How Online Brands Can Set Shipping Expectations With Their Customers: Tips and Examples

Editor’s Note: This article is a guest contribution from Jessica Meher, CEO of Wonderment, an order tracking and shipping communication platform for ecommerce merchants.

Ahh, the holidays…a retailer’s favorite time of year. It’s an understatement to say that this year, however, will look a lot…different.

It’s no surprise that 2020 is the year of ecommerce. With COVID-19 shuttering retail locations and trapping everyone in their homes, online shopping has skyrocketed to all-time highs.

According to Salesforce, this holiday season will bring 30 percent global year-over-year growth in ecommerce. Yes, that’s 30 percent…in just one year!

But that growth presents a double-edged sword. For an industry constrained by a finite amount of resources, it’s caused a ripple effect across the entire supply chain.

The rise of “shipageddon”

While our economy’s mad dash to ecommerce has boosted our bottom line, warehouses, third-party logistics (3PLs), manufacturers, and shipping carriers alike are now understaffed, out of space, and overwhelmed.

Supply, meet demand.

With online shopping soaring to new heights, major shipping delays have followed in its wake.  

According to a recent WSJ piece, excess package demand this holiday is projected to be 4X 2019’s level – with an average of seven million packages that don’t fit in anyone’s trucks.

In fact, in an alarming New York Times article, “the pandemic and the holidays will make shipping a zoo.” They’ve even given this phenomenon a new name: “shipageddon.”

Sounds fun!

The rise in ecommerce adoption has hit the United States Postal Service especially hard. With so many retailers dependent on USPS (as being the most affordable option for many), shipping delays threaten the backbone of ecommerce, causing wide-spread concern on whether our kiddos will have that Nintendo Switch in time for Christmas.

Despite the spotlight on USPS, other carriers aren’t immune to the deluge of online shopping. UPS and FedEx recently warned everyone to plan ahead, discouraging retailers from offering last-minute deals and encouraging consumers to shop early.

Amazon has set the bar for fast shipping. But due to COVID-19 and the rise of online shopping, consumer expectation hasn’t caught up to reality. Despite shipping delays being out of your control, it’s a reflection on your business and can cost you more than a bad review. It can make or break brand trust.

Plan accordingly for shipping delays that will extend into next year

Interestingly enough, we have seen this movie before. While the number of shipments in 2020 are certainly extraordinary, delivery woes are not new, and every now and then, history repeats itself.

For example, recall when UPS went on strike. Or think about whenever there are major weather conditions across the globe. And most recently, remember when the California wildfires caused significant problems for shipments to and from the West Coast.

Will shipping delays ease in the New Year? Perhaps. But due to rising COVID-19 cases, not to mention the January/February return season, things could get worse before they get better. Brace yourselves.

"January is the month of returns, so capacity will still be a problem after the holidays. After that, it's going to depend a lot on the vaccine. If we have a vaccine ready in time, shipping capacity is going to be a major problem."

Cathy Roberson, Logistics Trends & Insights

Shipping communication strategies for online brands

The good news? Regardless of the upcoming shipapocalypse, there are quick and easy proactive measures you can take today to set delivery expectations and resolve shipping delays even before they happen.

Communicating realistic shipping timelines, updating consumers on the status of their order, and proactively notifying them about delays, is critical.

This homepage message from Poppy’s Little Treasures (shown below) is just one great example of how to communicate shipping delays prior to the holidays. But in this post, I’m going to show you several marketing methods you can implement to set consumer expectations around shipping timelines.

Read on as we dive into examples of:

  1. Early shopping promotions and tactics
  2. Fulfillment/processing communication
  3. Shipping-specific notifications


Shop early communication examples

Because of the overcapacity and constraints on shipping, both retailers and carriers are encouraging buyers to start shopping early in order to get holiday gifts in time.

The problem? The ecommerce industry has trained consumers to do our holiday shipping last-minute. We know that if we just wait a little longer, we’ll get a better deal or bigger discount.

That means communicating the importance of shopping early (and rewarding the behavior) is a must-have tactic to guarantee gifts before Christmas. Even Amazon held Prime Day in October instead of November this year.

But what if consumers are hesitant to purchase early?

That’s why I love this awesome email campaign from Patrick Caddou of Supply. Check this out…

Why is this so impactful? Many consumers know that “final sales” aren’t always final. Patrick flips that belief on its head by using honesty, transparency, and urgency to encourage early shopping. This email doesn’t feel overly gimmicky or mass-market. Because it comes from the founder and CEO himself, it’s a more genuine and empathetic approach.

Here’s another email example (sans discount) from apparel brand Draper James, shared by Caila Schwartz, retail analyst at Salesforce.

Fulfillment delay communication examples

COVID-19 and the overwhelming demand has created major challenges for not just shippers, but also manufacturing and warehousing facilities. Many are working with reduced staff for health and safety and some are at max capacity.

Even if you’re processing orders as expected, if they aren’t being fulfilled the same day or even next day, to the consumer, that is a delay. Consumers (myself included) believe most items are just sitting on a shelf ready to be picked up by robots and shipped that day.

Consumers often don’t factor the packing and processing time into the delivery window. If UPS says an item will take five days, we expect the item to arrive within five days from the moment we click the buy button.

But for many small businesses, if you don’t fulfill items that quickly, then it’s important to communicate when items are estimated to ship and not just the shipped-to-delivered timeframe.

This example from is incredibly simple yet a highly transparent look into their fulfillment process.

This type of strategy helped Ash Young, founder of CarMats, alleviate the influx of “where is my order” support calls as customers were unaware each product was individually made to order. The seven to fourteen day difference between order confirmed and order shipped was causing customer confusion about when their package was expected to arrive.

So Ash built a two-step, post-purchase nurturing sequence. The first email outlined the six-stage process to making their orders (which, as a side benefit, also illustrates their level of care and quality to ensure that high standards are met) and the second email provides a “heads up” that the order is expected to ship soon.

There are many other situations that can cause delays with fulfillment, and it’s important to notify customers when order issues occur. In this case, luggage brand Away held a major promotion and quickly sold out. That over-demand caused a bottleneck in fulfillment and in being able to ship those items quickly. To remedy the situation, they sent a note (from their head of support) to customers regarding the delay.

Letting customers know your fulfillment timeframe is just as important as shipping timeframes. It sets the expectation from purchase all the way to delivery about when a package is expected to arrive.

Pre-purchase shipping delay examples

One of the most important steps you can take to create a better customer experience is to set proper expectations upfront. Many consumers know that COVID has caused shipping delays, yet many still expect their order to arrive in a timely manner. For most of us, those purchases are time-sensitive, perishable, or important in our lives, and any delay can cause a bad experience.

That’s why we’re seeing more and more brands notify customers of possible delays and provide additional communication on what to expect.

One of the easiest ways to communicate shipping delays or encourage customers to take advantage of early sales is to blanket your website and marketing channels. Not to the point of being overly annoying of course, but assume you need to cover your bases. Here are many different ways and places you can notify customers regarding shipping and fulfillment timelines. 


1 | Shopping cart and checkout

One of the more important channels to communicate potential delivery delays is directly within the shipping cart. If a customer completes the checkout and is unaware of any delivery delays, this could result in a bad experience from the start.

A simple message within the checkout flow is all it takes. Here’s how Nike’s includes a delay notification within their checkout, for example.

2 | Email

Consider adding additional shipping delay notifications to existing transactional emails. You may have email campaigns or promotions that guarantee fast shipping, and old promises can anger customers expecting pre-covid shipping timeframes.

Here is a totally paw-some example (pun intended) from pet food brand Chewy. In this email below, Chewy proactively notified all subscription customers of their Autoship program. This is great for two reasons: it gives customers peace of mind they are at the front of the line for orders, and it reassures customers that Chewy will notify them ahead of time in case items go out of stock, making it easier for them to cancel or reorder an item. This type of email campaign is great as it helps to avoid concerned customers calling into support.

3 | Shipping, Returns, and FAQ pages

As an online store, it’s best practice to include a page on your website for shipping and returns. Naturally, this is also a great place to communicate shipping timelines or delays.

Below you can see a great example of this concept in action from LondonDrugs. They communicate both estimated delivery times based on location and potential delays. Because they ship essential products, delays could have a major impact on their customers.

Here’s another example from Overlays. They give customers a heads-up on a 2-5 week delivery time on their shipping page, plus they include a delayed message on the pop-up bar across their website for extra measure. Because their products are custom-made and not picked right off the shelf, disclosing this processing delay is crucial to setting the right expectation.

Post-purchase shipping communication examples

Ok, so what happens after the customer places an order? The notifications stop there, right? Nope! In fact, it’s incredibly important to continue communicating the status of their order until the package is delivered.

Even if packages arrive on-time and with no issues, providing real-time communication regarding the whereabouts of a package along its journey can help ease customer anxiety and reduce “where is my order” tickets into your support team.

Let’s take a look at a few best practices.

1 | Order confirmation page

First things, first. Even after including messages on your website, one final message on the order confirmation is also advised for good measure.

This is a simple example from Olipop within Shopify’s confirmation page, post-checkout.

2 | Email status updates

Sending real-time updates on the status of a shipment is no longer nice-to-have; it’s table-stakes.

Large big-box retailers have mastered this approach but consumers expect the same transparency from small brands, too.

Many ecommerce platforms like Shopify provide out-of-box shipping updates. But to go a step further, connect your email provider to an order tracking software for a more on-brand and custom look.

If possible, always include a tracking link in your communication so that a customer can easily check on the shipping status of their order. You can send the customer directly to the carrier, at a bare minimum, but if you have a custom order tracking landing page, that’s even better.

For example, here’s another great example from drink brand Olipop. Their emails are not only beautifully designed and on-brand, but informative and to-the-point. Their emails always include a tracking link in case customers want to take a closer look at their order’s whereabouts.

Here’s another wonderful example from one of my favorite brands, Haus. This is a very simple order confirmation letting the customer know that tracking information will be available once the item ships and that any pre-ordered items will arrive at a later date.

Most consumers expect to see these updates, but to go above and beyond, also consider sending proactive emails even when there’s an issue.

Consumers check the status of their order 3-4 times, on average. If the carrier fails to scan the package during transit or it appears as if the package is lost or stuck, consumers will start to worry.

You can get ahead of this by notifying the customer about a delay in their shipment and that you’re keeping an eye on it. This helps to earn goodwill and helps avoid any incoming “where is my order” calls. A win-win.

This is an example by Hydrant (another one of my absolute favorites). A super simple, plain-text email is all it takes to make customers feel like they are getting VIP service.

3 | SMS status updates

Text messaging is becoming an increasingly important channel for customer communication. Texts have a 98 percent open rate, meaning SMS messages are read far more than any other channel. It makes sense. Personally, there isn’t a text message I haven’t read.

That makes SMS a prime channel for shipping updates.

According to HeyMarket, “With channels like email, delivery updates are often lost in inboxes or read too late. SMS shipping and delivery updates are an easy way for delivery teams to provide real-time updates regarding order status.”

The most important shipping updates consumers should receive include Shipped, In Transit, Delayed, Out for Delivery, and Delivered. Anything more granular could be a nuisance, so it’s important to key messages to a minimum.

This SMS message from Overstock, for example, is no-thrills but accurate and up to date. I subscribe to their text updates because I know that my order status is all I’ll get and that they won’t spam me with promotional offers.

But what happens when there’s an issue? Delivering good news is one thing, but delayed or lost packages should be handled proactively, too. 

Similar to the email examples above, you can notify your customer via SMS whenever there is a problem with a shipment. It gives you the opportunity to kindly let them know and remedy the situation before they reach out to customer support.

Final thoughts

The overcapacity on the ecommerce supply chain is causing a perfect storm, and just in time for the holidays. But with all the uncertainty around shipping these days, proactive communication is your secret weapon.

Here are a few final takeaways and reminders:

  • Over-communicate, over-communicate, over-communicate. Include shipping timeframes and delayed messages across your website, in promotional copy, order confirmation, and in transactional email.
  • When communicating delays, be genuinely helpful, human, and transparent. Avoid jargon, passive-aggressiveness, or over-salesy language. Personalized letters from the CEO or head of support work great, as it signals a thoughtful message from a real person.
  • The most important shipping statuses to notify customers on include Shipped, In Transit, Delayed, Arriving Soon, and Delivered. But you can go the extra mile by proactively notifying customers regarding any other shipping issues, too.
  • If you can, try to avoid sending the customer to the carrier to deal with tracking down a lost or delayed package. This causes more frustration for the customer and overloads the carrier’s support system even further.
  • Other best practices: provide a tracking link on almost every shipping status update. Send this to the carrier’s website at a bare minimum. If you have a custom tracking page, even better.

It’s a fact: the holidays will be quite different this year. For growing ecommerce merchants who want to maintain customer happiness during a chaotic time of year, setting the right shipping expectations can help make it your best one yet.

Interested in more tips on communicating shipping delays and transactions with your customers? Find more insights here.

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