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International Shipping Struggles

I’ve assembled some data on international shipping delivery times, for a sample of real BMOW customers over the past few months. The table shows destination countries, sorted by median delivery time. The listed time includes the shipping itself, customs inspection, and any hold time at the local destination post office waiting for the buyer to claim the package. It’s the total door-to-door delivery time. All packages are shipped via US Postal Service First Class Package International service, which is the only reasonably-priced international shipping option available to me.

As you can see, the typical delivery time varies enormously. The good news is that most countries are faster than my two-weeks generic estimate for international delivery. For the countries where BMOW has the greatest number of sales, the median delivery time is about 8 days. Poland, Mexico, and Portugal have longer delivery times, but they’re still tolerable, and I don’t have many sales in those countries anyway.

Then there’s shipping for Brazil and Italy. Ugh. Let me draw your attention to that 49-day worst case time for Brazil, and the whopping 96 DAY worst case for Italy. When a package disappears into the bowels of the postal system for 2-3 months, customers don’t blame the post office. They blame me. It’s a difficult and awkward position, and I often need to spend large amounts of time communicating with the buyer and attempting to track the package. Sometimes I have to send replacement packages or provide refunds, even though I have no control over the postal delays.

I’ve considered various ideas for the “Italy Problem”, from an express shipper option (much more expensive, and inconvenient for me), to a surcharge on orders to Italy, Brazil, and a few others (would compensate for the greater number of problem deliveries, but would be unpopular), to halting shipments to those countries completely (forcing those customers to use a 3rd-party freight forwarding service from the US).

Misrouted Packages

While collecting the data for this table, I discovered several instances where a package was sent to the wrong country, even the wrong continent! Eventually it was re-routed to the correct country, but the extra side-trip added several weeks to the delivery time. Check out these tracking histories. Follow the links and click the “Tracking History” tab:

Canadian package sent to Brazil
German package sent to Canada
French package sent to Mexico

In every case, the address on the package was correct. What appears to have happened is that the package was sent to the same country as another one of my international shipments made on the same day. I’m not sure how that could happen – surely the sorting process is automated?

Unclaimed/Refused Packages

Many countries impose an import tax or fees on merchandise purchased from another country. In such cases, typically the package will be held at the customer’s local post office, and they’ll be sent a letter informing them that the package is ready for pick-up. Then the customer will visit the local post office, pay the taxes, and claim the package.

Most local post offices will hold a package for 1 or 2 weeks. If the customer doesn’t claim the package within that time window, it will usually be returned to me. Unclaimed packages happen for a variety of reasons: the customer was away on holiday when the package arrived, or they never received the notification letter, or they forgot about it, or they declined to claim the package because they were unhappy about the taxes. Whatever the reason, unclaimed packages are always a giant pain in the ass. They usually take several months to be returned to me, if they’re returned at all. Sometimes they just disappear.

Worldwide Sales

Despite these hassles, I’ll keep selling to people everywhere, and looking for more ways to improve the international shipping experience. I’ll keep working on packaging changes to reduce shipping weight and costs, and improved labeling to speed customs inspection time. To the customers in the 42 countries where I’ve done business, thank you.

Read 6 comments and join the conversation 

6 Comments so far

  1. Jonno - May 2nd, 2018 12:15 pm

    One thing that might help with your problem countries is the ebay global shipping program – I have no idea what the economics for the seller are (only ever been a buyer) but I can see Italy and Brazil are on the list of countries they ship to.

  2. Alberto - May 2nd, 2018 10:52 pm

    I’m from Italy and people that frequently buy things from overseas are used to that kind of delays. It’s usually due to slow customs. AliExpress vendors try to overcome this by declaring mail as gift and saying the value of the package is under 5$ worth (altough it’s super slow anyway). This helps because I’ve had packages blocked in customs because the wanted the customer to pay import taxes. To do that, they usually send a priority mail to the customer saying the taxes are due. That takes a week or so. Then you have to figure out how to pay that and have ti acknowledged. That also takes time. You can usually expect a week delay and at least an additional week of delays if that happens (and if you exactly how to pay and do it as soon as you receive the mail). Then it’s maybe another 3-4 days to get it delivered to you depending in your location. Sometimes if the amount to pay is low, the postman retreives the money and that’s much faster. I never lost mail in the process, even with free shipping from aliexpress, it eventually gets there (aliexpress is usually a 1-2 month wait from china). UPS and FedEx have they own customs facilities and are much faster altough I think they cost much more. You could just suggest italian customers to wait, or write a note saying that shipping to Italy and Brazil is sometimes longer than expected. Otherwise provide more expensive UPS shipping as an option. I know shipping is slow and wouldn’t mind waiting more than a month but I get some people could be more in a hurry. We could also try to arrange having a small stock of your products in our own office and we could forward them from inside the EU. That is usually much faster (under a week). Let me know if you would be interested in doing that.

  3. LB9MG - May 3rd, 2018 3:22 am

    Have you thought about using Amazon Fulfillment?
    Basically you send your stuff to Amazon and they handle everything. Of course you pay fees for storage space.

  4. Peter - May 3rd, 2018 6:41 pm

    I sell about 7,000 units per year of some products through fulfillment by Amazon and it is pretty seamless. I’m US and Canada only for now, but they keep bugging me for extending my product sales into Europe, touting how easy it is. Might be a good option. My net margins are about 46% of the sale price, but the average selling price is 10 bucks. You’ll likely get much higher margins for products in your price range.

  5. Steve - May 3rd, 2018 8:45 pm

    Interesting! I looked into FBA a year or two ago, but to be honest I didn’t really understand how it works – what are the costs to the seller and the buyer, what kind of packaging and labeling requirements exist, and how does it work for somebody that’s not selling their product through Amazon’s site. I’ll take another look, and may send you a few questions if that’s OK.

  6. dk3406 - May 7th, 2018 1:48 am

    If selling through Amazon, be aware that chinese duplicators will deposit a copy of your product in the Amazon warehouse as well.
    The Amazon workers will put a random product into the shopping basket.

    That one longer delay to Ger, I think that was me. 😉
    Usually, that takes a week or two, max.

    The idea to open a small stock warehouse inside the EU, probably a good idea, but that would need to anticipate what amount could be of interest.

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