eCommerce fulfillment is full of acronyms and abbreviations. From WMS to FBA to ERP, it can often feel like retailers are swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup! Amid this sea of shipping jargon, there is one acronym that connects them all: API.
APIs can help online merchants provide a seamless, transparent shopping and shipping experience, which is crucial given that 38% of customers say they’ll never shop with a retailer again following a negative delivery experience.
So it’s more important than ever for eCommerce companies to know what Shipping APIs are and how to use them to create a strategic advantage over their competition.
What Are Shipping APIs?
API stands for Application Programing Interface. It’s a software-to-software interface and is how different applications talk to each other without user knowledge or intervention. So, shipping APIs allow a brand to integrate the shipping functionality of UPS, FedEx, or USPS directly into their online store without tediously integrating a website or order management system with carriers individually.
These APIs live behind-the-scenes and are a conduit between customers and couriers. They create an automated, streamlined checkout and delivery process, which is integral when creating a positive eCommerce customer experience.
Key Functions of Shipping APIs
The functionality that a Shipping API provides varies based upon what the shipping service can offer. For instance, some carrier APIs give developers the option to show available self-service locations, while some lack this functionality. Some shipping APIs offer international shipping functionality, while others don’t.
As a rule of thumb, there are seven key functions of shipping APIs: label creation, rate shopping/multi-carrier support, shipment tracking, address validation, connecting carriers, shipping manifests creation, and voids & returns. Below we will explore the most important features brands can use to optimize their delivery process:
- Label Creation
The primary function of a shipping API is to generate shipping labels. Once both the carriers and a brand’s store are integrated with a shipping API, shipment data is transmitted to a create label API endpoint. The shipping API then sends the data to the carrier who will return the label data. In the label data will be a URL that is used to download the label so that it can be printed immediately or saved for later.
- Address Validation
During the checkout process, when a customer enters their shipping address, the online store sends a request via the API to verify the address and find possible deliverability issues. If the address is identified as invalid or incomplete, the website will show an error message and alert the shopper of the problem.
This process stops delayed order fulfillment, failed deliveries, and address correction surcharges. It also prevents the problem and logistics fees of voiding and reprinting shipping labels and any other shipping documents.
While the main purpose is to standardize invalid addresses, this can also be used to distinguish between residential and commercial addresses. In doing so, a shipping API can help reflect proper residential surcharges.
- Rate Shopping/Multi-Carrier Support
Every postal carrier has its advantages and disadvantages. FedEx differentiates itself with specialties in time-sensitive deliveries, next-day delivery options, and 2-3 day shipping options. UPS has offices throughout the globe so a brand’s package never needs to be unnecessarily re-routed through multiple different companies during the delivery process. Often times, it’s an eCommerce brand’s best solution to use multiple carriers to offer multiple shipping options to customers.
Shipping APIs allow a brand to do just that. Customers get multiple options from multiple carriers with real-time rates and delivery estimates based on the products purchased and their location. This gives shoppers the choice between the least expensive shipping option and the fastest delivery method. This can be a big differentiator for online brands as 45% of customers abandon shopping carts because of unsatisfactory delivery options and 60% of customers have chosen a competitor with more convenient delivery options.
- Shipment Tracking
Shoppers value transparency and frequent communication, so a large part of being a successful merchant is making sure customers have the most up-to-date information. This could be letting a buyer know when a product is back in stock, when a new product line is launching, or the date a purchase will be delivered.
With Shipping APIs, a retailer can integrate up-to-date ecommerce order tracking information into a website, email, text message, or even a mobile app. Brands can choose to either offer real-time tracking or polling tracking. Real-time tracking is the preferred method as no end-user interaction is necessary for updates. With real-time tracking every time a package has a status update (i.e. in-transit to out for delivery to delivered), the API will transfer this data to the appropriate software. A brand can use this alert to trigger a customer notification via their preferred method of communication. Polling tracking requires making an API call to update a shipment’s latest tracking event.
Pro Tip: Carriers offer much more shipping data than just the tracking number. When a customer clicks through a tracking email, send them to a customized landing page with your brand’s unique branding. Take the carrier’s data and display it in maps that update in real-time and with branded messaging. This creates a great post-purchase experience, which will boost repeat sales.
Why Shipping APIs are Important for eCommerce Retailers
While the percent of retail sales that is attributed to online commerce continues to grow each year, brick-and-mortar stores are not going anywhere. In-store purchases have one thing that online sales will never have: instant gratification. As easy as eCommerce can be, there is still a delay between when a customer makes a purchase and when they receive the item. This is why e-retailers must make the delivery process as quick and painless as possible, and shipping APIs are the key to doing just that.
The average consumer doesn’t know or care to know the complexities of eCommerce order fulfillment. What they do care about is the convenience of having their purchase delivered to a specific place at a specific time. The functions of a shipping API allow a brand to accomplish just that:
- Address validation ensures that the package is going to the exact place a customer needs it to go and eliminates extra fees and surcharges associated with delivery corrections.
- Mulit-carrier options ensure that the package will get there by the customer’s specified date. This also means that customers don’t have to pay more than they’re comfortable with for shipping or wait longer than they’d like to for a delivery.
- Shipment tracking gives customers the peace of mind they need by showing them exactly where their package is from the moment they place their order. Not to mention this also decreases the number of “Where’s my package?” customer calls and emails that take away valuable time from important tasks.
Shipping APIs have a huge impact on customer experience, and the kind of experience a customer has influences how loyal that customer will remain.
How Do Shipping APIs Work?
APIs live in the background of an online store and pull in data from external servers to display to customers. The most common API is a REST API. It involves requests and responses, where the website will make a request for information to the server and the server will respond with the requested information.
- Resources – What information can that API provide
- Endpoints – How a merchant’s site accesses the resource
- Methods – What are the allowed interactions
- GET – used to retrieve resources
- POST – used to create resources
- Supported Parameters – Criteria coupled with the endpoint to specify the response format
- Sample Request & Response Objects – What the inputs and outputs should look like
Developers use this documentation to integrate the shipping API into their website and begin showing customers important information such as possible delivery options.
Not technically inclined? Online shopping carts like Shopify & WooCommerce have apps on their App Stores that allow you to execute some of the same functionality as Shipping APIs with zero technical knowledge. Apps plug directly into your store and are already connected with carriers or databases (i.e. an address database for address validation). The downside: plugins can slow down the speed of your website, and brands rely solely on the app’s creators to continuously update the code/make sure it’s in compliance.
How Are Shipping APIs Different from EDIs?
EDI stands for “electronic data interchange”. EDIs are a computer-to-computer exchange of business documents in a standard electronic format, such as purchase orders and invoices. EDIs allow a brand to share data across different platforms and technologies without human interaction. While they sound very similar to APIs and can support eCommerce automation, there are a few disadvantages EDIs have when compared to APIs.
- EDIs take longer to execute than an API
On average an API will take 2-3 days to be fully integrated. Onboarding an EDI can take up to several months. On top of that, managing an EDI requires a niche skillset only a few developers have. APIs, because of their ease of use, are widely used. So the number of developers that know how to implement and manage an API is much greater.
- EDIs cost companies more to use and take longer to transmit data
Transferring data with an API is virtually instantaneous. An EDI takes a few minutes for information to be analyzed and transmitted, and in this age of technology, a few minutes might as well be a few years.
In addition, EDIs must be processed by computers rather than humans, so companies are required to invest in expensive software or specialists in order to use EDI files.
- EDI usage is on the decline
While a large number of Fortune 500 companies still use EDIs in their operations, the ease, cost-effectiveness, and scalability of APIs is leading to an increase in its popularity. It is likely EDI usage will be eclipsed by APIs as the preferred method of system connection in the near future.
What to Look for in a Shipping API
After deciding if a shipping API is right for your brand’s business, the next decision is selecting which shipping API provider is right for your brand. Below are a few key features to look into during an evaluation:
Connections: the number of connections a shipping API has is a good method of measuring their success as an API. The more carriers that are available, the better it will be able to scale with a brand’s business. In addition, a longer list also speaks to the API’s dependability and scalability. Look for a provider that integrates with more carriers than the ones you currently use, offer both domestic & international carriers, and use regional or last mile carriers like LaserShip.
Speed: the time it takes for an API to process is virtually imperceivable to the human eye. However, when the number of API calls happening in an hour increases into the hundreds or thousands, lag becomes more noticeable. An API call should take a subsecond; anything longer than 0.5 seconds can create a noticeable slowness for the end customers.
Rate Limits: certain providers will limit the number of calls a brand can make to a system’s API endpoint in a specified timeframe (often by minute or by hour). Once that limit is reached, a (429) Too Many Requests error is returned. If a business grows beyond a current rate limit, they can pay to increase it. The number of calls a brand transmits is not equal to the number of orders they receive. An API can transmit a single call to update thousands of shipments.
Documentation: while most API providers will have standard documentation posted on their website, it is important to call out documentation as a necessity that a brand needs to ensure that they will receive when partnering with a shipping API provider. If a call isn’t properly documented, then a merchant will be unable to make the call. Make sure the potential vendor provides easy to understand, thorough documentation.
Sandbox: sandboxes are a tool that let a developer try out their API call in a test environment. This is valuable in a shipping environment because a brand can see if their integration is functional without affecting real data and orders. Sandboxes are usually complementary features. An added advantage is if the sandbox offers a staged carrier account where a brand can create sample labels & rates without touching live accounts.
Top 3 Shipping APIs to Simplify & Automate Your Existing Operational Flow
To start a merchant on their evaluation process, we’ve compiled a list below of the top Shipping APIs that allow brands to provide the best end customer experience while automating the shipping process:
ShipEngine APIs allow brands to build the workflows they need to create seamless shipping experience for customers. With ShipEngine, a brand can:
- Enable customers to conduct in-cart carrier rate checks
- Print labels
- Track shipments
- Validate addresses
- 5 cents per label generated
- .5 cents per rate quote when rate shopping
- 1 cent per tracked package
- 1 cent per US address validated
- 6 cent per worldwide address validated
Shippo APIs is an all-in-one solution that allows brands to:
- Validate Addresses
- Manage returns
- Schedule carrier pickups
- Track shipments
- Compare carrier rates to find the best match for outgoing packages
Plus they offer branded emails & tracking pages to create customized user experiences for merchants.
- Pay-as-you-go – 5 cents per shipment plus postage costs
- Professional plan – $10/month
- Premier plan – customized solutions based on your business. Contact a sales representative for more information.
EasyPost is a modern shipping API solution that gives a brand more flexibility and control over their parcel shipping and logistics process. This technology allows brands to:
- Track shipments
- Verify addresses
- Ship internationally
- Purchase labels from carriers
- Shipping insurance
- Pay-as-you-go – 1 cent per package
- Shipping insurance – 1% of the insured value with a minimum of $1
Being a successful eCommerce store is dependent on a brands ability to be profitable and still maintain an excellent customer experience. Shipping APIs help e-retailers with both of these goals, so if a brand isn’t taking advantage of Shipping APIs, now’s the time to start!
LEARN MORE: Jay Group is platform-agnostic when it comes to integrations. Whether you’re using a standard shopping cart, a shipping API provider, or EDI, our team of experts can seamlessly integrate into whatever technology stack you’re currently leveraging. Contact our team at Jay Group to get started.