Web Informant #181, 20 December 1999:
The Shipping News, or when you absolutely, positively have to know


With only a few more days left before Christmas, shoppers are acutely aware of how long it takes to get their goods delivered. And nothing exposes the soft underbelly of eCommerce more than how a storefront manages the entire shipping process. Some stores don't tell you about what the shipping costs are until you are at the final checkout page. Shopping bots that scour the net for the best prices are woefully inadequate when reporting on these costs. And some vendors provide misleading information about where your stuff is, or just outright lie. Consider the following example, from a friend buying books and CDs from Buy.com:

The first email he received immediately: "Your order has been received and is being processed." Six hours later, he got another email: "Your order has been processed and has been forwarded to our warehouse." Twelve hours later, he got a third email: "Your order has been shipped by priority or first class mail".

Ten days later, the package arrived with a postmark five days previous and five days after the last email was sent. While the frequent emails were a nice touch, the ten-day time span isn't.

Another situation from a friend buying a video card from TigerDirect that was ordered on a Wednesday morning, with extra fees paid two-day Airborne delivery. The card doesn't arrive Friday. Website says order shipped on Wednesday. My friend waited until Monday, package a no-show. Called company. "Airborne is having trouble due to the weather." Called Airborne - since he never received a tracking number, they offer to trace it from his address, and the company that sent it. When he tells the name of the company, the Airborne operator says "Oh, good ol' tigerdirect.com, they do this all the time", she looks it up and confirms that they haven't shipped anything to his address. Tuesday, call company again, demand a shipping number -- "We don't give those out". Asked to speak to supervisor, same story. Asked for next level, "I'm sorry sir, when you request express delivery, I can assure you that you will get express delivery as soon as we ship the order." That was the last time this friend shopped there, you can be sure.

Another situation, this time from company-of-the-year (at least according to Time magazine) Amazon.com. I have been waiting for a book from them since August. Each time I email them, asking for an update, they are very nice about it: within a day or so, they reply and say the book is out of stock and expected in a few weeks. They tell me I can cancel the order if I wish, or wait. This weekend I got another email telling me that they can't deliver the book and have cancelled the order completely. Why did it take them close to five months to figure this out?

Many companies list items on their order status pages as being "shipped" or "in process" when all that means is that the order was received. I have too many examples to list here.

If your customers can't trust you about delivery of your merchandize, they don't come back to shop. The first rule of eCommerce is Don't Lie! Give reliable information all the time. And be honest about the shipping news, even if you are slow to pick and send the items out to your customers. Be upfront about your shipping fees and display them on a page that is separate from the order checkout stream so that your customers can see ahead of time what these costs will be.

Don't use the extra fees collected for express orders as a profit center. If you can, provide free shipping for first-class deliveries. Or take things a step further -- Cyberian Outpost offers free overnight shipping, all the time. Thank you, guys!

If you offer overnight or express delivery service, provide the tracking number from the shipper in both your email receipts and via your web site so that your customers can determine where their packages are.

Happy holidays, and may all your packages arrive on time.

Self-promotions dep't

I've been busy writing a four-part series on new web technologies for Earthweb's Intranet Journal on-line magazine. The series touches on many different kinds of technologies that are important for corporate IT managers looking to expand and enhance their services, from caching to web-based management services and eCommerce and outsourcing companies. The last part will be published shortly.

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David Strom
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