Low-cost residential delivery options

Consumers and carriers are squeezing catalogers and etailers. Customers today expect free shipping. Parcel carriers keep raising prices.

Consider on the one hand that UPS and FedEx pricing has risen approximately 20% during the past three years. Many surcharges, such as residential add-on fees and delivery area surcharges, are up 20% to 30% since 2009. Fuel surcharges alone have doubled since this time last year!

On the other hand, online shoppers insist on free shipping. According to a recent National Retail Federation study, the number-one purchase incentive is free shipping.

Some direct merchants offer free shipping and are forced to dilute margins or artificially inflate product costs to make up costs. But competition within many markets is too fierce to mark up product pricing. Shipping is a loss leader for many.

Compounding the financial problem is the fact that a growing number of online orders are delivered to residences. In fact, residential deliveries have doubled from 20% of the overall parcel market to 40% in less than a decade.

Shipping to residences vs. businesses poses several challenges, namely that delivering packages to a residence is more costly than delivering to a business address. Driver and fuel costs are higher outside of high-density commercial routes.

Carriers are forced to recover costs through residential surcharges ($2.45-$2.75), delivery area surcharges ($1.85-$3) and other “accessorial” charges that often account for more of the total cost than the freight charges. The graphic below illustrates how these surcharges add up for a 1-lb. package shipping to a residence.

Moreover, residential discounts in most carrier agreements are not as aggressive as commercial incentives. For example, it’s typical to see a 36% incentive off published list rates for ground commercial packages, but only 20% or so for ground residential shipments.

Other challenges: The parcel carriers are not required to obtain a signature for residential deliveries. Package tracking is somewhat limited. Final package disposition is often “left at door,” which can lead to higher costs through “where’s my order” calls to customer service, loss and damage claims, returns and reships.

More important, all delivery problems can lead to a poor customer experience, negative publicity, customer attrition and revenue loss. Not to mention reships, restocking and other operational costs.

It’s also hard to maintain current address information for residential customers. Consider the fact that 40 million people move annually in the U.S., and nearly three-quarters of the population moves an average of once every five years, according to the U.S. Postal Service annual report.

To recap this perfect storm, residential deliveries are more challenging and costly than shipping to businesses. Shipping costs are skyrocketing out of control. And online shoppers want free shipping.

What’s a shipper to do? Fortunately, residential shippers have several delivery options outside of the private parcel carriers, including the U.S. Postal Service, parcel consolidators and regional carriers. Here’s a closer look at these.

Residential shipping choices

For lightweight, low-value, non-urgent, residential shipments, the Postal Service and parcel consolidators are hard to beat in price, service and value.

Let’s start with the USPS. The Postal Service has worked hard to improve delivery transit, reliability, tracking systems and many other areas.

The results are paying off. In MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT’s Outlook 2011 survey, 59% of shippers view the USPS as a competitive alternative to UPS and FedEx.

No longer a “one-price-fits-all” shop, the USPS offers a variety of pricing formats including retail, online, volume based, weight/distance based, flat and regional rate products. Moreover, if you spend at least $2 million annually, you can negotiate custom pricing.

First-class mail parcels weighing 1 oz. to 13 oz. are a bargain even at the retail rates of $1.71 to $3.41. With private carriers FedEx and UPS, the residential surcharge alone costs $2.45 to $2.75.

As the chart below shows, the Postal Service now enjoys 44% of the less than 1 lb. parcel delivery market. Moreover, the Postal Service does not charge “accessorial” fees for fuel surcharges, residential delivery, area surcharges, pickup service, Saturday delivery, and so on.

The USPS also offers a variety of unlimited weight envelopes and boxes. As its national advertising campaign boasts, “If it fits, it ships.” The Postal Service recently added regional boxes to flat rate options, providing yet another low-cost alternative to the convenience and cost advantages of prepaid, unlimited-weight products.

Parcel consolidators

Parcel consolidators market their services as providing delivery times at or near first-class mail parcel service standards, but at lower prices. Other benefits include improved shipment visibility and less handling and damage.

According to the USPS, the major ground consolidators are FedEx SmartPost, UPS Mail Innovations, Streamlite, Blue Package Delivery, Newgistics, DHL Global Mail, Fairrington Transportation, Kaleidoscope Services, OSM Worldwide, ParcelPool and SP Express.

Each leverages USPS Parcel Select services and workshare discounts. Consolidators handle pickup, sortation, transportation and induction to the USPS hub. USPS handles the “final mile” delivery.

The deeper the induction to the USPS, the greater the workshare discounts enjoyed by the consolidator and, in turn, the greater the cost savings available to shippers.

Regional carriers

As detailed in last month’s article, “The Benefits of Regional Parcel Carriers,” regional carriers such as Eastern Connection, Lone Star Overnight, OnTrac, Spee-Dee Delivery, US Cargo and others offer reliable parcel delivery services at rates as much as 40% less than national carriers.

Many shippers will cite overall value proposition, including cost savings, consistent service performance and innovations that make it easier to ship with regionals. What’s more, regional carriers offer multiple delivery options that have many benefits — including lower cost, flexibility and, in many cases, better service.

So catalog and online retailers are wise to measure current shipping and handling policies and costs, and evaluate alternative residential delivery options. The Postal Service, parcel consolidators, regional carriers and other options could significantly reduce your shipping costs.

Maybe you can offer free shipping after all!

Rob Martinez (rob@shipware.com) is president/CEO of Shipware, LLC, a parcel audit, recovery and consulting firm.

Freight charge

Residential surcharge

DAS surcharge

Extended DAS surcharge

Fuel surcharge
(7%) $0.74

Total surcharges


2-3-Day Air Consolidator ground services Commercial carrier ground services Total
USPS commercial first-class parcels Competitor two- to three-day air parcels
2009 market share by volume 44% 5% 33% 18% 100%
2009 market share by revenue 34% 22% 10% 34% 100%
Note: USPS commercial first-class parcels and consolidator ground services percentages were derived from fiscal year data, while the other percentages were derived from calendar year data. Source: Colography Group and USPS RPW

Partner Content

Hincapie Sportswear Finds Omnichannel Success in the Cloud - Netsuite
For more and more companies, a cloud-based unified data solution is the way to make this happen. Custom cycling apparel maker Hincapie Sportswear has leveraged this capability to gain greater visibility into revenue streams, turning opportunities into sales more quickly while gaining overall operating efficiency. Download this ecommerce special report from Multichannel Merchant to more.
The Gift of Wow: Preparing your store for the holiday season - Netsuite
Being prepared for the holiday rush used to mean stocking shelves and making sure your associates were ready for the long hours. But the digital revolution has changed everything, most importantly, customer expectations. Retailers with a physical store presence should be asking themselves—what am I doing to wow the customer?
3 Critical Components to Achieving the Perfect Order - NetSuite
Explore the 3 critical components to delivering the perfect order.
Streamlining Unified Commerce Complexity - NetSuite
Explore how consolidating multiple systems through a cloud-based commerce platform provides a seamless experience for both you, and your customer.