Getting Ship-Shape with eBay Labeling

The online auction site's new integrated labeling and shipping payment options can improve sellers' operations -- but they're not without hitches.
Back in December, I listed getting a better handle on shipping as one of my New Year's resolutions for our little orchid business, and I'm happy to report that eBay's recent roll-out of some integrated labeling and shipping payment options has improved our operation considerably.

Which is not to say that there aren't any kinks in the process -- but more on that later. The good news is that things for micro sellers have improved, and we now see the possibility of further improvements. It really is cool to be able to print a shipping label -- either for the U.S. Postal Service, which we use, or for UPS -- without ever leaving eBay.

And for the most part, it doesn't require re-entry of customer names and addresses.

The new solution, which is based on Pitney Bowes' Internet postage technology, enables customers to select a shipping option (like Priority Mail or Express Mail), print the shipping label and pay for the postage via their PayPal account. That's exactly what we have started doing in many cases. No software download is required and it's pretty much a seamless process. The application even lets you send a quick note to the buyer telling them the package is on its way.

And here's a bonus for sellers: free USPS delivery confirmation. In fact, once the label is purchased, both the buyer and seller are able to track the delivery status of the package online.

In theory at least, that feature should eliminate those times when Postal Service "loses" one of your packages. Hey, it has happened to us on occasion, and we have just replaced the customer's order as cheerfully as possible and wrote it off as a cost of doing business.

One really nice thing about the new eBay service is that it offers free carrier pickup to save a trip to the Post Office. We haven't tried that service yet, but since I'm really tired of those Post Office runs, I'm sure we will check it out soon. eBay's Shipping Center can be found here.

Another positive: You don't have to display the actual USPS shipping cost of shipping on the label. That's important if you charge customers a flat rate for shipping, as we do. We build the cost of labor and packing materials into our shipping fees, and I sure don't want the customers thinking that we're unfairly inflating shipping costs beyond what the Post Office charges.


Successes and Snags

Like a lot of eBay sellers, our little startup orchid business -- Sun Coast Orchids -- began online operations with just a few sales a week, and it was easy to box up an orchid plant or two and drop them off at the Post Office on our way to the grocery store.

Then, we grew. Orders became bigger and more frequent.

We began to buy shipping supplies in bulk, using pre-printed mailing labels that we got free from the Post Office, and creating more professional-looking invoices. We even built a packing and shipping workstation near the greenhouse.

But we still needed to print the customer's address by hand -- none of the label solutions we tried seemed to be very easy or effective, and they all involved a lot of re-keyboarding of the data. The Postal Service itself has an online labeling and postage solution, but it requires a Java download and is so sluggish and dysfunctional that I tried it twice and never went back.


From eBay's USPS shipping center, sellers can print labels and arrange pickup -- streamlining the fulfillment process.

For us at least, it remained simpler and more efficient to hand-print the customer's address on the label, slap it on the box, take it to the Post Office, let them weigh it and then ship via Priority Mail.

Nowadays, we sometimes send up to 20 to 25 packages at a time, so the ability to print the label right from eBay makes life much easier.

We have had to adjust our operation a bit since adopting eBay's solution. eBay's USPS operation requires weight, but not box size. UPS wants both. Until now, we let the Post Office weigh our packages -- it's free for the price of waiting in line. Now, we weigh them ourselves so we get the exact postage required.

Aside from simply changing our shipping process, we ran into some kinks within the eBay/USPS online shipping app. Fortunately, while it may not be perfect yet, improvements are being made fast.

One of the initial glitches with the USPS application is that, at first, sellers couldn't create labels in advance of the date that they actually ship their package -- that is, there was no option other than to print a label for shipping on that same day. But that's since been resolved: Now, eBay has added a menu that lets you print shipping labels several days ahead of time.


The online auction site's interface for UPS similarly provides sellers with a variety of shipping options.

At launch, the only shipping options were Priority Mail and Express Mail. However, those have since been expanded to include Media Mail, Parcel Post and First Class mail, as well. A Label Processing Fee is charged by PayPal to cover processing costs on Media Mail, Parcel Post, and First Class Mail. The Label Processing Fee is free for Priority and Express Mail packages, and is 20 cents for all other types of packages.

Another problem emerged shortly after first using the online USPS option. We printed out a label quite nicely, but forgot to check the "signature confirmation" box on the online app -- and when we got to the Post Office, the USPS refused to honor our payment.

We ended up paying twice to ship the same package, plus an additional $1.80 for signature confirmation. Argh! (We jumped through some hoops and applied for a refund. I thought it would be a lost cause but, wonder of wonders, it showed up in our PayPal account about two weeks later.)

Another shortcoming: The last time I checked, neither eBay's USPS nor its UPS solution allowed for shipping multiple items to the same customer. It's "one eBay auction, one shipping label." Hopefully, that will be changed soon, but it's certainly annoying -- no doubt many sellers ship multiple items to the same customer. I think this is just a growing pain, however, and will be worked out quickly by eBay and Pitney Bowes.

U.S. Postal Service Shipping tools are currently only available for transactions where both the sender and recipient addresses are in the United States, but that too seems likely to change.

Nevertheless, things are clearly looking up. I'd give eBay's new shipping applications a grade of B+. And once a few more of the kinks are worked out, I think I'm likely to upgrade it to an A.

eBay's USPS shipping Center is located here. The UPS shipping center can be found here. FedEx is not currently available direct from eBay. eBay also has a Freight Resource Center if you need a common carrier solution.

Beth Cox is a contributor to eCommerce-Guide.com.


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