From your rates to your presentation to your returns policy, ecommerce shipping is a powerful marketing tool.

We’ve touched on several aspects of shipping recently, from the logistics of order fulfillment to the pros and cons of dropshipping. Another aspect that doesn’t get covered very often is marketing. The way you handle shipping matters to the experience your customers have. It can even effect whether they become your customers at all.

Sound far-fetched? Consider this: Amazon’s free shipping policy has transformed ecommerce. One could even make an honest argument that Amazon’s success is founded on free shipping.

Or think about the trend of unboxing videos and images that swept YouTube and Instagram a few years ago. These days, almost every product review video starts with an assessment of the packaging.

And returns? How you handle your returns policy can make or break customer trust. I’ve had companies win my everlasting love through a generous returns policy. And others have earned my never-dying hatred for the reverse.

Given those points, it is clear that no business can afford to neglect the marketing implications of how they handle their ecommerce shipping. Let’s take a closer look at each so that you can decide how your business should respond.

1. Shipping options: lowering the barrier to purchase.

Should you offer free shipping? I can guarantee your marketing department wants you to (what a selling point!). Your customers probably want you to, as well, but that doesn’t mean you should. Instead, you should begin by calculating the costs of shipping (and what it would mean to offer it for free), and then think how you can market the result to reluctant customers.

First, when it comes to “free” shipping, we all know it’s not really free. In many cases, it’s simply baked into the list price. Very large companies like Amazon are also able to work economies of scale to their advantage, such that they can better absorb shipping costs. The point is, if you’re a selling your own product, such that customers can’t price shop, you can probably afford to charge an extra dollar or two per product.

You can also offer “free” shipping after a certain threshold—say, $50. This can encourage buyers to add a few more items to their cart, just so they can get the free shipping. If you have a policy like this, you should have it visible on every page of your site. When users go to check out, there should also be a prompt letting them know how much more they need to add to their cart to get free shipping.

Finally, if you can’t go entirely free, you can still offer fixed-price shipping. For instance, “all shipping for $5” is a pretty easy pill for most customers to swallow. And while that means that you’ll probably be covering part of the shipping, remember that your online store is sparing you from a lot of other operating costs that would otherwise be reflected in price tags.

2. Packaging and unboxing: delivering an experience worth sharing.

The way you deliver your products can have an outsized impact on how your customers perceive the value of their purchase. We’re all used to the bare-bones Amazon approach, and it’s not very exciting. But you get a company who has put some love and care into the packaging of their product, and it shows.

For instance, I’ve had a few companies that take the pared down approach, but still use branded boxes and esthetically-pleasing packaging materials. I’ve had others go all-out, with luxury boxes and products wrapped in tissue paper, tied with a ribbon. I’ve even had some that included written notes, stickers, or posters.

Another packaging win? Using sustainable, recyclable materials. Being able to tell customers that you’ve found a carbon-neutral way to deliver products to their door has big caché in some industries. Your customers may even be willing to pay a little more in shipping and handling to make it happen.

If you’re handling shipping yourself, you have plenty of leeway to handle these details yourself. If you’re dropshipping, many companies offer customized packaging services. For a premium product, quality packaging is worth the investment.

3. Returns: turning a loss into a win.

Finally, having a transparent and generous returns policy is essential to winning customer trust. After all, a new customer is ordering products from you sight unseen. It would be understandable if they wanted to send some back. Not having a fair returns policy is a red flag in ecommerce, such that if you don’t have a returns policy posted publicly on your site then you could actually be losing business.

At minimum, a returns policy should include a full refund on products that are returned in like-new condition, or on any products that arrive damaged. It should also clearly state the time window in which returns are accepted—usually 30–60 days from the point at which a product was received.

Many businesses hesitate to offer more than this, as a return is obviously lost business. However, generosity here can pay big dividends in winning customer loyalty. A stingy policy means that a customer who is already unsatisfied is unlikely to make another purchase. But a generous policy could win over even an unsatisfied one.

What makes a returns policy generous? For starters, free shipping. I once had a company mistakenly send me a product I didn’t order, then refuse to pay for return shipping. They not only lost my business, I also warned other people I knew away from purchasing from them.

For some businesses using dropshipping, returns may be a more complicated affair. There are some products that simply can’t be returned (food, makeup, some clothing), or that are too cost-prohibitive due to restocking costs. I’ve had companies in this position offer me a full refund on a product without asking me to return it. Alternatively, I had a company send me a free replacement product, and told me to share the product I didn’t like with someone I thought would enjoy it. Now that was a pro marketing move if ever I saw one.

How you handle shipping is a way to demonstrate your thoughtfulness, honesty, and attention to detail.

From purchase to deliver and back again, every point of customer interaction is a marketing opportunity. It is a chance for you to show that you care about customer opinion, that their business is valuable to you, and that all you want is their satisfaction.

After all, a satisfied customer is a loyal customer. And that’s just good business.

Published 05/11/20 by Laura Lynch