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Shipping Documents Every Ecommerce Business Should Be Familiar With

Shipping products overseas is often more complex than it seems. For ecommerce companies, ensuring you can deliver goods to various global locations is crucial to international expansion. But finding the right shipping company or partner isn’t your only challenge to overcome. You also need to manage a complex admin process, and complete a variety of different documents.

According to a study released in 2022, supply chain leaders consider finding and verifying information in the shipping process to be the most significant challenges of international logistics. That’s one of the reasons why 60% of these companies have already begun digitizing their processes.

Of course, while digital platforms can make it easier to manage and find crucial parperwork, you still need to know which documents are essential to your logistics process. Here are just some of the most common shipping documents relevant to ecommerce businesses.

9 Shipping Documents You Need to Be Familiar With

Shipping documents come in a variety of different formats, some for domestic shipping, and others for international businesses. Having the right documents prepared for your logistics process is more important than you might think.

Knowing the difference between things like Bill of lading vs packing slips documents is essential to streamlining the logistics journey, and ensuring your business (and its products) is compliant with the importing and exporting regulations of the countries you interact with.

With international shipping, laws, regulations, and requirements in different countries can often vary. However, in most cases, you’ll need to be aware of the following shipping documents:

1.Proforma Invoices

A proforma invoice is a kind of “estimated” invoice, or bill that you send to international prospects. Essentially, it’s a quote that you can deliver to a buyer before they purchase a large volume of goods. It enables buyers to ensure they have the right finances available to complete a transaction. Typically, this document will include the following details:

  • A list of item values
  • Detailed descriptions of the items
  • Information on the seller and buyer
  • Payment terms
  • Currency used
  • Harmonized System (HS) codes for each item
  • Delivery details
  • Dates and expiration dates

2.Commercial Invoices

Commercial invoices are commonplace in the ecommerce landscape. They’re essentially the “receipt” or proof of sale documents that you include within all international shipments. These documents are similar in a lot of ways to the proforma invoice, but they include a few more details.

For instance, a commercial invoice will include a unique order number, and “Purchase Order” number. These documents can also include other details that might help with customs clearance, such as freight forwarder information, item descriptions, and the country of origin for the products.

3.Packing Slip (or Export Packing List)

A packing slip, or export packing list is one of the most essential documents to include with any shipment. It serves as a vital internal document for inventory and order management. The packing list will outline the contents of the shipment, with detailed insights into the goods being shipped.

Although packing slips aren’t always a legal requirement, they are essential to ensuring you can manage your inventory correctly. In international shipments, they can also be used to help settle disputes between shippers and carriers, and assist with customs clearance.

Export packing slips generally include an itemized list of all shipped items (as well as any out-of-stock items not included in the shipment), as well as:

  • Shipping address and contact information
  • Quantity for each item
  • UPC or SKU numbers
  • PO or slip number
  • Weight and dimensions
  • Packaging options used

4.Certificates of Origin

Most international ecommerce shipments require a certificate of origin declaring where items originally came from. This document needs to be provided in accordance with the regulations of the importing country, and certified by that country’s chamber of commerce or consulate office.

Most certificates of origin will include information on the name and address of the shipper, buyer, and the exporting carrier. These documents also outline where products were manufactured, when they were shipped out, and information about the quantity, weight, and characteristics of each product.

5.Certificate of Free Sale

Otherwise known as a “certificate of export”, a certificate of free sale serves as evidence that the item being transported can be sold legally in the open market, and that there are no restrictions on those products from the country of origin. This document tells importers and shipping companies the item has been approved by the relevant regulatory authorities in both countries.

Typically, this document is more important for ecommerce companies selling regulated goods, such as cosmetics, food products, and medical devices.

6.The Shipper’s Letter of Instruction

A shipper’s letter of instruction is an informative document containing instructions on how international shipments should be transported. It’s a document you’ll need to give to any freight forwarders you’re working with, and includes details like:

  • Exporting restrictions
  • The name and contact information of the shipper and freight forwarder
  • Item weight and dimensions
  • Special handling requirements
  • Type of freight and type of packaging
  • Insurance information
  • Special instructions to freight forwarders

7.Bill of Lading

A bill of lading is another crucial document for ecommerce companies. Otherwise known as a “BoL”, a bill of lading is a shipping document that serves as a contract of carriage, as well as evidence of the receipt of goods. A carrier or agent issues this document, and outlines the terms and conditions of the transportation agreement for the company.

Bills of Lading can come in various forms, including those intended for inland shipping, and those for ocean shipping. They establish the rights, obligations, and responsibilities of the shipper, consignee, and carrier in a logistics process. Information on this document can include:

  • Item description, value and quantity
  • Transportation terms
  • Origin country
  • Destination address
  • Routing instructions
  • Packaging type

8.Air Waybill

Similar to a bill of lading, an Air Waybill is a contract for the carriage of goods shipped via air (plane). It establishes an agreement between the carrier and seller, with non-negotiable guidelines on how goods are transported. It also acts as a receipt of goods for airline carriers once goods have arrived at their destination port.

Most Air Waybills will include information about the name, address, and account number of the shipper and consignee, as well as insights into the origin and destination airport. They also feature a unique “Air Waybill” number, information on the declared value of the items, and the charges due to any agents or carriers.

Dealing with Shipping Documents in Ecommerce

As mentioned above, dealing with the various shipping documents involved in ecommerce can be complex. There are plenty of different pieces of paperwork you need to be familiar with, and it’s important to understand how each document applies to different shipping processes.

One of the easiest ways to manage shipping documents is to work with a freight forwarder or logistics partner who can help you to identify and prepare the documents you need for each transaction. Some vendors even make it easy to manage documents once they’re created, with a digital platform where you can track, edit, and share essential paperwork.

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