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updated 6/16/2013 12:46:36 PM ET 2013-06-16T16:46:36

When Frank Miele arrived in Washington, D.C., for a business trip last summer, he realized he left his overnight bag at home in Long Island, N.Y., 275 miles away. Miele knew the odds were good that someone was traveling the same route and could bring the bag to him if only he had a way to identify and contact that person.

Such was the inspiration of RideShip, a Norwalk, Conn.-based startup Miele launched in February to match shippers and couriers according to travel dates and itineraries. RideShip is one of several online networks and marketplaces, including Zipments and Deliv, connecting packages with professional or lay couriers across the U.S. Crowdshipping is even on the radar of Wal-Mart Stores, which earlier this year said enlisting customers to deliver groceries was a real future possibility.

Crowdsourcing is a $375 million industry, according to Crowdsourcing.org, a online industry association, and has helped users in media, e-commerce and technology with everything from fundraising to industrial design. Crowdshipping can make use of infrastructure that would otherwise go to waste and even help level the playing field among retailers which might not have a fleet of trucks or a network of warehouses. In some cases, it can also enable businesses, no matter their size, to provide same-day shipping for the same price as standard shipping. “Crowdsourcing turns shipping upside-down,” says Daphne Carmeli, CEO and founder of Palo Alto’s Deliv, a same-day crowdsourced service designed for national retail chains. “Up until now, the faster you got something, the more expensive it was.”

With both startups and major corporations exploring crowdshipping’s benefits, now may be the time to consider whether the concept makes sense for your business. Crowdsourced shipping is still in its early stages and services vary, so here are some questions to help evaluate when one does and does not fit your needs.

How does it work?
Depending on the service, crowdshipping services could deliver anything from legal documents to gourmet soup or high-fashion gowns. In some cases, business owners can request a delivery from their computer or mobile device on a crowdshipping service’s site or app. Business owners can note pick-up and drop-off times and sometimes request a certain type of vehicle. The site would then generate a list of potential candidates based on the delivery area and the package's needs.

Crowdshipping can also be integrated into e-commerce sites. For businesses partnering with a service, a crowdsourced delivery person could deliver a package when customers select same-day shipping online.

Who’s making the delivery?
Driver pools are as different as the services themselves so learn as much as you can about your potential shipper. Nearly 95% of Zipments’s couriers are professional delivery people, according to Garrick Pohl, the CEO and co-founder of Zipments, with the average Zipments courier having more than four years professional delivery experience. By contrast, both Deliv and RideShip depend more “lifestyle” drivers, such as grad students, real estate agents or freelancers looking for extra income.

How drivers are vetted also varies. Some services, like RideShip, don’t screen their couriers at all while others use formal steps like test deliveries, video interviews and background checks. Zipments conducts formal interviews, with most held face-to-face.

Is the courier reliable?
If your service allows you to choose your delivery person, read the online profiles carefully to see how your shipper measures up in categories such as speed, package care and overall satisfaction. Some profiles might even track how many deliveries couriers have made, giving you a sense for their experience level. For RideShip, a marketplace with users across the U.S., Miele recommends asking to see drivers’ social media profiles, checking out pages on LinkedIn and Facebook, for extra verification.

Can I talk to my courier?
Possibly. Zipments encourages companies talk to their shippers directly so that they can build relationships with people attuned to their needs. Zipments clients receive couriers’ phone and email address for each job they perform. Businesses can set accounts to only send requests to a selection of preferred couriers before reaching out to the rest of the Zipments network.

With Deliv, drivers are matched with a delivery considering the type of order, the destination and the vehicle required. When a customer selects an item on a store’s web site or app and chooses the same-day option, a Deliv driver is dispatched to the customer. Customers can interact with the driver online to communicate notes like changed delivery locations.

Did my delivery arrive?
Just because you’re taking the crowdsourced route doesn’t mean you are unable to track your package online as you would through UPS or FedEx. Deliv requires its couriers to have GPS-enabled smartphones, allowing customers to watch their item’s journey in real-time from the store to their home or office. Others, like Zipments, notify the customer during delivery milestones, such as when items are picked up, on their way and signed for. Regardless, find out what your site’s particular process is so you and your customer can stay informed.

What if something goes wrong?
Ask what protections your service offers. Zipments guarantees items up to $250 and can offer service agreements for special situations for clients with regular frequent requests or deliveries with a high dollar values. Zipments also encourages its drivers to carry personal liability insurance and cargo insurance.

To be sure, not all sites offer the same assurances. RideShip considers itself a neutral marketplace and isn’t responsible for lost, damaged or stolen goods. Miele says those who agree to use a driver with open truck trailer take the risk their goods might be exposed to rain. To be safe, make sure you understand the service’s dispute resolution process from the start and always read the site’s terms of service.

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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