, in the end, your customer is satisfied. The right shipping management solution can have a significant impact on your customers’ long-term relationships with you. Multi-channel ordering, as well as fulfillment options, provides the customer with the flexibility to meet their specific needs. For retailers that have brick and mortar stores as well as e-commerce sites, offering the customer the option for parcel pickup at the store or having it shipped to their home is becoming more prevalent. There are shipping management solutions that can provide the ability to manage these shipping preferences as well as provide key tracking information for your customers and improve customer service, whether it is through self tracking on the web or through a call to a customer service representative. 

Take the time now to ask yourself these questions. Assess where you are to ensure that, as the season picks up, you are ready. 

Karen D'Andrea is Director, Marketing for Pitney Bowes's Distribution Solutions (PBDS). Distribution Solutions include Pitney Bowes' complete line of inbound tracking and global logistics management solutions. She can be reached at