The Sorry Gap Between Shipping Tech and Customer Expectations

Have you shopped online in the past month? Week? Day? If you are like a majority of the American population, you likely answered yes to one, if not all, of those questions. Consumers appreciate the ease and convenience that online retail offers, but with this convenience often comes disappointment during the shipping process.

Despite the down economy, e-commerce and online retail continues to be a viable platform for sales. However, as everyday technology continues to innovate, consumers’ expectations of the online shopping experience continue to rise. As such, the expectations of the e-commerce shipping process rise as well.

We used to find the most advanced and innovative technology in the business world and those technologies would eventually find their way into the consumer world when they could be produced and distributed more cost-effectively for home use. Now, it seems to be the other way around; consumer technology is innovating at a rapid pace as e-commerce and shipping technology lags behind.

Everyone Is a Consumer

As the shipping industry struggles to keep up, some advancements have been adopted more quickly and effectively than others. And just as consumer shipping platforms adopt these varied technologies, so too do the business shipping platforms. Why? Because everyone’s a consumer. From 9-5 your customer may be a logistics manager at a large freight forwarder, but from 5-9 he is a retail consumer just like the rest of us. As a consumer, the technological benefits that were formerly considered luxuries have now become commonplace.

E-commerce and Web services have without a doubt helped to facilitate the growing adoption rate of innovative technologies across the shipping industry. The online shopping experience is no longer expected to be dictated by the retailer; rather, consumers want to control and customize their retail experience. Special account logins, like those used on Amazon.com, allow shoppers and retailers to customize page content based on interests and browsing/buying behavior. Similarly, many global ocean shipping platforms now offer these same amenities, allowing shippers to brand pages and save data from recent orders for use in booking new orders.

Demand for Transparency

In addition to a custom shopping experience, consumers expect transparency from retailers. With real-time information available at their fingertips through services like Google Alerts, Facebook Notifications and Twitter, consumers demand the same visibility from their retailers. Offering more comprehensive, real-time shipment tracking options helps to address these demands. Ocean shipping technology provides this transparency by allowing users to view their shipments as they travel from port to port. A number of automobile retailers are embracing this concept with Web sites that allow customers to build every aspect of their vehicle, order it online, then track its progress as it’s assembled, shipped and processed.

While both consumer and B2B shipping have embraced customization and transparency, some advancements have come more easily to the consumer shipping faction.

Mobile technology has without a doubt crafted the way that consumers interact with retailers and each other. Having access to all of your personal and professional information while you are on the go is commonplace, so having access to shipping information on your mobile is more than a convenience, it’s a necessity. This is something that ocean shippers have been slow to adopt because of the potential security risk presented by transmitting data via the mobile Web as well as the sheer volume of shipping data that would need to be transmitted.

However, DHL has begun to offer mobile tracking through a tool called Global ProView to its Time Definite International (TDI) customers. With Global ProView, TDI customers are sent SMS text message alerts whenever a shipment is delivered, picked up or hits a snag in the delivery chain. And for consumers, UPS offers m.ups.com; a mobile site that allows users to access their shipping information using their mobile phones.

Further to Go

Some areas of the technology landscape still remain relatively untouched by the e-commerce shipping industry.

Data mashups like Google maps allow users to integrate data from various sources into one Web tool and are important for consumers who use a variety of online tools to complete a task. While many e-commerce platforms — Amazon and eBay for example — have open application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow outside developers to create mashups of their technology, no e-commerce platform has yet created their own self-hosted mashup, particularly a shipping mashup. This is likely because of the slow familiarity and adoption within the general consumer population for such advanced technologies. Consumer e-commerce sites may not want to overwhelm shoppers with an array of technical functionalities. However, the ability to provide product and shipping information that is compatible with various online platforms and can be easily integrated would help consumers to visualize their transaction in relation to their other online activity.

I mentioned Facebook and Twitter briefly earlier, and these social networking technologies should not be scoffed at by e-commerce retailers. Online relationships are critical to consumer’s online behavior. They can not only sway brand perception and loyalty, but they can greatly improve one’s online shopping experience. Offering tools that facilitate interaction among online consumers will help with product education but can also help the shipping process by creating a platform for consumers to share their personal insight on shipping options. But businesses are still grappling with ways to monetize these social sites and integrate them into business models in ways that are beneficial to both the consumer and the organization.

Essential to Evolution

Every day, new technology concepts, tools and programs are innovating the way we live our lives, interact with our peers and absorb information. Staying abreast of all these technology trends and thinking about how they can help influence the shipping process is crucial to the evolution of the supply chain.

As the economy tumbles and people become more and more discriminating about how they spend their time and money online, maintaining customer loyalty will be paramount. Offering reliable service is of course the first key to success but offering unique features that employ technology trends such as customization, transparency, mobility, integration and social networking will keep you a head above the rest.

Jeff Pattison is Chief Information Officer for Inttra, a provider of e-commerce solutions to ocean carriers and their customers.

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