The United States Postal Service has been in the news a lot lately, becoming an unexpected political battleground as budget cuts and leadership changes lead to nationwide postal slowdowns. And as people wonder if the post office will be able to handle millions of mail-in ballots in the upcoming election, ecommerce business owners have even more immediate concerns. After already experiencing supply chain and shipping issues from the Coronavirus, USPS-dependent businesses now frantically search for answers in the face of this new challenge. 

Those answers haven’t come readily; the impact of the postal service slowdown on business hasn’t been made explicit. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence abounds. A man who runs a shop selling golf clubs on eBay told the Washington post that nearly half of his USPS shipments since May have been late. The owner of a Los Angeles sign company, whose customers often buy signs for events and rely on timely delivery, has had to pay out $4900 in reimbursements this month. A poll by the Small Businesses Association found that 60% of small businesses were experiencing shipping delays. And countless Grow With Studio clients have expressed shipping-related frustrations to us. 

What’s going on? What can you do to protect your business’s bottom line? Here’s everything we know so far. 

The USPS and Small Businesses 

Small/medium-sized businesses, largely ecommerce, have always been a vital customer segment for the USPS. According to the last time the numbers were shared in 2013, small businesses contributed 14% of the post office’s revenue. The feeling is mutual: a 2019 report found that 70% of microbusinesses (businesses with ten employees or fewer) had used USPS within the past six months. 

For these businesses, the perfect storm has been brewing all summer. Quarantine had already created a surge in ecommerce orders that the post office struggled to handle. The backlog was finally starting to disappate when the new shakeups emerged. 

On top of that, last week the USPS announced a temporary price increase for commercial packages during the holiday season. 

For ecommerce businesses, simply switching providers isn’t always a viable solution. Here’s a blog post from an ecommerce store owner that perfectly sums up why so many businesses choose USPS. In short: 

  • The rates are the cheapest available, helping businesses keep their pricing competitive. 
  • The USPS is the only service that’s allowed to deliver mail and small packages directly to your mailbox (as opposed to leaving them on your porch).
  • It’s also legally obligated to deliver to every single address in the U.S., even the far-out rural zones that other shipping companies deem too unprofitable to serve. 

So what can you do about this? Here are some measures you can take to protect your business, starting with the changes that are easiest to implement and moving into more difficult strategies: 

Proactively Communicate With Your Customers 

Difficulty: Easy

The best thing you can do by far is communicate with your customers early and often. Address known issues on your website, staying open and transparent about changes as soon as you’re aware of them. 

A blog post or landing page that’s updated regularly can be a great way to gather your thoughts and share insights about the solutions you’re looking into. You can then link to the post on a sticky banner or other feature that stays consistent across each page. 

No blog post? No problem. Use the format that works for your business, keeping the message visible across the site. Clif Bar uses a banner to communicate updates as soon as they happen and direct visitors to customer support if they have any concerns: 

We’ve seen other businesses get even simpler than this, simply using their sticky banner to share one- to two-sentence status updates.

Confirmation emails are also a vital place to reiterate shipping information. 

Send Email Updates as Soon as Events Happen 

Difficulty: Easy

Once a customer has made their purchase, don’t just leave them with the transaction email. Email them again when their item has shipped to provide the tracking number. Over-communicate about delays as soon as they occur, sending follow-up emails as needed. 

Automate your transactional emails so this sort of communication is easy to manage. At the same time, adjust the scheduling of your other automated emails so your customers continue receiving the right messages at the right times. Nobody wants to be asked to review a product that hasn’t arrived yet! 

Update the Language On Your Site Everywhere It’s Needed 

Difficulty: Easy

If you rely on shipping-related value propositions like free shipping or two-day shipping to boost your conversions, make sure to update the language across the site if your policies change (ditto for your return policy). Because offers like this are such a natural way to cement a great deal, they tend to proliferate across ecommerce sites. Run a manual check for such language on your: 

  • Policy pages 
  • Priority product pages 
  • About Us page 
  • Checkout page 
  • Confirmation page 

After that, run a site:search for words like “shipping” to catch any other instances that were indexed. (Head to Google, and in the search box type: shipping. This will return all indexed mentions of the keyword on your site). 

Adjust Your Shipping and Return Policies 

Difficulty: Medium  

On that note, rethink your shipping and return policies now. Consider whether you’ll have to make exceptions in certain instances, and reconsider the promises your business makes. 

This moves us out of the relatively easy communication adjustments and into more structural changes. These are harder to handle because they involve making decisions that may impact your customers and conversions. It’s up to you to decide how important each value proposition is to your customers. You might decide that free shipping is important to keep, but you can let go of two-day shipping. Or you might decide to make compromises by adjusting the offer — instead of free shipping, offer free shipping on orders of $35+. 

No matter what you decide, stay fully transparent about these changes. A long-term customer who’s used to one policy will have no reason to assume things have changed, so tell them. It’s way better than letting them find out later. 

Give Your Customers Options 

Difficulty: Medium  

While it’s a great idea to set the cheapest shipping option as your standard, many customers are willing to pay more if they need something fast. Give them that choice! Integrate other shipping providers like UPS and FedEx into your website and offer expedited shipping rates. This lets you give customers the flexibility they need without absorbing the cost. 

As you compare rates, look into shipping software if you don’t use it already. Companies like ShipStation, Shippo, and can help you compare rates across a variety of providers and offer discounts that might not be available to the general public. 

Offer Local Pickup or Delivery 

Difficulty: Medium  

Let customers who live in your area save time and/or money on shipping with local pickup or delivery options. 

Audit Your Product Packaging and Shipping Materials 

Difficulty: Medium  

Do you often find yourself cramming boxes full of packing peanuts to take up extra space? Do you sell oddly-shaped products that will never fit neatly into a standard rectangular container? Does your fulfillment process lack rules and guidelines about how to efficiently pack products? Address issues like this and you might just save enough money to offset other costs that come up. 

Follow good practices like: 

  • Don’t ship nonbreakable items in a box if they fit in a poly mailer or padded envelope.
  • Keep a wide variety of package types and sizes in stock so you always have the exact box on hand that’s right for the job (usually the smallest possible box that still fits the item).
  • If you don’t use it already, switch from standard USPS mailers to priority flat-rate shipping. For many people, this is the cheapest option (especially since the boxes are free!). Others may incur extra costs. Those costs are generally worth it because priority mail tends to reach its destination much more quickly and reliably than standard mail. 
  • While it doesn’t happen often, there are certain instances when sending two lighter packages is cheaper than sending one large box. Test out different weights and shipping rates until you find the optimal solution for each type of order. 
  • Similarly, USPS isn’t always your cheapest option. USPS excels with light items and/or heavier items that fit into a flat-rate box, but UPS and FedEx are often cheaper for larger or heavier packages. 

Temporarily Adjust Your Product Line 

Difficulty: Hard 

We now move into the stuff that could profoundly impact the direction of your business, requiring serious coordination at multiple levels. First up: it might be time to temporarily or permanently alter your product line-up and cull the products that aren’t easy or affordable to ship. This may include: 

  • Heavy items 
  • Breakable Items 
  • Food or cosmetic products with a very short shelf life 
  • Products that require excessive packaging 
  • Any product you or your staff considers difficult to ship, for any reason 

While adjusting the product line won’t work for every business, you might be able to make some creative compromises. If you pride yourself on selling your artisan products in little glass jars, well, it’s probably time to make the switch to plastic packaging (choose eco-friendly plastic when you can, especially if that lines up with your brand values). If you’re not up for completely removing or changing a product offering, you can still adjust the merchandising on your site and run promotions that highlight shipping-friendly products.

Contract With Local Fulfillment Centers 

Difficulty: Hard 

Finally, now might be a good time to reconsider the model you use for shipping and fulfillment. In-house warehousing and fulfillment might be cheaper, but it still comes with plenty of costs: staff and training, rent, system creation and documentation, management and oversight, and more. And crucially for our purposes, this option is the most susceptible to shipping delays and rate increases. 

Fulfillment centers, on the other hand, offer the following attractive possibilities: 

  • They can be based in many locations, so your U.S. customers are never farther away than a couple days’ shipping time. Contrast this with an in-house fulfillment center based in, say, Seattle, that needs to ship to a customer in New York. 
  • The obvious one: the fulfillment house takes care of everything for you! All you need to do is ship them bulk quantities of your product and they’ll handle the rest, packing the box as soon as your customer makes their purchase. 
  • Because a fulfillment house is full of shipping pros, they’ve already figured out the most efficient packing and shipping solutions for every type of product.
  • Similarly, they likely have access to shipping rates and relationships that simply aren’t available anywhere else. 

On the flip side, we’re the last people to advocate cutting staff — especially now! — unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you already have a robust shipping and fulfillment process and the staff to go with it, don’t switch streams now unless you have an absolutely critical reason to do so. This option is mostly for businesses that are still in the early stages, actively growing, and/or never had a functional process in place. 

Support the United States Postal Service 

Difficulty: Varies

Last but not least, don’t give up on our little ol’ postal system. We all love to grumble, but the constitutionally-enshrined institution (which is unprofitable by nature) is critical for millions of people and thousands of businesses who rely on the post office’s affordable, comprehensive delivery services. This is a bipartisan issue — if you care about your customers, you care about the mail. Here are some things you can do: 

  • Buy Stamps: It’s actually mandated that the USPS isn’t allowed to open up revenue streams outside of shipping and stamps, and there are tight constraints on pricing. So the easiest thing you can do to support the post office is continue buying postage. Keep using the post office for your business if it’s not hurting your customers. And on a personal level, snail mail is the perfect hobby for the cozy quarantiner to adopt! Maybe it’s time to send your customers some handwritten thank-you letters? 
  • Contact Your Elected Officials: Learn how to contact your senators here and your representatives here
  • Make Some Noise: Keep sharing your stories. Not only is it cathartic, not only does it help your customers connect to your brand more deeply, but it’s our best means of demonstrating how this issue affects everyone

Now go write a letter!