(This article was last published on June 29th, 2016. It has been updated for accuracy and completeness.)
You can’t always ship an entire order at once. You might even prefer to ship items separately to ensure they arrive on-time. Some items could ship from a service like Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) while others are fulfilled from your own warehouse.
Fulfillment of a single order in multiple shipments is referred to as partial shipment. While often necessary, it’s difficult to monitor on the backend of your operations. How do you track partial shipments in your systems? How do you ensure orders are mark completed only once all items are fulfilled?
Before executing partial shipment, you’ll need to know what the process is, why it’s important to get it right, and the best way to do it.
What is Partial Shipment
Let’s start with the basics. A partial shipment is when you deliver a single order in multiple shipments. Partial shipments are necessary when:
- One item or another in an order is on backorder
- An item at a certain warehouse is delayed in delivery
- Shipping items from multiple warehouses for faster delivery
Partial Shipment Example
Here’s an example of a partial shipment.
Imagine that you’re a pencil manufacturer. You get an order for a 1,000 yellow #2 pencils. But, when you go to fulfill the order, you realize that you only have 600 yellow #2 pencils in-stock. How do you handle an order that you can’t fulfill completely?
You’ve talked with the customer and you agree that you can do a partial shipment. You can ship the 600 you have on hand now. Then, once you get the 400 back in inventory, you can ship those in a second order.
Why Merchants Need Partial Shipment Capabilities
Partial shipment capabilities help you create a better customer experience. In the example above, the merchant would lose the entire order if they couldn’t do partial shipments. They would have turn the customer away at check out because they couldn’t fulfill the entire order at once. This is a loss of business, and possibly a customer for life.
Partial shipment can also ensure that you’re meeting delivery times. For a single order, you could need to ship inventory from multiple warehouses based on availability and proximity to the customer. You don’t want to have to wait to receive each item individually at one warehouse before sending the entire order to the customer. Instead, you can send separate packages from each warehouse that arrive at the same time on your customer’s doorstep.
Shipping items separately can also protect you in cases where there’s an unforeseen delivery delay at one of the warehouses. You don’t want one item to hold up the entire order. Your customer will be more understanding if they receive most of their order, instead of none of it.
Whatever the case is, it’s important to notify the customer that orders containing several items may ship separately. You should always be transparent and manage their expectations. In the example above, a customer should be able to choose whether they still want to place the order.
Why Partial Shipments are Difficult
From a customer experience perspective, partial shipments seem like a necessary part of fulfillment. However, some merchants can struggle properly managing partial shipments on the backend. It isn’t always straightforward how to manage them when you have to consier:
- Tracking the shipping status of individual items on a single order
- Marking an order complete ONCE all items are delivered
- Notifying customers what individual items shipped while others are still processing
- Fulfilling the open order when inventory does become available, before other incoming orders
- Sending partial shipment sales invoices
To properly manage these processes, you need in-depth visibility into your inventory and fulfillment processes to coordinate order and inventory data across all systems involved, which can include your eCommerce platform, ERP and/or accounting system.
It’s a lot of work to police these types of orders manually. It’s easy to make mistakes like prematurely marking orders complete or forgetting to ship part of the order that’s still unfulfilled. Instead of managing this manually, you can turn to technology to help automate the process.
How to Automate Partial Shipments
In the case of partial shipments, you need technology that can treat individual items separately on a single order. This is often referred to as a “splitting” an order. It allows you to split an order into multiple line items so you can create separate labels and track shipping of each individual items. This also ensures that you don’t lose the parent-child relationship of the individual items to the single order. Once all line items are fulfilled, you can mark the order as complete.
Small merchants can use shipping software like ShipStation to properly spilt their orders. This allows you to create separate shipments within a single order with each shipment containing its own details, tags, notes, notifications, and packing slips. Mid-size or Enterprise merchants you can also spilt orders within an ERP system like NetSuite, Microsoft Dynamics, Sage or others.
The challenge is that you need to share this order status and shipment info from your shipping software or ERP to your eCommerce platform. As updates to the order status of each line item become available, you want your eCommerce platform to reflect those changes. This ensures you can accurately communicate with customers throughout the fulfillment process. It also gives your internal team visibility into the order status.
To automate partial shipment updates between multiple systems, you can use an integration platform like nChannel to automate the movement of your order and inventory data. System integration allows you to create order workflows to update inventory quantities, approve, post, and track partial shipments, and correctly mark orders complete when all items have been fulfilled.
What to Do Next
Partial shipment is an advanced, but necessary process that you can use to quickly and properly fulfill online orders. To see how else, you can improve your fulfillment processes, check out these helpful articles:
- Distributed Order Management as a Competitive Advantage – See what practices and technologies merchants need to fulfill merchandise orders in ways that meet today’s complex business requirements.
- What is a 3PL and Why Are They Important to Retailers?
- Why Your eCommerce Delivery Strategy is More Important than Ever
- Are Returns Killing Your Online Store’s Profitability?
- Drop Shipping 101: An Introductory Drop Shipping Guide
- eCommerce: How to Ship Your Products