How to Choose the Right Shipping Carrier for Your Ecommerce Business
In business, has someone ever said to you, “Choosing the right partner is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make?”
When it comes to running an ecommerce business, partnerships are key, and that includes choosing the right shipping carriers to partner with.
Choosing the right shipping carrier(s) is important in optimising your shipping strategy. The carriers you work with depend on a variety of factors, such as what you’re shipping, where you’re shipping to (and from), how much your packages weigh and their dimensions, and how much you’re selling your products for.
Each carrier has its pros and cons, and it can be difficult to figure out which one is right for you. But don’t fret! In this guide, we’ll discuss the best approach to choosing the right shipping carrier(s) for your business.
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What is a shipping carrier?
A shipping carrier is a company that’s responsible for getting your packages from Point A (the shipper) to Point B (your customers). The major shipping carriers that cover the US and international regions are USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL, and others.
As more businesses continue to rely on the internet to sell their products, shipping carriers have become essential to keeping the economy running as more people rely on online shopping and delivery every day.
- Long-range carriers specializes in “door-to-door” services and will carry out delivery of your shipments to anywhere in the US, as well as international locations.
- Regional carriers cover specific cities or regions and offer better rates in the areas they service.
How to choose a shipping carrier
Choosing a shipping carrier is always circumstantial, and there isn’t a correct answer that is fit for all. At the end of the day, the carrier you choose will depend on your business’s unique needs and wants.
There are so many shipping carriers to choose from, and each carrier offers their own set of services. When it comes time to choose one, it’s crucial to think about the services that fit your needs and cater to your customers.
Whether you decide to go with one of the three major carriers (e.g., USPS, UPS, and FedEx) or a regional carrier, we’ve laid out some of those most important factors to consider below.
Location, location, location
Location doesn’t just apply to real estate.
When it comes to working with the right carrier, you’ve got to figure out where exactly you’ll be shipping to.
Are you sending items locally, internationally, or both?
Depending on how you answer, different carriers offer different services, benefits, and rates.
For instance, if you’re only sending items to the US in your particular region (the Northeast, for example), you may be better off selecting a regional carrier that focuses on that area.
Where you’re sending packages also depends on the type of service you should consider. If you’re sending items locally, you may be able to opt for a cheaper service, such as ground shipping.
Ground shipping is less expensive than expedited shipping via air. Though delivery can sometimes take longer, if you’re only sending your items a couple of states away, shipping via ground can be both fast and affordable.
On the flip side, if you’re sending most of your packages abroad, then it may make sense to partner with an international shipping carrier who specializes in foreign deliveries and offers better rates for international shipments.
To optimise shipping, you should also have a basic understanding of how shipping zones work. Basically, the further away you’re shipping from, the higher the zone you’ll be shipping to — and the higher the zone, the higher the price.
We’re not talking about a Taylor Swift album here. Believe it or not, it’s important that the carrier you choose has a solid reputation that will instill trust in your customers.
By shipping with USPS, you’re partnering with a 240-year-old brand that is as synonymous with the United States as the American Flag itself or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” bumping through the loudspeakers at a Memorial Day grill-off. It might sound ridiculous, but these things are important to keep in mind.
Do they use the latest technology?
In addition to considering a carrier’s reputation, it’s important that you choose one that implements the latest supply chain technology that helps you keep up-to-date with all of your orders and also seamlessly integrates with your current tech stack.
Carriers do this by offering open shipping APIs that allow other parties to print labels and manage your inventory while you fulfil customer orders.
Pro tip: Speaking of APIs: any carrier worth their salt most always has partnerships with third-party shipping software companies that offer that carrier’s postage at discounted rates. This is a prime example of how carriers develop APIs to better serve their customers and ultimately save you money by hooking you up with discounts that large commercial shippers enjoy.
If you’re shipping products all around the country, you may want to consider a shipping carrier that can pick up products from distributed warehouses for faster delivery to your customers.
By “distributed warehouses,” we mean that the carrier has the network to pick up from multiple fulfilment centres all throughout the United States. This way, you can house your products in more than one warehouse to fulfil orders faster.
How important is 2-day shipping to you?
Like professional race car driving, shipping is an industry where speed matters. One of the most important things to consider when choosing a carrier is transit times.
Transit time is the overall time required for a shipment to be transported from Point A (you, or a fulfilment centre) to Point B (its delivery destination). The average time-in-transit varies depending on the shipping zone and carrier service selected.
When it comes to shipping speed, there are almost always two options: standard shipping and expedited shipping. If you want your products to arrive quickly without breaking the bank, then you should consider partnering with a carrier that offers affordable 2-day shipping.
On the other hand, if it’s critical that your orders arrive as quickly as possible (as in the case of frozen food shipments or packages with perishable items), then shelling out the cash for expedited shipping services might be the way to go.
The cost of shipping
Cost is often the number one deciding factor when businesses choose a particular carrier. If you’re selling low-value items with lower margins, then keeping the cost of shipping as low as possible can truly be the difference between a successful business versus one that flounders.
On the other hand, if you’re selling big-ticket items that require expedited delivery and ample insurance coverage, the cost of shipping might not matter so much. Instead, you may want to pay a for premium shipping, along with signature confirmation.
At the end of the day, you’ll want to pick a shipping carrier that not only charges the prices that make the most sense for you, but also delivers on those prices with fast and reliable service.
If you need some help figuring out how much money you’ll be spending on shipping, check out ShipBob’s post “How to Calculate Shipping Costs.”
Whether a shipping carrier offers guaranteed delivery is another thing to consider, especially if you’re sending high-value items that you can’t easily replace if something happens to them during the shipping process.
Most carriers don’t guarantee a delivery date for standard shipments, and instead offer “estimated” times of arrival. Keep in mind that the estimated shipment date and all other dates in the process are subject to change. Should this happen, a carrier’s real-time tracking tool will provide updates that reflect the new estimated delivery date.
Some services, especially the fastest services that each major carrier offers, will come with delivery guarantees, but you’ll have to pay much more money. In fact, these services are often the most expensive.
Obviously, overnight delivery is more costly than standard shipping, since carriers need to hustle to get packages to their final destination within a 24-hour period. A step even further than that is same-day shipping, which is by far the most expensive service you’ll find with any carrier that offers it.
Pro tip: Shipping dates, estimated delivery windows, and guaranteed delivery times can make for confusing terminology, and it’s easy for young shippers to mix them up. To learn the difference between all of them, check out ShipBob’s article on “Ship Date vs. Delivery Date.”
Weight and dimensions of your packages
This is another big one. On top of how far your products need to travel to reach your customers, the weight and size of your packages both play a huge role in how much they will cost to ship.
That’s why it’s so important to optimise your package sizes; ultimately, your package dimensions can be the factor that makes or breaks your small business. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller and lighter your packages are, the less money it’ll cost to ship them out.
On the other hand, if your orders tend to be heavier and larger, then you’ll need a shipping carrier that caters to this. UPS generally offers the best rates for shipping heavy items, while USPS specializes in smaller, lightweight packages under 20 pounds.
Pro tip: Watch out for dimensional weight charges! In a nutshell, dimensional weight — or “DIM” weight — is the measurement of how much space your package takes up on a carrier’s truck, instead of the actual weight of your package itself (e.g., shipping a pillow, which is large but light, can be very pricey, especially if it’s going to the other side of the country). If your DIM ends up being a higher number than your package’s actual weight, your carrier will charge you extra to ship it — much extra.
Reducing your DIM weight is one of the most surefire ways to reduce shipping costs.
Some other things to consider…
While we’ve done our best to lay out as many factors to consider as we can, there are also other lesser-known points to keep in mind when choosing the right carrier. Below are a few more instances to consider.
If you’re shipping to military bases:
USPS treats shipping to military bases as domestic destinations, while other carriers often treat them as international destinations. And they price their services accordingly, meaning it’ll cost way more money to ship there than sticking with USPS.
If you’re shipping fragile items:
Some carriers, like UPS, offer specialty services and boxing for shipping fragile items. For instance, UPS will pack your fragile items with all the right kinds of packing material and use special-made boxes to keep delicate items from breaking.
By working with a carrier that handles these types of packages on a daily basis, you’ll give yourself the best shot to prevent any shipping damages that happen during transit.
If you’re shipping dangerous goods or hazardous materials:
Similar to sending fragile items, something to consider when choosing the shipping carrier for you is whether or not you’re shipping hazardous materials, and whether your carrier will accept your packages in the first place.
Certain carriers allow certain items to travel within their network, while others don’t. For example, UPS and FedEx allow for the shipment of ammunition, while USPS prohibits ammo altogether.
Shipping methods should match your shipping policy (or vice versa):
Does your online store have a shipping policy that your carrier of choice can comply with? If not, it should! If you’re looking for a place to start building your store’s policy, ShipBob has a free shipping policy template.
If you need to pay for additional shipping insurance:
All the major carriers offer some form of insurance, and you can always purchase extra for an additional fee.
However, each carrier also places a cap on the amount of value you can declare for insurance, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re sending high-value items, like jewelry, for instance. You can learn more about shipping insurance here.
If you’re shipping media:
Certain items, such as vinyl records and books, qualify for a special USPS service known as Media Mail.
If you have the ability to ship your items for Media Mail rates, you should strongly consider it, since Media Mail rates are hands-down the cheapest weight-based shipping rates you’ll find out of any shipping carrier. But if you aren’t shipping only media, forget about it.
International vs. regional shipping carriers
While most shippers are familiar with the major carriers in the United States, there are also carriers that specialize in regional delivery, as well as carriers that focus their efforts on international shipments.
What are regional carriers?
Regional carriers are smaller, local carriers that provide fast, affordable shipping and transportation services.
There are two major types: regional carriers that cover specific cities, states, and/or surrounding regions, and those that have multi-state coverage within the same region.
Examples of regional carriers
We’ve listed out several of the most popular regional carriers in the United States below, along with links to their websites, should you choose to look into them further. Note that each carrier listed below services a specific region of the United States.
- CDL Last Mile Solutions
- United Delivery Service (UDS)
- Lone Star Overnight (LSO)
- GLS US (formerly GSO)
- US Cargo
- Pitt Ohio
What are international carriers?
International carriers are exactly what they sound like: carriers that offer global shipping services to deliver packages to your overseas recipients.
It almost always costs more than domestic shipping, but considering the sheer amount of purchasing power outside of the United States, international shipping will only become more important as time goes on.
When shipping internationally, you also want to consider whether or not you’ll be partaking in Delivery Duty Paid (DDP) shipping. Some carriers offer DDP services, and others offer DDU (Delivery Duty Unpaid), which makes the buyer responsible for paying any duties incurred once the package enters the destination country.
DDP is one of the most popular shipping option for businesses that sell a lot of products internationally, since it makes sellers responsible for paying any customs or import duties instead of buyers. This said, the costs associated with DDP might not be worth it for sellers if too many issues arise.
The best international carriers
Believe it or not, the best international carrier options are still the three major carriers in the United States, along with DHL (headquartered in Germany). Here’s that list, in case you need a refresher:
- USPS: specializes in handling small, lightweight packages under 20 pounds — think packages containing items like apparel, books, and makeup
- UPS: specializes in express services at affordable rates for ecommerce packages and is ideal for heavier packages
- FedEx: specializes in express and overnight shipping when you need to send something fast and is also a premier carrier for B2B ecommerce
- DHL: specializes in international shipping
Comparing the top shipping carriers
Below is a simple transit time comparison of shipping carriers of all kinds: domestic, regional, and international.
Large US carriers
|Best for small packages (flat-rate shipping)||1-3 business days||USPS|
|Best for larger packages||3-5 business days||UPS|
|Best for cross-border shipments||5-7 business days||DHL|
|Best for express deliveries||Multiple||Fedex|
Regional US carriers
|Region served||Time||Regional Shipping Carrier|
|Best for the South||0-1 business days||Lone Star Overnight|
|Best for the Midwest||0-1 business days||United Delivery Service|
|Best for the West Coast||0-2 business days||OnTrac|
|Best for the West||0-2 business days||GLS US|
|Best for the Northeast||0-1 business days||CDL Last Mile Solutions|
|Best for the East||0-2 business days||Lasership|
International ecommerce carriers
How ShipBob works with different shipping carriers for faster shipping
ShipBob understands that different clients have unique needs to meet their customer’s expectations. That’s why ShipBob works with the shipping carrier that best serve customers. On top of automating the shipping process, ShipBob also acts as a complete retail fulfilment partner.
“I was most impressed with ShipBob’s commitment to driving improvement and technology, which drives reductions in delivery time. I knew a shorter transit time was going to become more and more important.”
Michael Peters, VP of E-Commerce Operations at TB12
ShipBob stores inventory throughout all of their locations in the United States (as well in Canada, Europe, and Australia), which allows you to get products to your customers faster than you could by keeping them on hand and fulfiling orders yourself. Check out the full list of ShipBob’s locations here.
When orders come in, ShipBob picks, packs, and adds a shipping label to all your packages. Then, when it’s time to ship, they partner with a variety of carriers and have them pick up packages from their fulfilment centres daily.
Lastly, ShipBob automatically sends the order tracking info back to your store, so you can share it with your customers and keep them updated throughout the entire delivery process.
ShipBob even offers visibility into real-time carrier rates that you can display within your store during the checkout process.
Simply put, companies like ShipBob exist to take shipping and handling entirely off your hands. That way, you can focus on doing what you do best: growing your business.
Shipping Carriers FAQs
Which is the best shipping carrier?
There’s no “best” shipping carrier out there; the truth is, each one specializes in different areas and offers premium services for businesses of all sizes and needs. Choosing the right one all depends on how it best fits your needs.
Remember, each carrier also has its variety of services to choose from. For example, USPS alone has several different mail classes, each of which service different needs and price points. So, even if you select one particular carrier to work with exclusively, you’ll still have a large amount of options.
How do shipping carriers handle international orders?
Each of the major carriers handle international orders differently. For instance, USPS partners with other countries’ public postal services to carry out final delivery. They are able to do this and offer some of the lowest international rates because of the United States’ membership in the Universal Postal Union (UPU).
Conversely, other carriers like UPS, FedEx, and DHL rely on their own networks to carry out delivery to the final international destination, instead of working with foreign countries’ federal postal services. Since these larger carriers utilise their own logistics networks, they are able to offer faster, more trackable, and more reliable international deliveries (but they are almost always more expensive).
How do shipping carriers work with 3PLs?
Along with providing small business shipping solutions, many 3PLs like ShipBob work closely with a variety of shipping carriers that pick up and physically transport packages after the 3PL packages them up. When you decide to work with a 3PL like ShipBob, you can even map the shipping options that ShipBob offers you to what you display on your online storefront at checkout, so your customers enjoy an extra layer of transparency.
How do you choose the right shipping carrier?
Choosing the right shipping carrier all depends on a variety of factors, such as what you’re sending, how much it weighs, and where your products are going. Every situation is different, and if you want to take the guesswork out of it, you should consider working with a company like ShipBob that automatically shops for the best rates and chooses the most efficient carrier partners based on the situation of each individual shipment you’re sending.