Everything You Need to Know About Shipping APIs

Ecommerce fulfillment has its fair share of abbreviations and acronyms. From 3PL and FBA to ERP and WMS, it’s understandable if merchants sometimes feel as if they’re swimming in an online retail alphabet soup.

But among the dozens of shipping and logistics acronyms, there is one that connects them all: API. API stands for “application programming interface,” a set of codes that allow different platforms to interact with each other. APIs enable developers to transfer information from one software to another and then display this data to an individual in a single user interface.

For example, big brands like Facebook and YouTube offer developers APIs so smaller companies can take advantage of their existing functionality and not have to build integrations and features from scratch.

Here are the ins and outs of this powerful digital middleman.

What are shipping APIs?

When it comes to fulfillment, a shipping API integration gives ecommerce brands the ability to integrate shipping functionality directly into their online stores, helping streamline the checkout and delivery process.

Shipping APIs live behind-the-scenes and act as a conduit between customers and couriers. They are an integral part of creating a positive ecommerce customer experience since they help automate the most complicated aspect of online retail.

Common shipping APIs

The scope of a shipping API varies between every postal carrier and third party provider. For example, some carrier APIs give developers the option to show available self-service locations, while others don’t. Some third-party shipping APIs support international orders, while others lack this functionality.

In general, however, there are three common shipping APIs: address validation, multi-carrier support, and shipment tracking.

1. Address validation

When a customer enters their address in the checkout screen, the website submits a request via the API to verify the address and identify possible deliverability issues. If the address is determined to be invalid or incomplete, the website will throw an error and alert the shopper to the issue.

This prevents delayed or failed deliveries and address correction surcharges. It also eliminates the hassle (and cost) of voiding and reprinting shipping labels as well as any other delivery documents.

2. Multi-carrier support

Every postal carrier has its own unique advantages. For example, FedEx specializes in time-sensitive deliveries, offering next-day and 2-3 day delivery services. UPS has offices all around the world, meaning your shipment won’t be unnecessarily routed through a dozen different companies between pickup and delivery. In other words, it’s in an ecommerce brand’s best interest to partner with multiple carriers.

With shipping APIs, you can offer customers options from multiple carriers with real-time rates and delivery estimates based on their purchase and location. Shoppers can choose between the fastest or cheapest delivery method — whichever best suits their needs. Being able to accomodate the shipping preferences of your customers is a considerable differentiator and can inspire shoppers to return to your store in the future.

3. Shipment tracking

Part of being a successful retailer is making sure your customers always have the most up-to-date information. This could be the date a new product line is launching, when out of stock items will be available again, or the day they can expect their delivery.

Shipping APIs enable you to integrate real-time shipment tracking information into your mobile app or website, an email, or a text message. Each time the package status changes (for example, from accepted to in-transit to delivered), the API will ensure this update is transferred to your software. You can then use this alert to trigger a notification to your customer via their preferred communication channel.

Why shipping APIs are important for ecommerce

Even though the percentage of retail sales attributed to ecommerce continues to grow each year, brick-and-mortar retail isn’t going anywhere. In-store transactions offer something online transactions can’t: instant gratification.

As easy and convenient as ecommerce is, there is still a delay between when a customer pays for their order and when they receive it. This means retailers must make the shipping and delivery process as painless as possible. And that is why shipping APIs are crucial.

The average consumer doesn’t give a second thought to the complexity of ecommerce shipping and logistics. They don’t care to see what’s behind the curtain, so to speak. All they’re interested in is the convenience of having their purchase delivered to their desired location on a specific date. Shipping APIs are what allow retailers to meet those requirements.

Each of the three APIs mentioned above offer major benefits to retailers. Address validation saves brands money by preventing fees and surcharges resulting from delivery corrections.

Multi-carrier support gives retailers the ability to work with several couriers, therefore increasing their potential audience size. Shipment tracking reduces the number of “Where’s my order?” emails and phone calls to answer, which take valuable time away from more important tasks.

But these APIs also have a big impact on the customer experience. And the kind of experience an ecommerce brand can provide influences how loyal its customers are.

From a customer’s perspective, address validation ensures they get their order on the expected date and at the requested location. They won’t have to go out of their way to pick up their purchase that had to be held at the local post office because they accidentally entered their address incorrectly.

Multi-carrier support means customers don’t have to settle for either paying more than they’re comfortable for shipping or waiting longer than they’d prefer to receive their order. And shipment tracking gives customers peace of mind since they know exactly where their package is from the moment they place the order.

How do shipping APIs work?

As mentioned above, shipping APIs work in the background of your site to pull in data from external servers and display this information to customers. REST APIs are the most common and involve “requests” and “responses”, in which your site makes a request for information to the server and the server responds with this information.

Providers of shipping APIs, such as ShipEngine, will post API documentation on their website that gives developers the following information:

  • Resources
  • Endpoints
  • Methods
  • Supported parameters
  • Sample request and response objects

Resources refers to what information the API can provide. Endpoints are how your site accesses the resource, and methods are the allowed interactions. Example methods include GET, which is used for retrieving resources; POST, which is used for creating resources; and PUT, which is used for changing or replacing resources. Parameters are criteria you couple with the endpoint to specify the response format. And the sample request and response objects give you an idea of what inputs and outputs should look like.

Developers use this documentation to integrate the shipping API into the website and begin showing shoppers important shipping information, such as available rate and delivery options.

How are shipping APIs different from EDI?

EDI stands for “electronic data interchange” and is the process of electronically transferring documents in a standard format from one company to another. EDI standards give ecommerce companies the ability to share data across different platforms and technologies without human intervention. While EDI also supports ecommerce automation, it has a few disadvantages that APIs don’t.

1. EDI takes longer to implement than an API.

While an API can be integrated in as little as 2-3 days, onboarding an EDI system can take up to several months. In addition, managing EDI files is a niche set of skills that is possessed by a smaller number of developers than those who can implement and maintain an API.

2. EDI is less efficient than an API in regards to cost and time.

Transferring data via an API is near instantaneous. But if you use EDI, it will take minutes for information to be parsed and transmitted. And in terms of consumer-facing technology, minutes might as well be years. In addition, since EDI files cannot be translated by humans, companies who use EDI must invest in expensive software or third-party specialists.

3. EDI may be a viable option now, but it won’t be forever.

Many Fortune 500 companies still rely on EDI for their operations. However, the ease and cost-effectiveness of APIs are leading to an increase in their popularity. Additionally, APIs are more flexible and easier to scale, making it even more likely they will eclipse EDI as the preferred option in the near future.

The takeaway

At the end of the day, every decision you make about your ecommerce operations should meet the same goal: to maintain profitability while providing an exceptional customer experience. As far as shipping goes, using APIs achieves both of these objectives. So what are you waiting for? Get started using shipping APIs now!

Learn more about ShipStation and ShipBob’s partnership here.