Jan. 29 2007 01:44 PM

    There is a black hole. It's mysterious, it sucks up money and time, it begins at your company's shipping department. Packages leave the safe confines of your company and enter this black hole. You think you know where the packages are going and how they are getting there and how soon they will arrive and how much it will cost you. But you can't be sure the hole is dark, and you can't see in.


    Thanks to the arrival of desktop shipping technology rising like the sun, the black hole is fading away. Years in the making, and combining a range of technologies, today's desktop shipping takes the form of Web-enabled Internet and intranet-based shipping and logistics information management solutions. What these solutions do, in a nutshell, is allow mid-sized to larger companies to combine various functionalities to create their own customized virtual desktop shipping room at every employee's desktop. This, in turn, helps businesses and corporate administrators streamline their procedures and gain both comprehensive knowledge and complete control of their shipping and mailing operations.


    Installed on a company's intranet server and accessed through a browser on the user's desktop PC, the best of these shipping software solutions are remarkably easy to operate. Today's desktop shipping solutions allow users to select the most cost-effective carrier service from a pre-established list, enter a destination address from an electronic address book and track a parcels' delivery status all at the click of a mouse. Everything is automated. There are no more hand-written shipping requests. These potentially non-legible request forms are now replaced with barcoded, address-verified printed forms created right at the user's desk.


    Here's how many of these desktop shipping solutions work. Desiring to ship a package, the user populates the fields on his PC screen with SHIP TO and SHIP FROM information, estimated parcel weight and desired delivery time. At this point, the user is able to confirm that the recipient's address is accurate and select the best carrier service for the job. Once all the fields are completed, a barcode is printed out that contains all of the originator's shipping instructions. This barcode is then scanned automatically, populating data entry fields in a multi-carrier compliant shipping system. Transport costs are ascertained and the package is electronically manifested with the carrier. Detailed package shipment information is automatically uploaded to the user's file for personal review at their leisure.


    By completely automating the shipping process, the manual processing of volumes of parcels and mail now takes far less time, as do other labor-intensive tasks like selecting the best carrier for a desired delivery service, entering the destination address and tracking parcels. Keystroke errors and resulting rectification costs for lost shipments are all but eliminated.


    The financial benefits of desktop shipping go beyond time savings. Many of these benefits can be immediately realized. For example, by having instant access to multiple carrier express services on a single computer screen, users can quickly identify and pick the most cost effective rate for their desired delivery service.


    Users can also determine, prior to shipping, all the costs and delivery-time issues associated with sending a package with special requirements or instructions, like "Next Day Air." In the past, you might have sent a parcel out on Friday, "Next Day Air," thinking it would arrive on the next business day, meaning Monday. You would learn later that the package arrived on Saturday, and you paid out unnecessary extra charges. With desktop shipping software, shipping instructions are applied automatically and the sender's transaction file is updated electronically.


    Another key feature of desktop shipping is the ability to have real-time access to multi-carrier parcel tracking information and USPS Delivery Confirmation data, all within a single screen on the user's desktop computer, 24/7.


    These systems can also automatically forward, via e-mail, shipment notifications to both the sender and recipient, confirming the shipment time, carrier service, estimated delivery time and package ID information, as well as providing a direct link to the carrier Web site for real-time tracking of critical packages.


    Disappearing with the elimination of the "black hole" are the costs associated with incorrect addresses and package returns. Most major carriers do not have the ability to confirm whether an address is valid. But many users of desktop shipping software do have this power. The best of these systems offer the option to validate ship-to address information with a certified USPS database.


    Companies can customize their desktop shipping solution to establish mailing and express shipping guidelines, maximize security, comply with corporate rules and assure adherence to contractual agreements. You can also use this software to limit user access to shipping packages and require management signatures for packages to be sent with special requirements.


    Desktop shipping solutions deliver a chronological record of shipping activity across your entire enterprise. The systems' mail accounting capabilities allow companies to collect, consolidate and report mailing and shipping charges to individual departments or cost centers.


    Companies are often leveraging new technologies in their quest to increase efficiency, productivity and profits. Unfortunately, the shipping department has been an area that has been overlooked in the past and the costs associated with corporate air express mailing and shipping have often skyrocketed. Finally, companies are beginning to see the light in the form of the cost-saving, productivity-enhancing advantages of desktop shipping solutions.


    Terry Mosbaugh is the marketing manager of Logistics Products with Neopost. For more information, visit www.neopostinc.com.