Facebook app provides shipping savings

We’ve all had to go through it. At one point or another, we have all spent hours tracking down some random purchase in local stores to save on shipping, only to give up and resign ourselves to paying for the three pounds of cardboard and packing peanuts that are apparently needed to protect a paperback book from the hazards of UPS.

Ram Ravichandran, CS ‘04, thought there had to be a better, more cost-efficient and eco-friendly solution. Thus, ShipTogether was born.

According to Ravichandran, ShipTogether provides “carpooling for your online purchases.” It is a Facebook application that allows Amazon shoppers to combine their orders and save on shipping costs by making it easier to meet the $25 minimum order for free shipping. The application also scores bonus points for helping the environment by reducing the amount of packaging required.

ShipTogether works by first having a user pick what they want to order, then pick who they feel comfortable sharing shipping with (just friends, people in their networks, etc.) and how long they want to look for a match (any duration between one day and two weeks). After a match has been found and the users have approved each other, a single-click link to Amazon’s checkout window is generated with both users’ purchases selected. The purchase is then ready for payment.

Currently, one user pays for and receives both shoppers’ purchases. It is up to the two users to work out the reimbursement on their own.

However, there is a system in the works that will allow users to pay for their own purchases separately.

“[ShipTogether] started off as a small hack to save on shipping for a few of my friends and me and evolved over time as more people were interested in it,” Ravichandran said. “But one of my main motivations to actually spend time and effort on developing a Facebook application was to reduce the impact on the environment. It actually turns out that this is a win-win-win situation for customers, Amazon and the environment.

“For customers, this means no shipping charges, no postponing orders and no filler items; [in other words] it saves them time and frustration,” Ravichandran said. “The shipping costs that Amazon absorbs when the total is over $25 makes a lot more sense only when people actually buy stuff worth $30 or more per cart. But by adding filler items, people get the order total to just over $25 and, in effect, Amazon makes less profit from them. Lastly, shipping together saves the environment. One-third of the stuff in landfills is from packaging materials…. By shipping together, users can really reduce [the amount of packing materials used to pack smaller items].”

Ravichandran explains that although he plans on expanding ShipTogether to include other sites, it makes more sense to limit the number of sites available through the service.

“I am planning to add support for Buy.com, Barnes and Noble and VitaminShoppe,” Ravichandran said.

“I didn’t want to dilute the market by giving people too many options. For instance, if someone found a book at the same price at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, they might choose fifty-fifty on which site they want to go to. By restricting ShipTogether to just Amazon, I can make sure that it is more likely they can get a shipping buddy to share their purchase,” Ravichandran said.

“Currently, the Facebook version is the only one that is available. Depending on user response, I might have a stand-alone site authenticated by Facebook Connect,” Ravichandran said.

ShipTogether is not the first program of its kind that Ravichandran has developed.

“I like to develop stuff that would be useful for a few people around me, and then eventually expand it as more people use it,” Ravichandran said. “While at Tech, I did something similar with food—a project called OrderKhana. ‘Khana’ in Hindi means food. I am a vegetarian, and when I came to the U.S. in 1999, I had trouble finding good Indian vegetarian food around campus.

“On the other hand, there were these Indian housewives (mothers of friends) who could legally work, but didn’t due to language and cultural barriers. They would, however, make the most amazing food…. So I started a website service called OrderKhana where students could place orders for home-cooked food, and Indian housewives would basically cook and drop off the food at predetermined locations and times around campus,” Ravichandran said.

Ravichandran is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

His area of study encompasses the interactions between computers, economics and business, while his current research focuses on the evolution of privacy policies in social networks and the viral adoption of new products.