Today, a package out for shipment rarely ever goes directly from the sender to the carrier to the receiver, even in the case of rapid deliveries. The process is infinitely more complicated by the fact that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other packages daily that also need to depart for their destination quickly whether that be by ocean freight, air freight, or land freight. Imagine, if you will, the journey a package must undergo.
First, it is picked up from the shipper’s home by the carrier. The carrier takes it, along with all their other items, to the carrier’s sorting room. There, packages with similar delivery areas, routes, or delivery times, will be sorted into like groups and then loaded back onto a truck. If the journey is somewhat local and a transfer to another truck or sorting center is not required, those packages travel to the warehouse closest to the package’s final destination. From there, they are put onto delivery trucks and sent out to their terminus. As you can imagine, there is a whole lot of time and plenty of opportunities for a package to accidentally get lost, misplaced or re-routed, along this rather crazy journey.
For decades now, shipment tracking has been a feature employed by the shipping industry in order to prevent lost packages. Also known as package logging, this process of logging parcels, mail, shipping containers and other items throughout the various stages of their journey has decreased the percentage of lost or damaged packages by a large margin. By localizing this freight and logging their check-in and check-out during sorting, warehousing, and delivery, the freight industry found a way to increase visibility, provide accountability, and avert the loss of goods. If you are a shipper, knowing how to track your shipment will help you run your business more smoothly and keep you from worrying about where your freight is, and whether it will be delivered on time.
In this helpful freight shipment tracking guide, we will discuss how to track a freight shipment and why such a feature is essential for you and your business.
Personally tracking a freight shipment
The ability to track shipments along their journey is one of the freight services that provides both the shipper and carrier a sense of assurance that the shipment will arrive promptly and safely. As technology has evolved, the ability to track a shipment and the accuracy of that tracking has only improved. These days, you can easily track a freight shipment using just your phone or computer. Although some shipping companies use different methods, the most common shipment tracking processes use either the Bill of Lading or a Progressive number (PRO).
Bill of lading
The Bill of Lading is the most important document of the entire shipping process and is necessary for a shipping transaction to occur. At its essence, the BOL is the receipt for the goods being shipped by the carrier, so it should be kept safe and be readily available for review. The BOL is made up of several line items including:
- The declared value of items being shipped
- Description of goods being shipped
- PO or special account numbers
- Shipment dates, shipping units, and measurements
- Shipper and receiver (consignee) names and complete addresses
- Specific handling instructions (if required)
- Type of packaging used (crates, pallets, or drums)
The bill of lading number is the easiest way to track a shipment, but if you do not have the BOL on hand, your next best option would be to use a PRO number.
The most typical way of tracking a freight shipment is through its progressive number. A PRO number is a series of numbers generally 7 – 10 digits long. Quite often, this pro number is paired with a Standard Carrier Alpha Code (SCAC) in order to form a longer barcode. Since the 1960s, when transport companies first began to digitize their records and freight data, the National Motor Freight Traffic Association has controlled, logged, and assigned these SCAS numbers to identify and distinguish one carrier from another. They are typically a unique four-letter combination that is then followed by the PRO number, creating the barcode.
This barcode is printed on a sticker, which is then placed on the freight pallets, so it is visible and scannable. After being scanned, that PRO number will be used as the tracker throughout the entirety of the freight’s journey. It is commonplace for a shipment to have multiple PRO numbers, including entire pallets. In such cases, a carrier will assign one overarching PRO number that denotes shipment as the whole on each individual PRO number.
Not all that dissimilar from a UPS tracking number, these PRO numbers are generated and saved in a carrier’s software system before shipment. This saves time and expedites the freight process since the numbers are already created and easy to pull up. This PRO number will be on everything, from the paperwork to the pallets, to the Bill of Lading. Copies of the BOL with the PRO number will be given to both the shipper and the carrier in order to aid the billing process or to notify the carrier of a late or damaged freight shipment.
Alternative reference numbers
The vast majority of major carriers have online services that can track your shipment using other data and numbers provided.
- Shipment Number – This number is usually given after the first request for a freight shipment.
- Shipment Reference Number – This number is decided by the carrier to reference the shipper’s business. It could be the company’s name, the purchase order number, the BOL number, or a customer number.
- PO Number – The purchase order number is the main reference number that encompasses all communications and paperwork that deal with this freight purchase.
Enlisting help to track your freight
If you are a small business that does not ship often, then you might have no problem simply tracking your freight on your own. However, if you are a larger company that routinely ships in bulk, a Transportation Management System (TMS) could help streamline your entire freight process and remove the headache of tracking hundreds of different shipments. A TMS not only optimizes tracking but the rest of the freight shipping process as well. Over time, it gathers data that will provide you with vital information on how to continue improving your freight shipping efficiency.
Transportation management system
Transportation management systems are typically subdivisions of the supply chain management wing of the company. Most businesses that often ship freight will employ a logistics department that utilizes TMS to cut operating costs, track freight, and increase efficiency. TMS notifies you of delays and can create optimal routes that avoid such delays. Over time, analysis of the data can help your team lower freight shipping costs by minimizing waits and transfers, which leads to less damaged freight and loss.
For both parties to communicate throughout the shipping and tracking process, a TMS will utilize either one or both of an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), or Application Programming Interface (API).
Created in the ’60s, EDI was the first method of sending cargo information electronically. By removing human error from that equation, this means of electronic communication drastically improved a shipper’s ability to communicate with a carrier and track their freight throughout the process. An EDI became a virtual folder that could be sent from one party to another and then opened by the receiver. It contained key info such as the Bill of Lading, purchase orders, invoices, and other related documents. At the time, this electronic communication technology was revolutionary. But, as computer processing and technology improved exponentially, this rather outmoded, one-way sending of information, was soon surpassed by API.
Application programming interface (API)
API allows open and instant communication between two parties. These days, this information is sent and stored via cloud system computing. This allows shippers and carriers to correspond in real-time, share documents in seconds, and track a shipment immediately. An API can be utilized to:
- Track freight by sharing important numbers with both parties
- Send carriers for pick-up requests
- Alert both parties of freight pickup confirmation
- Send status freight shipment status updates
- Obtain global transit times.
If desired, a TMS can track your freight shipment and send status updates telling you where the cargo is, the stage of the shipping process, and expected delivery.
- Dispatched for pick-up – This alert tells you that the carrier has confirmed your freight request and will arrive that day for freight pick-up.
- In transit – Your goods are on their way to the carrier’s freight terminal nearest to the delivery address.
- Out for delivery – The freight has been picked up from the carrier’s freight terminal by a delivery truck and is on the way to its intended location.
- No carrier response – A message that says a carrier is either too busy to fulfill your shipping request, or their API has not received the request.
- Refusal by consignee – Freight refusal, though not commonplace, does happen in cases where the freight needs special machines to remove it, or if the freight was damaged.
- Shipment delayed – Delays can happen for a variety of reasons, some in the carrier’s control and some that are acts of God. These alerts let you take action and notify the supply chain of the expected delays.
Benefits of freight shipment tracking
Freight shipment tracking provides a host of benefits to both a shipper and their customers. Pros of having a freight tracking number include:
- Reducing customer anxiety – One of the most obvious, yet still essential benefits of being able to use a tracking number is to help lower a customer’s anxiety over when their package might arrive. If their freight is important or valuable, or they need it by a certain date, it is quite common for customers to worry over their shipment.
- Giving delivery information – Tracking numbers and management systems not only tell customers that their shipment is en route, but can provide other important details about the entirety of the process, from pick up to delivery. Customers can use them to get an estimated delivery, see if a delivery date has been altered, and monitor the freight at each stop. Upon delivery, updates will be made stating where the package was dropped off.
- Increase transparency – Package tracking allows a carrier and a shipper to provide transparency to a customer. It lets the party’s lift the curtains and removes the mystery from the process. Especially today, customers trust companies that are open with them and are quick to dump companies that they believe to be deceptive. By giving the clients all the relevant details and the ability to track their purchase, you help build and establish trust between you and the customer.
- Decrease customer service costs and demands – By giving your customer’s an electronic way to track their shipment, you save your customer service department from having to spend time answering most questions having to do with tracking. This allows them to focus on actual customer issues, rather than wasting time updating frantic customers about the status of their package.
- Locating a lost package – Tracking numbers help your company locate a package that was lost or sent to the wrong destination. Since they are scanned at several waypoints, tracking numbers allow the carrier to narrow down where it was most recently scanned, and to see what went wrong. During a shipment’s journey, a package could be misplaced, delivered to the wrong address, or improperly sorted, but the tracking number makes it easy to determine the error.
In the olden days of the Pony Express and the juvenile years of the American mail system, a letter or a package could take months, if not years, to reach its intended destination. More often than not, it would be passed along to whoever was heading in right the general direction and would change hands several times over the course of its long, circuitous, excursion.
As you are probably all too aware, such a meandering journey, especially across untamed country, was a dangerous one; so, if the carrier of your letter suddenly got sick, injured, or ambushed along their journey, your mail might never make it. In that time, sending a letter or a package any great distance, even a couple of towns away, was a toss of the dice. Today, we are fortunate that it has never been easier to track your LTL freight shipment as it passes hands and travels thousands of miles from your warehouse to your customer’s doorstep.