There are pros and cons to every method of shipping, whether international or local, and there’s also no “right” answer. Every e-commerce business is different, and the right shipping strategy depends on factors like budget, product assortment, who your customers are, where the business is based geographically and more.
Rather than giving tips for which shipping methods are best or which ones a business should use, we’re breaking down some of the most common methods in three key areas: cost, speed and environmental impact.
Cost: How much does it cost the seller to ship the product to the buyer? Costs to consider include carrier costs like shipping labels, packaging, fulfilment, insurance and overhead.
Speed: How much time does the shipping method take? How long between the customer making the order and receiving their package?
Environmental impact: What effect does the speed and method of shipping have on the environment, from carbon emissions to water pollution and more?
Delivery methods for e-commerce: Cost, speed and environmental impact
Same-day delivery is becoming more popular and is the fastest-growing segment in the last-mile shipping environment, growing at 36% annually. In Europe, same-day delivery accounts for about 5% of total deliveries. E-commerce giants with large-scale supply chains tend to cover this especially well; Amazon already delivers to nearly three in four customers within 24 hours. The same-day delivery market is forecasted to reach $26.4 billion (USD) by 2027.
The term “same-day delivery” can mean different things depending on the seller; in some cases, orders placed by a certain time will arrive by the end of the same calendar day, while others may just mean delivery within 24 hours. Typically, for same-day delivery to work, sellers need to have distance limits or cut-off times for when the order must be placed by to qualify. It’s also worth noting that same-day delivery is not always possible; it’s more likely to see it as an option in large cities or in more populated areas of Europe, for example, compared to the US, Canada or rural regions in other countries.
The cost of same-day delivery, both monetarily and to the environment, depends on the carrier and the region. With traditional carriers such as FedEx, UPS or DHL, same-day delivery can be quite expensive and have a higher environmental cost. As Earth.org points out, “when dealing with a one- or two-day shipping window, [carriers] are often forced to send out trucks that are filled at half their capacity, generating more traffic and thus emissions.”
However, especially in larger cities across the globe, there are many carbon-neutral alternatives available. For example, there are newer carriers like Budbee from Stockholm whose offer from the start was same-day delivery, with electric vans that are cheaper and carbon-neutral.
There are also bike couriers in some markets, like Stuart in London or Cycloon in the Netherlands, that offer same-day delivery directly from stores. In these cases, same-day delivery is fast, carbon-neutral and not necessarily more expensive than slower shipping options.
Overnight, two-day and expedited shipping
The environmental impact of overnight and other speedy shipping methods like two-day and expedited is highly dependent on the area. Within regions like France and Germany, for example, overnight or two-day shipping may be the cheapest option at many carriers, and the environmental impact is mostly based on context, such as the type of parcel, location and other factors.
However, overnight or expedited shipping in regions like North America, Australia and APAC can be expensive, especially when transported by air versus sea or ground shipping. A study performed in China on the carbon footprint of shipping options found that emissions from air shipping were 65 times higher than sea shipping. (Note that sea shipping is simply not an option in certain regions like North America and Australia.)
Higher speed can also mean higher costs, in some cases. Air cargo typically costs more because of the need for faster delivery times and high fuel costs. Ocean freight, however, uses larger vessels that can transport more goods for longer distances, which is why it tends to be 12 to 16 times cheaper than air freight.
In general, retailers who want to use overnight and speedy shipping options without high cost or environmental impact certainly can do so, as long as they find the right carriers to partner with and take into consideration 1) the region they are operating from and 2) the regions of their shoppers.
Two- to three-day shipping
Two- or three-day shipping, sometimes called priority shipping, is one of the more common types in e-commerce. It is slower than overnight, same-day and expedited options, but can still get items to customers faster than standard economy shipping in some markets. In European countries, the cultural differences between countries and delivery networks create discrepancies in what is considered “priority shipping”. For example, in urban areas like Stockholm or Oslo, it’s considered normal to offer overnight delivery, while in other parts of Sweden and Norway, shipping times are far longer due to the large distances – hence the offering of priority shipping options in these specific regions. In general, consumers are more likely to complete a purchase when it’s delivered faster than usual: In North America, up to 85% of shoppers are more likely to buy when two-day delivery is offered.
The cost of two-day shipping is highly dependent on how far the item is being transported. For shorter distances, ground shipping can be used; this is why sellers with fulfilment centres or warehouses in different regions are more likely to be able to use this option. For longer distances, air cargo is used to guarantee the two-day turnaround; however, this has a higher cost and a larger environmental impact.
In some cases, “fast delivery” – which encompasses all shipping options where orders are delivered within one to three days – will require some air transportation, meaning sellers can’t take advantage of full truck load capacities. This results in the need to dispatch more frequently and increases the total cost of transportation and environmental impact. A simulation model run by a team of MIT researchers in Mexico, for example, showed that “fast shipping produces significantly higher CO2 emissions since it imposes a challenge for cargo consolidation.” Their findings indicated that fast shipping increases both total CO2 emissions and costs by up to 15% and 68%, respectively.
In Europe and other large metropolitan areas around the world, fast delivery does not necessarily cost more or require air transportation, decreasing the environmental cost.
This may be called economy, regular, basic or ground shipping depending on the country or region, but it’s simply the cheapest shipping option available from the courier. Items sent by standard shipping typically use ground transportation and take longer to arrive. Here are some examples of how long standard shipping takes for domestic orders in Europe, the US and UK:
Netherlands: 1-2 working days
Germany: 1-2 working days
France: 1-2 working days
UK: 2-5 working days
United States: 3-5 working days
Costs to use standard shipping vary by country and courier. As for the environment, the typical saying is that “slower is greener.” According to research by Josue Velazquez, a research Scientist at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, e-commerce customers who wait up to five days for home delivery “could help decrease carbon dioxide emissions by about 30% in the last mile of a delivery.” However, as with other types of shipping, this is all dependent on location.
Shipping packages internationally can vary widely in terms of cost. While domestic shipping often has a flat fee, shipping to other countries may lead to additional costs in areas like customs and customs brokerage, as well as ground, maritime or air transportation.
Speed also varies with international delivery. Shipping from the US to Europe, for example, can take anywhere from 10-16 business days with economy delivery services, or as few as one to three business days with an expedited courier. All European countries have their local domestic “postal” networks that are now used for delivering parcels. These networks stop at the country borders and therefore companies need international line haul transportation networks to "inject" parcels into the local networks of their neighbouring countries. This may lead to one or two additional delivery days.
On the environmental side, international shipping of any speed can have a high environmental impact, as it typically requires multiple legs of transport and at least some involvement of air or ocean cargo.
“Eco-friendly” is not a clearly definable term, and it means different things depending on the e-commerce seller. Generally eco-friendly shipping can involve any of the following:
Recyclable or compostable packaging
Carbon offset options
Smaller packaging size
Ground-based shipping versus air or sea
An e-commerce sustainability survey by Sifted found that consumers are interested in these options. 91% wanted an eco-friendly shipping option when they checkout, and 57% are willing to pay an additional 10% for eco-friendly packaging and shipping.
While the cost of using eco-friendly packaging can be higher, using less harmful shipping methods like ground and standard shipping can actually be cheaper for the seller and the shopper.
Alternative delivery (parcel lockers, click and collect)
Many e-commerce sellers are choosing to offer additional delivery options. A global survey of supply chain executives found that 44% offer click-and-collect (including products that are not shipped and sold directly from stores) and 11% offer collection points. These options can decrease costs for shippers if they are able to group packages, and may increase the speed of delivery in some cases.
Whether delivering to a parcel locker or collection point makes a significant difference to the environment depends on what one considers “significant”. During the last-mile delivery stages, the previously mentioned study in China found that total emissions produced for home delivery were 0.012 kg CO2e higher than delivery to a collection point.
Source: AZO Cleantech 2021.
Which shipping method is best? It’s up to the consumer
During a talk at Omnia’s annual Price Points Live event in 2022, Dr Heleen Buldeo Rai, a researcher at the Université Gustave Eiffel in Paris, spoke about how it’s really up to the consumer to choose delivery options, not the retailer. With the industry standard set at free delivery, most consumers are no longer willing to pay for shipping; they are, however, willing to wait longer or to “click and collect” their purchase.
A study she conducted with colleagues in Belgium – with similar results seen in Netherlands, Bolivia, China and Brazil – found that while 81% of consumers would say yes to free next-day delivery, that number only dropped by three percentage points when offering free delivery within three to five days.
When a slower shipping method is used, there is a positive impact on the company’s costs as well as the environment. This study could indicate that consumers are willing to make this trade-off, if retailers use the information to properly motivate them toward eco-friendly delivery options.
Customer demands may outweigh shipping costs in the end
Since 2010, global e-commerce sales have increased by nearly 800%. That’s great news for all the e-commerce sellers out there and for the customers who want to shop online, but there is a fragile balance to maintain. We all saw the strain put on supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic: An EY survey of supply chain executives across industries found that only 2% of respondents said they were “fully prepared” for the pandemic. 57% said they were affected by serious disruptions, with 72% reporting it had a negative effect on them.
While that situation is not a daily occurrence, the growth of fast shipping, combined with the steady uptick in e-commerce sales each year, is putting its own stressors on the logistical capabilities of our global shipping network. In order to keep the global supply chain from collapsing as e-commerce volumes increase, and to boost environmental protections, it may become more necessary over time for customers to make trade-offs and accept slower shipping times.
As data from Sifted showed us earlier, nine-in-ten consumers wanted an eco-friendly shipping option when they checkout, and eigh- in-ten would wait at least one extra day for their delivery if that meant it was shipped more sustainably. Increasing the amount of orders that are shipped slower would have significant positive impacts on the environment, while also saving e-commerce businesses on their delivery costs – but not every consumer will be willing to accept slower shipping. It’s a tricky balance, indeed. Retailers and brands who sell online must balance this need for sustainability with a positive customer experience and reliable and flexible delivery, all of which adds up to customer loyalty over time.