Chances are you’ve ordered multiple items from a single online store only to receive them in multiple shipments. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes not, receiving multiple packages from a single order is referred to as a split shipment. Split shipments can be all but inevitable, so sellers and customers alike should understand what split shipments are, why they occur, and the impact they have on both the seller's DTC brand and customer experience.
Simply put, a split shipment is when a single order containing multiple products is delivered to the customer in separate shipments. In other words, the customer receives more than one package even though the items were purchased together.
This can happen for various reasons. Perhaps a product is too heavy or irregularly shaped to fit in a single package with the rest of the purchased items. Or perhaps a customer changed their mind and added something to their order after it was already being processed. Whatever the case, split shipments happen and can be a significant part of the order fulfillment process.
Because split shipments aren’t typically the result of human error, it’s important to understand why they occur—especially because they can have an impact on your bottom line.
A business operating like a well-oiled machine would never aim to split shipments intentionally. Not without good reason. For example, an ecommerce business that sells very large items may have no choice but to send products in multiple shipments. Nevertheless, mailing multiple shipments for a single order will happen from time to time.
Here are some reasons why split shipments occur:
In order to cut down on shipping costs, many ecommerce businesses opt for a multi-warehouse shipping strategy where products are stored, picked and packed, and shipped to a customer from the warehouse closest to the final destination. While this is typically a cost-saving scenario, sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry.
When implementing a multi-warehouse strategy, typically you’ll carry stock at all of your fulfillment centers for a single item, but it’s likely inventory will vary from location to location. In this case, if a single fulfillment center doesn’t have the units needed to fulfill a single order containing multiple products, one item may be fulfilled by one fulfillment center, and the second item may be fulfilled by another.
In this scenario, it’s unlikely that the customer will ever notice that their order is being fulfilled from two different locations, but a split shipment will ensure that the customer receives their items in a timely manner.
Pro tip: Not all 3PLs will give you control over where your inventory is stored and in what amount. Fulfillment providers that use all-in-one pricing often use a process known as load balancing to keep costs low internally, but this strategy can ultimately lead to higher costs for your business.
For various reasons, one of your products can be available for sale on your website, but is out of stock and put on backorder. In this case, someone could make a multiple-item purchase including products both in stock and on backorder. In order to get the customer their items as soon as possible, it makes sense to split the shipment—sending the items that are in stock as soon as possible and sending the item on backorder when it’s available.
Though not very common, a customer may opt to send items in a single order to multiple locations. It’s unlikely to come across a split shipment option at checkout on the average ecommerce store, but for large bulk orders of expensive items, some sophisticated online stores may offer the option to enter a unique address for each item or separate shipment.
We hinted at this briefly earlier in this article, but it bears repeating and expanding. Most commonly, very heavy or irregularly shaped items will need to be packed in their own box for shipment. For example, if you order a lamp and a carpet from the same ecommerce furniture store, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll receive them in one box. After all, it would need to be the size of a couch or something comparable!
Another example that might cause items to be shipped separately is fragility. Fragile items need to be packed carefully—leaving room for packing materials that prevent them from breaking. Take candles, for example: if you ship a bunch of them in single package, not only will they become tough to protect, but the package will become very heavy very quickly.
Sometimes split shipments happen when items are sent directly from the manufacturer or are purchased with customizations versus as is off the shelf. One example is custom embroidery. Let’s say you’re purchasing a flannel from L.L. Bean that you want to be customized with your initials and a pair of jeans that you’re buying as is. Odds are these shipments will be sent separately, so you receive your jeans as soon as possible.
Now that we’ve outlined some scenarios that make sense for a split shipment. It’s important to understand the impacts they have on the business. Unfortunately, they’re not all great.
Split shipments have their benefits. They can ensure products get to customers on time and undamaged. They can also offer convenience, like when buying items in stock and on backorder. But all good things come at a cost.
Here’s how split shipments can negatively impact the business:
Most notably, split shipments will lead to higher shipping costs. Probably obvious, but the more shipments you send, the more money you’ll spend on shipping. Generally, the more shipping labels you print per order, the higher your cost per shipment will be.
It’s not solely based on volume alone though. Depending on where the split shipment originates, the final cost to the same destination may differ based on shipping zones throughout the US.
Each shipping carrier determines its own shipping zones. Shipping zones are how carriers determine the cost of shipping by distance traveled using zip codes. Within the continental United States, there are usually eight zones, with additional zones for Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. The further the delivery destination is from a package’s origin, the higher the shipping zone, and the more expensive it is to send the package.
However, if you wait for inventory to be available in the warehouse closest to the final destination, your customer may not be happy with the delivery delay.
Receiving a split shipment is not a great customer experience—especially if the customer really needed all the items in the shipment to arrive together. While sending split shipments seems better than the alternative—delaying fulfillment until all items are ready to be sent together—there are few things worse than a disgruntled customer.
Note: communicating that split shipment might or will happen with the customer upfront can prevent a lot of headaches down the line.
When customers receive their items in multiple shipments over multiple days, there’s a greater chance that they’ll return items. Imagine if your customer ordered paper plates, tablecloths, decorations, and more for a Fourth of July celebration, but half of the items arrive late. Chances are these star-spangled products will be returned.
Split shipments are only as bad as the communication that accompanies them. If a customer is aware that their products will arrive in multiple shipments at the time of purchase, chances are you’re in the clear. However, when a customer receives a package with seemingly missing items, you’re going to hear about it.
A greater volume of customer support inquiries is never a welcomed thing. Whether the increased volume overwhelms your current staff or requires you to hire more, your bottom line will be affected.
Shipping multiple packages for a single order requires more packing materials and fuel to be used. While this may go unnoticed by some, others might not be pleased with the unsustainable shipping method.
Split shipments are unavoidable for some businesses, but a more keen focus on inventory management is crucial if you want to overcome—or at least minimize—split shipping.
Here are some measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of sending separate shipments:
The next time your 3PL provider charges you an unexpected hefty fee for split shipments, consider switching to a partner with transparent pricing like Airhouse. And the next time you notice split shipments being sent out as a result of poor inventory management, consider switching to a partner with a platform that can aggregate inventory data across multiple warehouses, so you’re never left in the dark.
Connect with a fulfillment expert at Airhouse to find out how working with an ecommerce fulfillment professional can help you streamline your inventory—gaining a greater level of control over all aspects of your business.
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