Saturday, August 13, 2016

Shipping a gift? Nifty ideas for online delivery

Everyone loves receiving gifts. It's the thought that counts! Or something like that. However, most families these days tend to spread out across the country and so we end up shipping gifts to each other. But they are delivered in a boring brown box with a generic label on them where the return address is Amazon or another online store. And they might have ordered something else from Amazon or that online store too. And therefore they might open the gift before they are supposed to.

It turns out that there is a simple solution that is pretty cool. You can't get away from the boring brown box but you CAN do something about the shipping label on the boring brown box. Address labels typically look like:

First & Last Name
Address line 1
Optional address line 2
City, State ZIP, Country

I've bolded the parts that same-country shipping companies actually pay attention to. Let's hack the address label to make it do something useful for us that won't annoy shipping companies (too much). The first line is the most hackable/flexible and here is the first thing you can try:

GIFT FOR {Recipient's first and last name} FROM {Your first name}

That's for delivery to the non-tech-savvy grandma. However, we're just getting started. For tech-savvy family members, you can do something much cooler. Since there are approximately 35 characters in the available space, we can also do this for the first line:

VISIT TINYURL {URL shortener code}

Which can then direct the recipient anywhere: A YouTube or Vine video, a funny image, or a custom website. Once you've convinced the recipient to open their web browser or a mobile app, your imagination is the limit! This also opens up quite a few programming opportunities. For example, the target host could have a custom API that emits a JSON object containing a bunch of extra information, which would allow it to be paired with an app that can provide a more media-rich experience beyond what a web browser could provide. And that's just getting started. A package and the gift inside is really both a conversation starter and something memorable just waiting to happen.

The URL shortener hack works today, as-is, with quite a few online stores including the major ones like Amazon, eBay, ThinkGeek, etc. If an online store has split the first and last name field into two separate fields, use "VISIT" for the first name and the rest of the string for the last name. The shipping company won't really care. Ideally, someone will come up with a way to have this work WITH the shipping companies so that if they really want to know the real name of the recipient (e.g. for insurance purposes), they can easily get at that information.

Note that a lot of address labels only have uppercase letters. Therefore, mixed-case and non-alphanumeric shortened URL codes probably won't work with this package hack. The only real downside to using a URL shortener is that anyone who handles the package can access the shortened URL and therefore visit the target URL. If you care about privacy (and you should), there are password protected URL shorteners out there (e.g. thinfi). Send the password to the recipient via e-mail (or to an app!) and the URL shortener code with their package. That way no one visits the target URL until the package arrives at its destination.