Back to basics: The lowdown on shipping labels

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Shipping labels can often present an enormous challenge for retailers. With customs requirements, varying carrier specifications and sheer manpower to contend with, an inefficient labelling workflow can often be one of the most common roadblocks that prevent brands from scaling.

 

So why is the seemingly easy task of printing shipping labels so problematic? And what can retailers do to simplify the process? Here, we take an in-depth look at labelling – how shipping labels work, what the biggest challenges are, and how to overcome them. We also look at practical considerations for retailers to ensure that their labelling system runs as smoothly as possible.

 

If you’ve ever felt that too much time is spent generating and printing shipping labels, read on…

How do shipping labels work in eCommerce?

It all seems very straightforward. An order is placed on a retailer’s online store, the products are picked from the warehouse and packed up. Then a shipping label containing the customer’s name and address is printed, attached to the parcel and off it goes on its journey to the customer.

 

Maybe it would be that easy if you were dealing with a handful of orders and using a single carrier, or even posting out parcels to customers yourself. 

 

However, as soon as dozens of orders become thousands, and you have to ship to multiple countries, things get tricky real quick. But before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a step back and look at exactly what goes into creating a shipping label.

 

In general, shipping labels must include most or all of the following information:

 
  • Address of origin (merchant’s address)
  • -Address of destination (customer’s address)
  • -Date
  • -Weight
  • -Tracking number
  • -Contents information
  • -Method of shipping
  •  

This list isn’t exhaustive. Every carrier (e.g. DPD, FedEx, DHL, etc) has its own specific template for shipping labels. Some of the differences between carriers are subtle in that they often contain the same information. However, he layouts can vary, as do tracking barcodes, etc.

Since shipping labels need to be readable by both humans and computers, the information contained on them needs to be clear. If any data goes awry, it could easily lead to delayed or even failed deliveries. Online retailers have a couple of options in terms of how they can manage shipping labe

Use each carrier’s labelling tools

Carriers generally have their own online labelling tool where merchants can enter all required shipping information for orders and labels will be generated in the correct template. This, however, is a manual process, so as you can imagine is considerably time-consuming.

Use shipping label software

Shipping label software allows merchants to connect with multiple carriers via APIs through a delivery management platform. This means that instead of having to manually enter shipping information, the data needed will be synced from your online store, and labels can be generated automatically (or manually, if needed) based on rules you’ve set for each individual carrier.


For example, ‘choose X carrier when next-day delivery is selected by customers at checkout’, or ‘choose Y carrier for orders that are being sent to countries outside of the EU’. Labels can then be printed in large batches, all adhering to the specific layouts and requirements needed for each carrier.

What are the biggest labelling challenges facing retailers?

Limited time and resources

A mid-sized brand could easily spend up to an hour and a half a day booking labels manually. This might not seem like a lot at first glance, but all of this time adds up (over 30 hours a month, in this case). Could the resources that are being used to complete such a routine task be better utilised elsewhere? 


As retailers are under pressure to compete as far as delivery speed is concerned, it can be challenging to stay on top of labelling, and often the first port of call when orders are coming in thick and fast is to assign more staff to the task. 


However, looking at labelling through a staffing lens generally only provides a short-term solution. By using technology to automate the process of generating and printing shipping labels, brands can expect to spend an average of just 15 minutes a week on labelling – a far cry from 90 minutes a day.

Customs requirements

Cross-border eCommerce is anything but straightforward, and labelling is no exception. Customs documents can often throw a spanner in the works for brands that are already stretched to capacity with run-of-the-mill labelling. Each order that requires customs documentation can easily add 3 pieces of paper to be printed alongside the shipping label. These documents need to be accessible, so it also means having to attach a plastic wallet to parcels to contain customs docs.

 

This isn’t efficient, nor is it environmentally friendly. Therefore, it’s far more preferable to (once again) use technology to amalgamate customs info into your actual shipping labels. What’s more, is that a delivery management platform will automatically generate customs information for orders that need them, so you don’t have to do this manually.

Failed shipping labels

Label errors are a thorn in retailers’ sides for many reasons – from skewed or cut off information, to printing on the wrong sized label, to smeared ink or creasing on barcodes – and that’s just what can happen to the physical label itself! 

 

There are also errors that occur when information isn’t correctly entered into a carrier template, and these can either hold up the dispatch of a package, resulting in a failed delivery or even lead to a parcel finding itself in limbo (for example, international orders require phone numbers to be provided on the shipping label – if missing, the order can get held up at customs). A lot of these errors can be eliminated through technology (are you noticing a common theme here?!) as any missing information or inaccuracies are flagged long before a label ever makes it to the printer.

Practical considerations for efficient labelling

To ensure that shipping labels are being managed efficiently, it’s important for retailers to consider these practical tips:


What materials are you using?

 

You’re obviously going to need to use weather-appropriate labels for your packages, and these typically come as standard, but have you also considered using more sustainable labels? You may be using recyclable materials in your packages, but perhaps the adhesive on your current labels can’t be recycled.


Do you have a sufficient stock of labels?

 

Sometimes your carriers will supply you with labels, but more often than not retailers will purchase the appropriate labels for their printing setup themselves. The last thing you need during a busy rush of orders is to run out of labels, so it’s vital to have a reserve of them at all times.


Are you using an A4 or a thermal printer for labels?

 

The type of printer you use is important because it needs to be configured correctly to ensure smooth label printing. What’s the difference between A4 and thermal printers?


Thermal printers use heat to transfer the image onto the paper and generally print on special paper from a label printer. The most common thermal printer brands are Zebra, Citizen, and Dymo. An A4 printer is the standard printer which prints A4 pages, typically in PDF form.


Is your system up to date with the latest printer drivers?

 

If you find that your label quality appears to be dropping or needs improvement, this can be done by installing the most up to date drivers. Ensure your printer heads are clean and your thermal printer heat settings are sufficient to print a clean, clear quality barcode. (You may need to try a few different combinations of heat and speed settings to find the best setup for you.) You should also ensure that:


  • -Dithering is set to 0/none
  • -Darkness is set to medium/high
  • -Printer speed is set to slow/medium
  •  

Labelling is a fundamental part of any eCommerce business. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to be laborious, or a drain on resources. Thanks to technology, labelling can be brought back to basics and streamlined so that retailers can get on with the day to day running of their business and all but let shipping labels look after themselves.

Read our case study to discover how Scurri helped fashion brand Everything5pounds increase conversions, half their delivery costs, and expand internationally here.

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