EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 275 - November 21, 2010 - ISSN 1528-6703     2 of 6

AuctionBytes Ten Holiday Shipping Tips for Online Sellers

By Greg Holden

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Shipping is on just about everyone's mind these days, whether the concern is about safety or the cost of postage in tough economic times. Most likely, you're probably wondering how to maintain your profit margin while keeping your customers happy this holiday season. This will be especially challenging since many of the major retailers are offering free shipping or deep shipping discounts.

What's a small business owner to do? AuctionBytes consulted sellers, shippers and vendors alike and came up with this set of tips for shipping safely and cost effectively.

Tip #1: Set up a shipping station.
Simply making sure you have enough room for shipping and supplies is an important step. Richard Perry, Jr. of Endicia suggested sellers set up a dedicated shipping workspace with a good postal scale and two stations for printing labels. He also advised sellers use barcode technology and schedule pickups from postal carriers.

"Optimize a dedicated shipping workspace - organize inventory in transparent storage boxes, sweep the floor, clearly label shelves, boxes, and aisles," Perry recommended.

Tip #2: Have adequate supplies on hand.
This is the busiest time of the year, after all, so make sure you have adequate supplies on hand. Mark Le Vine of Bubblefast said factors to consider when choosing shipping supply products include protective properties, weight, aesthetic appeal and, of course, price.

Tape is what holds your package together, so be sure to use tape designed for carton sealing. Le Vine suggests 2" or 3" wide tape, and also recommends investing an inexpensive hand-held tape gun.

Le Vine also suggests sellers consider eco-friendly shipping supplies. According to the EPA 76 million tons of municipal solid waste each year comes from containers and packaging.

"The packaging industry is responding to customer demand for ecologically responsible products," according to Le Vine, selling green recycled bubble cushioning wrap, biodegradable packing peanuts, padded mailers (made from 100% recycled paper and 100% recyclable), eco-friendly carton sealing tape, recycled boxes and mailers and more. Your customers will appreciate that their online purchases were shipped in an environmentally friendly manner!

Tip #3: Manage customer expectations.
Keith Nielsen, who sells military collectibles and other merchandise on a variety of sites, recommends that sellers exceed customers' expectations. "The most important thing is you have to cater to your customers," he says. Though he advertises that he will ship within three days, he usually ships much more quickly, and buyers are happy when they receive items more quickly than they expected.

Making sure your shipping and return policies are clearly explained up front can prevent disputes down the road. One seller, Janet Gick, says she's making it clear that on eBay, her customers will pay the cost for any returns, and said all of her items will have a handling charge to cover insurance plus signature confirmation.

Tip #4: Provide customers with tracking information.
Nielsen says sellers should put tracking information into buyers' hands to alleviate their concerns. Endicia's Perry advised sellers to include tracking information in emails, and also suggested sellers set up some type of ranking system so express orders get first priority.

eBay itself, in its tips for sellers, emphasizes the importance of including tracking numbers for buyers. The USPS, of course, is integrated with eBay and PayPal. But realizing that third-party shipping services to print shipping labels are becoming more popular, it provides a set of instructions explaining how to get those services to integrate with eBay.

If you use the U.S. Postal Service for your mailings, familiarize yourself with USPS SCAN form so you can let recipients know their packages are on the way.

Tip # 5: Use online postage.
The USPS gives discounts for sellers who use online postage. An increasing number of sellers are moving beyond the U.S. Postal Service Click n Ship and are turning to one of the many online postage companies out there, such as, Endicia and ShipRush.

Nielsen uses ShipRush to print out postage and labels, and goes directly to the nearest postal hub to get packages on their way extra-fast. He ships many of the same types of items, and uses only two types of envelopes. By observing these tried-and-true principles, he is able to ship an average of 500 to 650 items each month.

Tip #6: Hire extra shipping help.
Retailers have always hired extra sales help for the holidays. But for e-tailers, the website does the selling. Where you might need help is on the back end - your shipping and fulfillment functions.

Tip #7: Consider a fulfillment service.
The holidays are the time when many retailers run out of warehouse space and don't have the equipment or person-power to handle their holiday peak sales season, says Nate Gilmore of Shipwire.

Gilmore suggests outsourcing your shipping needs to a company that can perform fulfillment on demand. Avoid contracts or volume commitments, and find a fulfillment company that you can use whenever you get overloaded with orders. By outsourcing on an as-needed basis, you save money by not having to hire additional workers or rent more warehouse space.

Nielsen also suggests considering a fulfillment service. He uses Fulfillment by Amazon, a service in which does the shipping for him. FBA can also help sellers get around Amazon's holiday restrictions in the Toys & Games category.

Tip #8: If you can afford it, offer free shipping.
Stephanie Olsen, spokesperson for Zoovy, says free shipping will attract more customers. "As the holiday season gears up, many online retailers are offering various shipping promotions to drive traffic, increase sales and build customer loyalty," she says. "According to a recent study by ecommerce researcher ComScore, 41 percent of online transactions included free shipping and 55 percent of shoppers said they would abandon purchases in the middle of transactions upon learning that shipping costs extra. A study from Forrester further revealed that 61 percent of consumers buy online more often from retailers that offer a free shipping option."

However, Gilmore said if you offer free shipping, you may need to re-price the product - watch your margin, he advised.

Tip #9: Turn holiday shoppers into repeat customers.
Endicia's Perry said shipping can help you market your services and attract repeat business. "During the holidays, as your orders increase, you will probably be working with a fair number of new customers. This is an opportunity to turn them into repeat customers throughout the year."

Some ways to do this, he said, are by providing excellent customer service, offering a discount on future orders, adding free extra items in the box, and inserting information into packages about the other products you sell - this works especially well for complementary products.

Tip #10: Get started now.
Gilmore said holiday promotions have already started. "We advised a lot of our shippers to start pre-season sales early, even if they need to do back-order management. If you haven't gotten promotions planning and shipping promotions put together - do it now!"

About the author:

Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.

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