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Shipping and Fulfillment

What Is a Shipping Process Workflow?

By Katie McCann

When customers tap “buy now,” and a brown corrugated box appears at their doorstep, things seem simple. There’s a lot to the shipping process they never see, and that’s on purpose. Good merchants hide all the complexity. It’s what makes a great ordering experience. But what’s behind the best merchants’ shipping process workflows? And how can you make yours more like theirs? 

No two shipping processes are exactly alike, but many are similar. Here at Second Closet, we help thousands of merchants fulfill their orders and delight their customers via third-party warehousing and fulfillment services. Over the years, we’ve gathered a lot of data on all the shipping process steps and have created a shipping process flowchart to help you think through how to get good at getting goods to customers.

What is the shipping process? What are the shipping process steps? Let's break it down.

What is the Standard Shipping Process Workflow?

The standard shipping process workflow is outlined in the graphic pictured.

infographic showing the shipping process workflow

The shipping process workflow pictured will of course change based on the particulars of your business. There may be more shipping process steps if, say, there are multiple items in one box, if items are stored in multiple locations, or if many SKUs are stored on one palette—slightly complicating the picking and packing.

Below are some of the factors that may add shipping process steps:

  • Multiple SKUs in one box
  • A variety of carrier options
  • Different storage locations
  • Variable delivery locations
  • Unique characteristics of the product. E.g. It requires cold storage or is ultra-fragile
  • The package contains hazardous materials
  • The goods require custom packaging 
  • The goods must be customized when the product is ordered

If any of the above are true, your freight forwarding process flowchart is likely longer. And long workflows are the enemy of speed. You want no more steps than are absolutely necessary to ensure a good customer experience and, of course, comply with regulation.

Anything you can do to automate the process between ordering and fulfillment, the faster your shipping process may go, and the less potential there is for human error. For instance, if your ordering process requires someone to fill out spreadsheets, and someone else to pick packages based on those spreadsheets, you’re begging for issues to arise. Why not automatically generate and print pick lists? 

A Shipping Process Horror Story

As the fishing supplier Frostbite can relate, incompetent third-party logistics partners can sully your brand. If the wrong packages arrive, or they arrive late, or they don’t arrive at all, that’s what customers will remember about the experience.

“Initially things seemed to be going well,” says Ian Waterer, Frostbite’s General Manager. “The company had a large warehouse in Toronto and claimed to have an international and expert logistics network. So we thought we were in great hands. When you turn to a third-party, you have to trust that they are upholding your brand promise. You aren’t physically there to see products coming into and leaving the warehouse. So you can’t always gauge what’s going right and when things are going wrong.”

But then, complaints started to roll in. Customers who had woken up before dawn to go fishing were finding that the package on their doorstep contained someone else’s order. For Ian, it was heartbreaking.

“People would come home at night, find our package on their doorstep and the order would be wrong. Then at five o’clock, my phone would start to blow up with emails and complaints of people saying, ‘I’m upset. It’s been eight days. My tracking number says this, but I got that.’ It wears you down. How many cracks do you legitimately get to make a customer happy?”

The International Shipping Process Flow Chart

If you’re shipping internationally, things get even more complicated. Now, you’re looking at passing customs and working with certified export haulage, origin handlers, and cross-border truck, flight, or ocean freight. Your shipping process workflow may also be disrupted, depending on what you plan on sending, as some items are prohibited. In the U.S., for example, lithium-ion batteries are almost always prohibited, as are explosives (obviously), fruits and vegetables (less obviously), and nail polish (surprisingly). 

Most international restrictions are country-specific, but some are actually carrier-specific, so always check before you ship. If one delivery partner won’t carry your goods, another may.

If you’re using a third-party logistics provider for shipping internationally, first ask for references. There are many ways to ship and lots of ways for less reputable companies to cut corners. In the case of the merchant Frostbite, mentioned earlier, their third-party logistics provider was using a fulfillment house that shipped all their orders in one crate to speed things up. But this meant all the orders arrived on a pallet on the doorstep of one single customer.

What are the main steps of shipping internationally? Pictured is an international shipping process flowchart, which in this case, also happens to be a container shipping process flowchart. (Though you could replace that ship with a truck or airplane, and it would still work.) At the origin port, the container is delivered to a container yard (CY). Upon arrival at the destination port, the customs officials review your customs forms. They may inspect the cargo, or conduct a random sampling of all cargo. If you’re cleared, the goods are loaded into trucks and continue on their way.

As of July of 2020, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) replaced the prior agreement, NAFTA, governing cross-border trade between the three countries. The USMCA requires shipments include a USMCA Certification of Origin. Here are links to generate U.S. Customs Forms.

infographic representing the internal shipping process workflow

How Do I Improve My Shipping Process Workflow?

When it comes to improving your customer experience via shipping, the iron triangle of quality holds true. There are three factors: quality, speed, and cost. You can only ever have two. You should be able to adjust that per product, per customer, or per region, so it’s good to have a system and third-party logistics partners who can accommodate many customer needs without overcomplicating your shipping process workflow. 

To improve your shipping quality:

  • Visit your warehouse: It seems obvious, but great quality control begins with seeing and feeling for yourself. If you use a partner, tour the warehouse.
  • Keep a shipping process workflow log: Track what went well, what went wrong, and where. The more data frontline workers can capture in the moment, the more insight you’ll have into why packages show up damaged, or don’t show up at all. Mobile apps that allow them to log things with a tap, or recorded audio message, can be immensely helpful.
  • Invest in shipping process warehouse automation: Barcode scanners, wireless RFID scanners, and robots can all reduce human error.
  • Red-team your own process: Red-teaming is pretending to be a customer and trying your own services. Order things from your own business. Track your own packages. Get a feel of what it’s like to receive your own goods, down to the unboxing, support call, and return. (Other industries call this secret shopping.)
  • Invest in your people: Happy, motivated people do better work. Ask what you can do for your employees’ personal development. How can you reward more of the right actions, inspire initiative, and incent people to always do the right thing?  
  • Update customers: If people can track their pizzas, they expect to track their packages. There’s a lot of expectation management that goes into doing this well. For instance, tracking that doesn’t work well may be more frustrating than no tracking at all. It often pays to use a common carrier like Canada Post, UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc., and allow them to handle it.

To Improve Your Shipping Process Workflow Speed:

  • Automatically calculate shipping cost based on dimensional weight: Save your fulfillment team time and, rather than weigh every package, calculate by a generally accepted approximate weight based on volume. In some cases, this can speed up packing by 20%.
  • Warehouse automation: If you’re fulfilling your own orders, invest in time-saving technology like barcode or RFID scanners, fleet tracking apps, and warehouse automation technology. 
  • Simplify your packaging: Custom packaging may help you build your brand, but it can also slow you down. Where you can, cut wasteful steps and dunnage. (This may also help with cost.)
  • Group similar items or frequently paired items in the warehouse: Just like line cooks in a restaurant, you can make your packing teams quicker by placing everything within arms reach. If two things are commonly sent together, put them together. If you use a third-party order fulfillment partner, ensure they’re constantly optimizing for this.

To Improve Your Shipping Process Workflow Cost: 

  • Offer multiple shipping options: Provide customers with options so they can opt into either cheaper or more expensive shipping options. Those who can afford to wait get a discount or credit, whereas those who cannot wait, pay.
  • Use a third-party order fulfillment service: Third-parties can negotiate lower shipping costs with carriers based on their volume and may operate their own fleet. Some pass these savings along to you.

The Ideal Shipping Process Workflow For Your Business? Uniquely You

while you’ll find many benchmarks out there against which to compare yourself, none is better than your own past performance. Your business is unique, and it can be a mistake to focus too much on competitors. Instead, focus on your goals – growth, happy customers, and a good margin – and keep optimizing for that.

Katie McCann
By Katie McCann

Katie is the Content Marketing Manager at Bolt, creating resources to help ecommerce businesses of all size thrive. When she's not tracking her online orders right to her doorstep, she's obsessing over her pandemic puppy and learning TikTok dances.