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Shipping Dates & Estimated Delivery Best Practices

Online retailers often fail to meet customers’ expectations when it comes to delivery dates, with as many as 85% saying that they would prefer faster shipping options and sooner delivery times. This even applies to Amazon, whose delivery expectations are so high that customers are even more critical of any shipping delays.

In a similarly large proportion, customers expect numerous fast shipping options, to receive regular communication about their orders, and to have order management systems that cater to their needs. This means that shipping dates and estimated delivery dates are crucial for ecommerce businesses to understand so that they can communicate the difference to their customers. In this article, we discuss:

  • The difference between shipping dates and estimated delivery dates
  • How to calculate shipping and delivery dates
  • The most important information for ecommerce customers to know
  • The reasons estimated delivery dates change
  • How a 3PL can help keep your customers informed

What does Estimated Delivery Mean?

The date of an item’s estimated delivery is quite simply the date that customers can expect to receive their item. Your business must make an educated estimate of the delivery date on your customer’s order receipt so that they know when to expect their purchase to arrive.

This date defines the customer’s expectations for the whole transaction. Therefore, ecommerce businesses should strategically give themselves wiggle room with the delivery date by listing it as a range rather than a single guarantee. For example, an estimated delivery date should be listed as, “August 12th-14th,” rather than “August 13th.”

This helps customers plan their expectations for a possible shipping delay. The estimated delivery time becomes integrally connected to your order tracking systems because once the date is set, customers link their satisfaction with their order to your ability to fulfill your delivery date promise.

What is the Shipping Date?

The estimated delivery date depends on the shipping date. However, customers often get delivery dates in their order receipt, which means that a delay in shipping will result in a change in the estimated delivery. This makes it essential for your fulfillment process to ship the items out on time to meet the initial delivery estimate listed on the order.

The actual shipping date is when the package is no longer in your custody – the carrier has it now and it’s out of your control. The longer the item is still in your warehouse or storage after the customer orders it, the less ability the carrier will have to meet the estimated delivery date.

Consider this example. If a customer orders a product and pays for overnight shipping on August 12th, before the shipping deadline, they assume that it will arrive on August 13th. One mistake that many ecommerce sellers make is paying for the fulfillment infrastructure necessary to get overnight shipments delivered but neglecting the warehousing processes required to ship products out on time as they are ordered.

Using the above example, a customer might order an item on August 12th, it ships on August 13th, and they receive it on August 14th. Even though they paid for overnight shipping and it technically only took one night to ship, from their perspective, they waited two days to receive it. 

The likelihood of them leaving a positive review or becoming a long-term customer will be reflected in their dissatisfaction at not having their delivery expectations met. They may even ask for a refund on the shipping charges.

Therefore, knowing which dates are significant and when to communicate them is vital to managing your customers’ expectations so that this doesn’t happen.

The Shipping and Delivery Dates Your Business Needs to Know

Here is a summary of the shipping dates that your business needs to keep track of so that you can manage your customer’s expectations and fulfill them.

Estimated Shipping Date

The estimated shipping date is not when the order actually ships but when the customer will expect it to ship based on your site’s information. Many customer service issues result from improperly communicating estimated shipping dates.

For example, when orders are placed after the cutoff for shipping that day, after business hours, or on an item that goes out of stock before shipping, an estimated shipping date can become inaccurate. Customers need to know about these changes as soon as possible.

Shipping Date

As discussed above, the actual shipping date is when your product leaves your warehouse. Delays between the order time and shipping time must be communicated so that your customers know that their 2-day delivery order will arrive two days after the item ships, not necessarily from when it was ordered.

This is especially important if your business has limitations or exclusions on expedited shipping plans. For example, if your business is closed on Sundays, customers need to know that next-day delivery items they order on Sunday will not arrive on Monday.

You should also clearly state the time of day by which orders must be placed for the order day to count as part of the delivery time.

Estimated Delivery Date

This estimate must be communicated after the order has been confirmed. As discussed above, customers will look to this date to set their expectations for their order.

Importantly, this date must be updated with any shipping delays as soon as possible to keep customers in the loop and help them plan their expectations. If they will need to refund or cancel an order due to a delay, they need to know as soon as possible.

Invoice Creation and Billing Date

These dates are not always the same, but they refer to when the invoice is created by your system and when the customer’s payment is processed.

Delivery Date

The delivery date is the final date that your customer’s package arrives. Any delivery exceptions or delays can cause this date to differ from the estimate, including holidays, weather, or mailing issues such as mispacked or mislabeled items.

Keeping this date as close to the estimate as possible should be the goal of any ecommerce store.

Return Date

When a product is returned to your business for any reason, the return date is when you receive it. This is a significant date to keep track of for refunds as most refunds will not be processed until you receive the item back and customers should know when this happens.

Causes of Delivery Delays

Your business should be aware of everything that could cause a shipping delay. Shipping delays occur after an item has already shipped, which means that your customer already has the estimated delivery time.

Learning about these delays and updating the delivery estimate is crucial to keeping your customers happy. Not all of these factors are in your control, but you should know about all of them so you can communicate with your customers and adjust their expectations when something happens.

Improper Packing

When packages are mislabeled or packed poorly, they might be sent back to your business by your mail carrier, which will cause a delivery delay. Since this is something you can control, ensuring that everything is packed properly to prevent this issue is vital to your fulfillment process.

Delivery Off-Days

Whether for a federal holiday or an order outside of normal business hours, off-days can affect your business’s ability to meet delivery estimates.

Weather or Local Conditions

Sometimes, carriers could have gotten your package delivered on time but experienced local delivery delays caused by inclement weather, guard dogs, or traffic.

Customs Issues

If your business offers international shipping, customs presents a new set of issues for your fulfillment process to deal with. Important procedures like tariff codes and international postage have to be in your workers’ toolbelts to prepare items for successful international shipping.

When customs conducts their package review, your estimated delivery dates hang in the balance of whether your labels and tariffs are in order.

Security Issues

When security becomes an issue, a local carrier may send your package back, delaying delivery. If you ship hazardous materials, the quality of your packaging and permits can cause port authorities or local carriers to delay your deliveries.

Properly managing the carrier’s safety concerns when packing your merchandise will significantly increase your chances of meeting your estimated delivery dates.

Best Practices Your Business Should Use

Knowing these important dates and how deliveries can become delayed reveals these best practices for your business to keep customers happy.

  • Communicate with customers By far the most important conclusion your business can draw is that you must keep your customers aware of the expected delivery date and any delays that occur that will change it.
  • Pack everything properly – On your end, properly packing your items, labeling hazardous materials, getting international customs codes in order, and more can help ensure that any delivery delays are not your business’s fault.
  • Use software to keep track – Keeping track of every order’s shipping and delivery estimate is far easier with dedicated warehousing and shipping software.
  • Offer only the shipping you can fulfill – While faster shipping plans can entice customers, you should only offer what you know you can fulfill. Based on your items, your shipping infrastructure, packing process, and more, you should prioritize fulfilling your business’s promises over offering the fastest shipping times in your industry.

How a 3PL Can Help

Third-party fulfillment companies like eWorld Fulfillment can help you accomplish these best practices without straining your shipping team. They can help manage delivery exceptions as well as set realistic estimated delivery dates. They integrate software that keeps customers informed about all the essential order and delivery dates at the same time they help you increase your shipping options using their relationship with mail carriers to reduce shipping costs.

Offering faster delivery times is important for many customers, though doing so makes keeping delivery dates accurate far more difficult. To successfully offer the 2-day and overnight shipping options that customers crave, use a 3PL to manage your delivery estimates and keep your customers informed.

The closer these dates stay to your customers’ expectations, the more likely they will be satisfied with their orders. They will return that satisfaction with more purchases in the future.