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Evaluating single-carrier shipping vs. multi-carrier shipping

Jun 8, 2023





Packages wait outside a door after delivery. Ecommerce brands must choose between single-carrier and multi-carrier shipping in order fulfillment.

From establishing product-market fit to marketing their brand to delivering products, there’s no shortage of hurdles DTC brands must overcome to be successful. This is why many brands opt to outsource fulfillment to a 3PL—relinquishing founders from any day-to-day logistics. Nevertheless, whether you’re outsourcing or not, evaluating if you should use a single-carrier shipping vs. a multi-carrier shipping method can be a tough decision if you're unsure of the differences.

Read on to learn the pros and cons of single- and multi-carrier shipping methods and how they may benefit your business in different ways.

What is single-carrier shipping?

Single-carrier shipping is a business’ choice to use a single carrier, like UPS or FedEx, to deliver all of their orders to customers. At first glance, this option seems easier to manage, but it’s not without pitfalls. We’ll get more into that later.

What is multi-carrier shipping?

As the name suggests, multi-carrier shipping is when an ecommerce business opts to use multiple carriers to deliver orders to customers. In other words, some combination of UPS, FedEx, USPS, and possibly more. On the surface, this may seem like more effort than it’s worth; but using multiple carriers gives DTC brands more choice, flexibility, and negotiating power. 

The difference between single-carrier and multi-carrier shipping isn’t as simple as one vs. many—there are specific nuances, benefits, and shortcomings of each approach to ecommerce order fulfillment. Let’s dig in. 

Evaluating single-carrier shipping vs. multi-carrier shipping

Any way you slice it, DTC shipping and order fulfillment are complex. Whether you use a single-carrier or multi-carrier approach, most warehouse operations like receiving, storage, and pick and pack will be the same. The biggest difference here is that multi-carrier shipping would require the staff at your fulfillment center to ensure they’re affixing the appropriate shipping label to each package. 

When using multiple carriers, it’s important that your fulfillment software is able to support custom logic that will automatically assign the right shipping carrier and method to an order when it’s placed—whether that is determined by the shipping method the customer chose at checkout, the size and weight of the SKUs in the order, or the customer’s location.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Below is a breakdown of the pros and cons of single- and multi-carrier shipping.

Pros and cons of single-carrier shipping

Let’s be honest: we all prefer the easiest, lowest maintenance solution when it comes to most things—but especially shipping. Any way that we can earn time back in our day is a win, but at what cost? When it comes to single-carrier shipping, there are certainly pros and cons.

Pros of single-carrier shipping:

  • Single carrier relationship to maintain
  • If shipping issues arise—a package is running late, missing, or arrives damaged—support and operations teams have a single point of failure and can more easily troubleshoot issues

Cons of single-carrier shipping:

  • Reduced negotiating power as it pertains to rates
  • Capacity limits
  • Reduced flexibility and agility
  • Limited returns options
  • During ongoing periods of turbulence—such as if a carrier’s employees go on strike—there is little you can do to mitigate the impact on your business and your customers

Pros and cons of multi-carrier shipping

The term “multi-carrier” alone may inspire worry. Multiple points of contact, invoices, and processes add up fast, resulting in more work for the companies that have to manage carrier relationships. But executed well, multi-carrier shipping offers more flexibility and potential cost savings.

Pros of multi-carrier shipping:

  • Better rate comparison
  • Mitigate the risk of shipping delays
  • Greater shipping capacity
  • Increased stability and fewer disruptions
  • More returns flexibility

Cons of multi-carrier shipping:

  • Added complexity in relationship management
  • More rate changes to keep up with

Is single-carrier shipping or multi-carrier shipping better for my business?

Like with most things DTC, it depends. But a lot hinges on one thing: does your business outsource fulfillment, or is it in-house?

If you’re handling fulfillment yourself, it might make sense to negotiate rates with one carrier. Ultimately, the rates you get from a shipping carrier represent a numbers game: the higher your shipping volume, the better your rates. When your orders are spread across multiple carriers, you’re moving less volume with each—which makes your business less valuable to the carrier.

Then there’s the value of your time. Working with several carriers is time-consuming, and each has its own series of shipping methods with varying costs and speeds—it’s a lot to wrap your head around.

On the flip side, if you’re outsourcing fulfillment to a 3PL, the cons of multi-carrier shipping are negligible and the pros are game-changing. When you partner with a 3PL that’s fulfilling tens of thousands of orders a week, they’re able to negotiate rates with several carriers and pass them on to your business. The 3PL will also do the dirty work of routinely updating rates, renegotiating, and identifying the optimal shipping method based on your company’s product, customer concentration, and budget.

Deep dive: The benefits of multi-carrier shipping

In most cases, multi-carrier shipping methods will make the most sense. Using multiple carriers affords ecommerce companies the following advantages:

  • Easily handle growth in shipping volume
  • Provide customers with more options at checkout
  • Use the best carrier at each location in a multi-warehousing strategy
  • Maintain agility during service disruptions
  • Have a baseline for assessing and comparing carriers’ performance
  • Better prepare for peak season
  • Increase returns flexibility

Easily handle growth in shipping volume

It’s not uncommon for ecommerce brands to explode in popularity overnight—but when they do, they need to be prepared to keep up with demand. By using multiple carriers, you’re able to keep pace with increased shipping demand, even if one carrier is experiencing delays. 

Provide customers with more options at checkout

When you’re leveraging multiple shipping carriers, customers are able to choose the option that makes the most sense for them. Price and speed are obvious considerations, but some people know that certain carriers deliver products to their residence (or other specified location) more successfully than others.

Pairs well with multi-warehousing

When pairing a multi-warehouse shipping strategy with a multi-carrier shipping method, you’re able to achieve the most cost-competitive shipping rates. Not only will you be able to select the cheapest carrier, but you’re able to ship from the destination closest to your delivery destination. Not to mention that regional carriers may be available near one of your warehouses, but not the others.

Maintain agility during service disruptions

Relying on one carrier means all of your packages are in one proverbial basket (or mail truck). If something goes awry, like rate increases, inclement weather near their distribution centers, employee strikes, and so on, you won’t have a backup plan in place. Shipping strategies involving multiple carriers minimize disappointed customers and can maintain a strong brand reputation.

Have a baseline for assessing and comparing shipping performance

While it may take some time if you’re doing it yourself, shopping around will help you find the best carriers for your business. You should consider metrics like on-time delivery, broken products, and customer service to find the best partner for your shipping needs.

Better prepare for peak season

Explosive growth is one thing, but compound that with the increase in order volume during peak or holiday season, and a single-carrier shipping method may spell catastrophe. If one carrier is underperforming or experiencing delays, a multi-carrier shipping method allows you to pivot on a dime.

Increase returns flexibility

Returns are an inevitable part of doing business, but there are many approaches you can take to your own return policy. If you choose to offer your customers free shipping, you’ll also need to provide them with a shipping label—and their location, your product, and current shipping rates are all factors in determining the best carrier to use for reverse logistics. For example: carriers like USPS will likely require your customer to bring their return to a post office, but a carrier like FedEx may offer your customers the option to have their return picked up from their residence, left in a drop box, or brought to a storefront. 

Use single-carrier or multi-carrier shipping with Airhouse

When you speak with one of our fulfillment experts, we’ll conduct a free shipping analysis to see if you could be saving money on fulfillment with another shipping method than the one you’re currently using. Schedule a call for your free analysis today.

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