Handling shipping delays in eCommerce: 5 tips to avoid order cancellations

This is a guest post from Jake Rheude, Director of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment warehouse.

Shipping delays happen. That’s just the reality for any eCommerce business that ships physical products. And, as many brands learned in 2020, shipping issues can quickly compound for reasons far beyond their control.

The good news: That doesn’t have to be the case. If you take the preemptive steps to shore up your fulfillment processes and customer communication, you can maintain a good relationship with your customers even in the event of a delay—and also reduce the likelihood of them cancelling their orders.

Before we jump in, there’s one important thing to remember: not all delays are the same. In 2020, we saw how a pandemic could disrupt the globe. Things like natural disasters, severe weather, government regulations, postal budget cuts, and more can impact shipping speed and reliability. You can’t prepare for every possible logistical problem, but you can shore up your fulfillment operation to better handle those unexpected problems when they arise. 

Here are the five steps you can take to minimize shipping delays and reduce the number of order cancellations that often follow.

1. Review product sizes and weights

It’s one thing when a shipment is delayed because of factors beyond your control (like those we just mentioned a few paragraphs earlier). It’s another thing when a shipping problem is self-inflicted.

We recommend taking the time—and it won’t take all that much time!—to audit your products and shipping materials. Start by making sure you have correct weight and size measurements on your most popular products. Measure the standard boxes you use to ship those products. Once you have these accurate numbers on your most popular orders, you won’t have to measure and weigh them each time—and that can speed up fulfillment.

Plus, accuracy is crucial in avoiding carrier delays. You always want to provide exact package dimensions and weights to the shipping carriers; if there are discrepancies between the actual size and weight versus the numbers you provide, that can cause potential problems and slow down delivery.

2. Automate when possible

Warehouses and fulfillment operations generate a significant amount of data and paperwork. Automate (as best you can) how you collect, store, and share that data to minimize any potential human error. Wrong labels, incorrect weights, incorrect products, sloppy handwriting, and missing signatures can all quickly derail a shipment and increase your team’s work mid-fulfillment.

Some steps you can take to better automate your fulfillment process and reduce the chances of human error are: enabling electronic documents, using electronic signature capture and verification, and using barcode scanning in your warehouse. Orders may still be delayed, that’s inevitable—however, with proper chain of custody and package tracking measures, you may be able to resolve the issues faster.

Automation can also help in other ways. Automated order management tools will ensure your fulfillment team members are prioritizing the right orders and meeting delivery requirements. Customer management automation means customers will receive an email as soon as there is a tracking update for their order—plus you can proactively send out warnings if a delay is possible. This is especially important in the event of bad weather; it sets customer expectations and can help you avoid taking the blame for something beyond your control.

Here’s an email from Chewy that went out to subscription customers during the early months of the pandemic. The email is upfront about potential delays—and gives the customers action steps to avoid potential problems.

3. Communicate regularly

Communication is essential to maintaining positive customer relationships and creating an experience that will bring those customers back over and over. It’s also extremely important when it comes to shipping delays.

Customers know shipments sometimes have delays. We’ve all been there as a customer: the carrier’s shipping estimate has been telling you the package will arrive on Wednesday, but then Wednesday comes, the package doesn’t, and neither the store nor the shipping carrier seems to have any idea why something changed or what happened to your package.

In those situations, what a customer wants is information. You might see them rush to your phone lines or website chat looking for help. (Or, worse than that, you might find out about their problem when they post an angry review or tweet.)

But while customers are always going to be disappointed about a delay, the more information you give them—updates on where their package is, new projections for when it’s going to arrive, and why it was delayed—the more you minimize the damage. 

My team and I have found people are generally very forgiving if you’re transparent about delays. Proactively emailing or contacting them goes a long way to maintaining trust. However, if they have to find out about a significant delay by contacting you first, it can quickly lead to a return request. Be honest, explain clearly, talk often.

The apparel brand Wohven had its operations impacted by COVID-19 in December 2020 and sent out this letter to shoppers:

A shipping update for December 2020.

It’s clear and upfront, plus it asks for patience. If the recipient has a good relationship with Wohven, this is the right kind of email to keep them happy and ensure they give the brand a break.

A note on being proactive

Sometimes delays aren’t “real”—they’re perceived. Customers may feel like their order is delayed even if everything is running as it should. Perhaps they mistook your 24-hour processing guarantee to mean shipping. Or they think they paid for next-day shipping when they selected an option that’ll take two business days and the weekend is compounding the “delay.”

Head this off by being as clear as possible on your website and in the checkout process. If your eCommerce platform supports it, consider showing the estimated delivery date. When you include shipping information and expectations in your post-purchase emails (like order receipts and thank you emails), that can also reduce some of this miscommunication.

Here’s an example from Adidas.com where they address shipping delays head-on in the delivery options at checkout. They’re setting proper expectations here so customers recognize it might take quite a while for them to get their items.

Adidas with its delivery options in checkout.

4. Give customers some agency

One way to make things right when a shipment goes wrong is to turn to your customer and ask how they want you to resolve the problem. Check if long transit delays are okay or if they want a replacement or refund. If the product is sold out, see if they’re willing to wait for it to come back in stock. Offer coupons, discounts, and deals to keep them on your side.

You want your customers to have a sense of agency over the situation; remember, you’re in this together. Come to a resolution that works for both your customer and your business.

This work will keep the interactions largely positive and help you avoid cancellations, lost revenue—and lost customers. If you provide coupons and future discounts, you’re encouraging additional purchases—turning a negative situation into, potentially, a very positive one.

5. Distribute your inventory

If your business is doing enough volume to support this, try distributing your inventory across multiple warehouses in various geographic locations. Often, the less distance a package has to go, the fewer chances there are for something to go wrong. Plus, it can also help lower the cost of eCommerce fulfillment when products are closer to the end customer.

Multiple warehouses can also be valuable if a shipment goes completely wrong and you have to take a second shot at fulfilling an order. If the problem was location-based, such as workforce, products, or carrier availability, the additional location takes those considerations away. Regional natural disasters, labor strikes at ports, and other events may also be avoided when you have a diverse network. Having access to different airports, roadways, and rail lines can make it easier to expedite orders and avoid customer complaints.

Key takeaways

Whether you run fulfillment out of your own warehouse or work with a 3PL that specializes in fulfillment for products like yours, shipping delays are just a part of the business.

There are steps you can take, however, to reduce the risk of delays—or to mitigate the damage when they happen.

  • Review product sizes and weights. When you know the correct weight of your products and size of your shipping boxes, it can speed up fulfillment—and reduce the risk of an issue with your shipping carrier over inaccurate information.
  • Automate when possible. Minimize the risk of human error by using automated fulfillment systems like electronic signature verification and barcode scanning.
  • Communicate regularly. The more information you provide to your customers about their shipments—and especially the status of ones that are delayed—the more you curb the risk of customers cancelling their shipments or leaving you negative reviews.
  • Give customers some agency. When there’s a shipping delay, ask the customer what course of action they want you to take to correct the problem. 
  • Distribute your inventory. When you keep your inventory in multiple warehouses in different locations, it can lower fulfillment costs and take out some of the variables that can lead to shipping issues.

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