If you’ve kept up with this Carrier Insights column throughout the year, you’ve probably noticed that the majority of what’s featured is targeted at smaller businesses.

A primary reason for this is that, unlike larger companies, many smaller enterprises don’t have the time or available resources to research emerging shipping and logistic trends and best practices. And with 26.9 million small businesses in the U.S. last year, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, it’s obvious that there’s a large audience of small businesses that can benefit. 

With that in mind, here’s a handful of top-line considerations small business owners should consider as 2009 draws to a close and many are reviewing their shipping and logistics strategies, and planning for success next year.

Establish or Expand Your Global Presence
We have often said that you’re behind the curve if you’re not exploring global opportunities for your small business. Doing business in international markets can lead to a variety of benefits, from cheaper sourcing options, especially in Asia, to expanding the pool of potential customers to whom small businesses can market their products and services. 

To effectively operate globally, small business owners should identify and utilize tools that can help them navigate the international marketplace. In many cases, your logistics partner may offer tools and expertise like these for free, as value-added services. For instance, electronic commercial invoices can save shipment processing time while speeding the customs clearance process, and adopting Web-based international returns capabilities can make managing returns from around the world feasible. 

Maintain Visibility
Years ago, the best shipping visibility a small business owner could expect was a confirmation that a shipment was received by its customer. Times have certainly changed, as sophisticated tracking technologies now allow small business owners and their customers and trade partners to monitor the movement of their goods, information, and funds throughout their supply chain. 

Additionally, small business customers and their trade partners rely on real-time information about in-transit shipments to effectively manage their own operations, making visibility crucial to maintaining valuable business relationships. Without visibility, “black holes,” or spots at which you lose the ability to manage your shipments, can lead to inventory control problems, damaged trade relationships, and general confusion that can keep the small business owner from focusing on their business’s core competency. Ensure that your logistics partner has the tools and experience to provide global end-to-end visibility of your orders.

Green Your Shipping and Logistics Processes
Being a responsible environmental steward is important to both small and large businesses, and their customers, these days. Shipping and logistics is a great place to find ways to increase efficiency and move toward achieving your “green” goals. 

Small businesses can dramatically cut their environmental impact by utilizing environmentally friendly materials in their packaging, and by designing packaging to minimize damage to in-transit goods. These two steps can lower waste associated with your shipments and reduce unnecessary emissions that result from customers returning goods that were damaged in transit. Additionally, using paperless shipping tools, such as electronic invoicing, can dramatically reduce paper waste. 

Bottom-line, these simple changes can lead to reduced environmental impact while at the same time increase operational efficiency, which help small businesses go – and save – “green.” 

Work With a Third-Party Logistics (3PL) Provider 
As mentioned previously, most small businesses need to devote their resources to their core competency and simply don’t have the resources to analyze and implement in-house shipping and logistics changes. As such, many small businesses can benefit from working with a 3PL provider.
With constantly evolving security and compliance initiatives, trade agreements, customs regulations, duty rates, and import and export processes, trade compliance is increasingly critical for reducing or avoiding costs and shipping delays. Those without the resources to dedicate a team to shipping compliance should consider partnering with a third-party logistics (3PL) provider, and/or taking advantage of tech-enabled tools offered by their logistic partner. A quality 3PL provider can provide small business owners with decades of experience, and the tools, knowledge, and guidance to make that area of their businesses run smoothly, helping them turn their supply chains from a liability into a competitive advantage.

Small businesses owners can invest heavily to build this expertise in-house, but why would they when a knowledgeable and experienced 3PL provider can serve as a one-stop shop for those tools and expertise, and more?

Jordan Colletta, Vice President of e-Commerce Marketing, is responsible for the marketing activities of UPS’ customer facing technology and ups.com. Jordan is refining UPS’s e-Commerce strategy, as well as delivering new solutions through the development of Internet-based technologies, applications and wireless access.