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Ecommerce shipping APIs: How they work and how they help merchants

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Ecommerce technology is continually evolving to provide faster, more efficient ways to meet customer expectations. Merchants will need to keep their finger on the pulse of new developments to maintain their competitive edge.

With the birth of the API economy, we’ve seen time-consuming, manual exchanges of data be replaced by lightning-fast requests for information. This has huge implications for the order fulfillment process – especially the friction-filled world of shipping.

In this post, we’re going to look at the capabilities of shipping APIs, and how they can give your ecommerce business an edge in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Shipping in ecommerce: A race against the clock

Expectations for seamless ecommerce delivery have never been higher. Today’s consumers expect to choose from a variety of shipping options, from economy free shipping all the way to expedited same-day delivery. Not only that; customers want a continuous flow of communication about the status of their order – right up to the moment of delivery.

This has made shipping is a vital touchpoint in the customer experience. Because once a customer places an order at the checkout, the clock has started ticking. From this point onward, the shopping journey is no longer in the customers’ control. It’s up to you to execute an ecommerce fulfillment strategy that’s timely and efficient – and customer loyalty depends on it.  

This is where shipping APIs can make all the difference to your ability to offer customers a positive post-purchase experience.

What is a shipping API?

An API, also known as an application programming interface, is a piece of intermediary software that allows two different applications to talk to each other without user intervention. 

A constructive way to think about API integration is if one program is speaking in French and the other in Russian. With the help of a bilingual piece of software, information can be passed between these interfaces freely for up-to-date insights. 

In sum, a shipping API is a specific kind of integration that allows an ecommerce business to fuse its online store, WMS (Warehouse Management System), or OMS (Order Management System) with advanced shipping functionalities. This helps to streamline parts of the shipping process that are repetitive and time-consuming to coordinate manually. 

How do shipping APIs work?

As we mentioned above, ecommerce APIs work by patching together different sources of information to display integrated data. The most common method is what’s known as REST architecture, where an API uses HTTP to make ‘requests’ for information from your server, which then ‘responds’ in kind.

A shipping API will carry what is known as API documentation, which lays out what the API will provide and how a developer integrates it into their existing architecture. API documentation will usually provide the following:

  • Resources – what information the API provides
  • Methods – how a site is allowed to access/create information e.g. GET, POST
  • Endpoints – how the API interacts with other systems
  • API calls – e.g., how many can be made within a specified timeframe
  • Sample request and response objects – how to identify inputs and outputs

What does a shipping API do in ecommerce?

Shipping APIs can offer ecommerce merchants a variety of functionalities, depending on whether they’re being offered by a postal carrier or a third-party logistics provider. 

For example, a carrier API offered by the likes of DHL and FedEx will use its own shipping software to facilitate shipment tracking or shipping label creation. A fulfillment provider, however, is more likely to offer a multi-carrier shipping integration that can compare shipping rates between carriers in real-time.

1. Address validation

Invalid addresses and failed deliveries are frequent occurrences in ecommerce, which makes the last mile of fulfillment a breeding ground for customer dissatisfaction. 

When a customer fills out their address incorrectly, the result is additional surcharges and logistics costs in fthe orm of replacement shipping labels, both of which slow down the delivery process. This makes postal address verification essential for successful ecommerce shipping.

When a customer enters their delivery information during the checkout process, shipping APIs can cross-reference this information with databases belonging to the likes of USPS to confirm that it’s an existing address. Some APIs can also differentiate between commercial and residential addresses to flag any potential delivery complications. If an address isn’t found, automation will stop an order from being placed until corrections are made, which prevents costly delivery errors. 

For ecommerce merchants using Whiplash, you can rely on our API integrations with all major shipping label providers for advanced address validation. Our platform can even make auto-corrections to invalid addresses to ensure successful delivery, without needing intervention from you or your logistics team.

2. Shipping label generation

The data on your shipping label is what ensures that a parcel gets to its destination and uses the correct method to get there i.e. Two Day Ground Shipping versus Next-Day Air. Shipping APIs help to safeguard this process by transmitting shipping data to the relevant postal carrier. The carrier then generates the appropriate label and sends it back to the merchant. This process means that the merchant or 3PL only has to download and print labels, rather than inputting critical information manually that could result in errors. 

3. Multi-carrier pricing comparisons

Depending on the geographic spread of their customer base, ecommerce merchants will need to use a combination of shipping methods to get orders to their customers in a timely and cost-effective manner. This is especially true for orders that involve international shipping, where cost often comes at the expense of speed.

Ecommerce shipping strategies have only grown more complex as consumers expect the ability to choose between multiple shipping options. 60% of customers have chosen a competitor with more convenient delivery options, while 45% have abandoned shopping carts due to unsatisfactory delivery options.

With such a plethora of shipping services available, it’s inefficient and time-consuming for merchants to compare different shipping methods manually. It’s a good idea to consider investing in a shipping API that allows you to rate shop according to custom criteria, which saves you valuable time during the fulfillment process.

With Whiplash’s SmartRate Selection tool merchants can compare carriers and shipping methods in real-time to find the optimum shipping solution for their needs. By analyzing your order history and SKUs, we can also make tailored shipping recommendations that meet your customer’s expectations for cost and speed.

4. Shipment tracking 

A small amount of delivery anxiety is natural when placing an order with an ecommerce store. But this can be driven to extremes when a customer experiences radio silence after completing a purchase. 

Post-purchase customer care is vital to foster brand loyalty in your customers. If attentiveness trails off after a transaction, this sends the message that your business only cares about sales. Unsurprisingly, this seriously erodes brand trust.

When customers receive regular and consistent communication, it provides reassurance that everything is going smoothly. 

A study by My Customer found that:

  • 82% of consumers say that retailers should proactively communicate during every stage of fulfillment and delivery. (Including the relevant tracking number and estimated delivery date).
  • 85% want brands to use email to keep them updated, while 45% want to track packages via SMS/phone.

Using a shipping API that provides real-time tracking information is a highly effective tool to alleviate delivery anxiety. By integrating directly with your ecommerce platform or OSM, your API can automatically update customers and take a significant burden off your customer care team.

As the bar to offering an exceptional customer experience gets higher, shipping APIs present a highly effective solution to simplify order fulfillment and increase customer satisfaction. From comparing carrier rates to communicating more effectively with your customers, Whiplash is on-hand to provide these capabilities through its advanced proprietary systems. For effective fulfillment, every time.

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