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- Shipping labels don’t just get a package to its destination.
- They can provide useful information for consumers too.
- Here’s how to break down what’s on most e-commerce package labels.
Scott Ruffin photographs the label of every package that comes into his house in Seattle.
“There are all kinds of things I can find out,” he said. Ruffin’s not your ordinary e-commerce customer. He spent the bulk of his career so far building Amazon’s immense logistics machine. And now he’s building his own — a competitor for UPS and FedEx called Pandion.
He keeps labels as an encyclopedia of which retailers are working with which delivery companies, and how. And he can do it because all of that information — who’s working with who, how they move packages around, and what problems each package may have faced along the way — is on the label. You just have to know where to look and how to decode what you see.
That cryptography can serve regular online shoppers, too. Labels can answer questions like, why did this package take so long to arrive? Which delivery company threw my package and broke what’s inside? Or what’s the rough carbon footprint of my package?
What can a package label tell you?
A package label can tell you a lot about where the package has been, how far it traveled, and even what’s inside.
We all know the basics. The recipient and the destination address is in the middle, return address at the top left. But these days, the return address is more interesting than it used to be. For the last five years or so, retailers and logistics companies have been working to speed up deliveries, and that means they need more warehouses close to where people live.
The return labels can show how close that inventory was to you when you ordered it and potentially answer the question: How did this get here so fast? On that rare occasion an Amazon package arrives even faster than the shipping speed advertised, it’s very likely the address was right nearby.
Next to the return address is usually the weight of the package — a good thing to check on big items before lifting.
What do the barcodes do?
Apart from addresses, the bulk of a shipping label is covered in bar codes, which have two major functions. They tell logistics workers how a package is going to get from the starting point to the destination, and they drive the tracking information that the recipient receives.
By scanning the correct barcode, workers along a package’s path tell both the company they work for, and usually the consumer too, where the package is so that the system can determine where the package should go next.
In fact, logistics companies sometimes brag about adding more scans into their processes because retailers know that consumers love up-to-date tracking information. The more scans, the more updates for the recipient.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s very likely that a simple label means a package took a simple journey. A label like the one below, from East-Coast based regional carrier CDL Logistics, indicates a pretty simple journey without a lot of open questions.
A more complicated label with multiple types of barcodes and QR codes gets complicated for a few reasons. First, the label may have lots of scannable codes if it could be rerouted through multiple different carriers. UPS, for example, has a service that usually ends with delivery by the US Postal Service. The hand-off to USPS makes it slower, but also cheaper. Services like this are growing in popularity as costs go up across supply chains.
But depending on the destination and the other packages in the network, UPS could decide to deliver that package originally headed for USPS in one of its own brown trucks instead. The scans are points where the package could be rerouted, but the package has to be ready for both USPS and UPS — meaning more barcodes for the two entities’ different systems.
If a label has lots of barcodes and QR codes, like the below Amazon label, it’s possible that some of those were never used at all.
UPS, said Ruffin, has some of the most complex labels in the business because they use various QR codes to gather information about packages too.
What do the letters mean?
If you see clusters of capital letters, especially in groups of three, these are often codes for warehouses around the country. Amazon, for example, names buildings after nearby airports. (The Staten Island, New York warehouse that just successfully unionized, for example, is called JFK8 and if your package was packed there, you’ll see that on your box.)
On the label above, the return address is simply listed as LEX2. That’s an indication of where the package was packed — Lexington, Kentucky — and that Amazon is the company delivering it, since if any other company were doing so, a full return address would be printed.
Also printed on each label is the tracking number — the same one most shoppers receive via email to watch a package’s progress to their door. Sometimes in the tracking, sometimes somewhere else on the label, the company carrying the package is usually evident.
Have other questions (or complaints) about package shipping and labels? Share them with senior reporter Emma Cosgrove email@example.com.