You might say shipping is like janitorial work: we all value it, but no one seems to give a “ship” until it’s suddenly not happening.
We know it’s hard to imagine, but picture for a moment this scenario: an unprecedented pandemic catches the whole world with its pants down, going global in a matter of weeks. Then, while office employees happily begin working from home, mining sites, factories, logistic networks, and everyone who harvests, produces, or transports goods has to quarantine and eventually shut down as whole crews come down with the bug.
When the raw resources can’t be produced, the goods can’t be manufactured. When goods can’t be manufactured, they can’t be shipped. And even if the resources are available and the products can be made, if no one can transport them to their destination, their won’t be supply where the demand is. And when the supply isn’t present to meet the demand, well, then people get desperate.
But at some point in the future (we hope), supply chains and the shipping that facilitates them will adjust to recent global events, and perhaps be better prepared to face any reruns of one of the new millennium’s least favorite episodes. Which means any questions you already had about shipping—the terms, the process, the prices, the timelines, the details, etc.—will still be relevant in a post-pandemic future.
And since there’s no single, authoritative index, dictionary, glossary, encyclopedia, or otherwise to clarify all the confusing phrases, abbreviations, names, and jargon, we decided to make one ourselves.
After all, even when no one else gives a “ship,” we do.
Are you ready? Let’s start with the terms most relevant to the end of the shipping line: the consumer.
Now, we know that “snail mail” is a dying art (with good reason, but then again, who doesn’t love a handwritten letter?), but most of us are still familiar enough with the process to know how sending one or more sheets of paper tucked into an envelope works. You write an address on it, slap some government-sanctioned stickers on it, and then—barring any canine-esque ill will to the postman—you slip it in the USPS mailbox.
Then you wait a few days (or two weeks for the lucky ones living in the US’s wayward children: the 49th and 50th states) for the recipient to email you and ask “Why on Earth did you send an actual letter?”
Mailing letters is pretty straightforward. No special jargon (“stamps” doesn’t count, right?), no fancy abbreviations (beyond USPS), no burning questions to ask. Once you start sending (or ordering) less two-dimensional objects, though, things get a little more complicated.
Speaking of which, there is special jargon to refer to such an object…
“Ok, sure,” you think to yourself, “How my package gets to me is interesting and all, but when does it get here?”
When you stop and think about it, there’s an interesting contradiction inherent in shipping timelines. We don’t use snail mail letters for anything urgent anymore (“Haven’t you heard of email? Or texting? Or phone calls? Or video calls? Or social posts? Or…”). But we urgently mail packages all the time.
Well, at least, we try to.
Shipping carriers (and the ecommerce retailers that keep them in business) know this, and they’re happy to capitalize on your sense of anxious anticipation. The only problem is, they don’t all use the same system for explaining how quickly—or how expensively—the shipment will arrive. They do use a lot of the same words, though, and there’s a largely agreed-upon hierarchy involved.
Below are the relevant terms.
We’ll wrap up the section of terms relevant to consumers by discussing those frustratingly fickle and most notorious notifications: shipping statuses.
Obviously, when we’re waiting for packages, we want to know where they are in the process (and we’re not just referring to physical location). We want to know when it’s left the warehouse, when it’s getting close, when it’s headed to our house, and so forth.
Carriers have gotten better about this kind of transparency in the last two decades thanks to some pretty handy digital automation tools. But even then, it’s not always clear how status terms like “shipped” and “out for delivery” differ, making for some confusion.
Below, you’ll find the most common terms used to describe the shipping status of a given package. These terms are fairly universal, so if you see this term (or something very close to it), odds are it means the same thing whether the carrier is the USPS, UPS, FedEx, or some other carrier.
And there you have it: our strictly essential, bare-bones, absolutely-not-overexplained glossary of shipping terms. We hope it’s been educational, at least. Well, more educational than ‘90s infotainment television, at least (though, that’s a bar so low we may have tripped over it).
Remember—Ship Happens. When it does, call eHub.