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Best Practices for Shipping

Do you remember the first package you shipped for your business? Did you take a box to the post office so they could weigh it and tell you how much it would cost to ship? How long did it take you to package it, drive to the post office, and wait for service? You don’t want to do that every time you ship a package. 

Even experienced small business owners with years of shipping experience will tell you — packing and shipping can take up a large portion of your business hours. You want to reduce that by as much as possible. Preparation and systems are going to let you do that.

You are going to spend a couple of hours doing this homework, but it could save you far more time than that in the future. Even better news: the steps outlined here will also save you some shipping costs.

1 RESEARCH IS THE FIRST STEP

1.1 Know Your Product Details

What are you likely to ship? 

Do you have one product or many?

What do your products weigh? You’ll want to know the answer for every product you sell. Ideally, you’ll have this info in your product listings. So if your product descriptions don’t already contain these details, add them now. It is going to save you time later when you calculate shipping rates. You’re definitely going to need to know the precise weight of each product type, so invest in a shipping scale. It will give you an accurate number and it will save you the time spent you’d otherwise spend driving to the post office.

You’ll also need to know the weight of your items PLUS their shipping materials.

1.2 Know Your Shipping Needs

Into what size/sort of package does your product fit? Will you use a padded envelope, your own boxes, or boxes provided by the carrier? Again, know the answer for every product. And use the right size box for each product. The smaller the container, the less it costs to ship it.

Where is the package likely to go? It’s wise to overestimate distance here, as you’ll have fewer surprises later if you’ve assumed “worst case”. Example: if you live in Seattle, imagine that you’ll ship everything to Florida. 

Do you sell to domestic customers only, or international as well? If you ship internationally, to which countries?

How fast do you want your packages to get where they’re going? Are your customers going to be pleased with 2-day service, or will they be just as pleased if it takes 5 business days for a package to arrive?

1.3 Know the Extras

Think about what other services you need. Do a little bit of research on these as well.

Are you shipping expensive items that need shipping insurance? 

Would you like tracking on your packages so you and your customers can keep tabs on shipments? 

Do you want free packing materials? USPS offers these for Priority Flat Rate and Express Flat Rate boxes. 

Do you want the packages picked up at your home/office?

1.4 Know Your Rates

Armed with answers to the questions above, visit the websites of the major shipping carriers (USPS, UPS, FedEx) and determine which offers the best combination of price and service for you.

If you have shipping software and it is connected to your accounts with USPS, UPS, and FedEx, it will compare the rates for you. If you don’t have shipping software, you’ll need to check this manually. 

Here are the three calculators you can check:

For each carrier, feed it the same details about your package (origin zip code, destination zip code, weight, dimensions, value) and make note of today’s best rates for each carrier’s appropriate shipping service. (see images below)

2. MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF

2.1 Create Reference Materials

If you’re going to be calculating postage manually for a while longer, take the rate info you’ve gathered and use it to make yourself a spreadsheet of shipping rates. 

Keep the spreadsheet where you print your shipping labels. It should contain information about shipping rates for your most common shipments. 

A spreadsheet like this is very simple if you’ve only got a few products. See the example spreadsheet in Fig. 04.

Fig #04, an example spreadsheet with prices for shipping a product with USPS, FedEx, and UPS

2.2 Offer Your Customers Multiple Rates

Providing your customers with both standard and express shipping options gives them the ability to order something in time for a birthday or other event. That translates into more orders for you.

Offer these as an upgrade in any shops you own. It can take a few minutes to add the second shipping option, but it will save you time if you don’t have to answer questions like “can I get this any sooner?”

And yes, this means more research for your spreadsheet.

Fig #05, Enabling Etsy’s shipping upgrades option spares you from answering a lot of time-consuming emails.

2.3 Use Shipping Software if You Can

Does manually calculating shipping rates 20 or more times a week horrify you? (It should.) Shipping software can speed things up. 

Shipping software can: 

  • Import your order information from your e-commerce store account.
  • Show you postage rates for any shipping carriers you’ve linked to the software.
  • Qualify you for commercial shipping rate discounts.
  • Print shipping labels one at a time or in bulk.

It can do a lot more than this, too.

3. OPT-IN FOR THESE SERVICES

3.1 Free Pickups

Don’t stand in line at the Post Office; USPS provides free pickups. They’ll need to know your location, number of packages, and the combined weight of the packages. Schedule the pickup a day in advance – they do not offer same day pickup.

3.2 Free Shipping Material

USPS provides free shipping materials for several classes of mail (Priority, Express, Priority International, Express International). 

These are available at your Post Office, but USPS will also deliver this to your home or office. All you need is a free USPS.com account to order.

3.3 Tracking

Choosing a shipping service that includes tracking is going to save you from answering the dreaded “where is my package?” question. UPS and FedEx include tracking on all services. USPS offers it on most services, including First Class services for small parcels like padded envelopes.

3.4 Insurance

A bit of math will tell you if it’s worth insuring your packages. 

  • Are the products in the package worth less than the insurance value provided free with your postage? (see chart below). If so, you don’t need to purchase shipping insurance.
  • Is your product very valuable? Is your package traveling to a shipping destination where theft is more common? Is the package traveling overseas? Answering yes to any of these questions indicates that insurance might be a good choice.

Fig. 10 below is very useful if you already have data about the number of shipments lost/damaged/stolen each year, your average order value, and the average insurance cost per item.

Fig. 10. Chart showing insurance amounts included with various UPS, FedEx, and UPS services. From ShippingEasy.

Fig. 11. ShippingEasy’s equation for figuring out if offering shipping insurance makes sense for your business.

3.5 Shipping Presets 

Whether you’re generating shipping labels manually or with shipping software, everything is easier if you have preset shipping rules.

Remember that spreadsheet you created? Take a highlighter and mark the best choice for each product. You just created a shipping rule. In the example spreadsheet, that would look like this.

Etsy lets you choose manual or calculated shipping. Either way, you’ll eventually need to know every item’s packaged size, shape, and weight. These are the dimensions and weight of the item once it’s inside the shipping package. 

  • Figure out what packaging you’ll use to ship the single product. Weigh that empty package (box or padded envelope) as well as any padding or packing materials you’ll be including. Add that to the weight of the product itself. That is the weight you’ll use to calculate shipping cost.
  • Measure the dimensions of the package.
  • Add these to the Shipping section of your product listing.

  • If it’s a package size you’ll be using often, add it to your Package preferences within Etsy’s Shipping Settings.

3.6 Shipping Profiles (Etsy)

Etsy also lets you create Shipping Profiles that you can apply to multiple items or item types that cost the same to ship. Use these!

To create a shipping profile:

  1. On Etsy.com, click the Your Account icon, then click Shop Manager.
  2. Click Settings.
  3. Click Shipping settings.
  4. Click Shipping profiles.
  5. Click Add a shipping profile.
  6. Fill out the appropriate shipping details. You also have the option to set separate domestic and international handling fees.
  7. If you’re adding calculated shipping, include your item weight and size.
  8. Click Save.

Once you create and save a shipping profile, it can be applied to any future listings you add to your shop.

To link your shipping profiles to listings:

  1. On Etsy.com, click the Your Account icon, then click Shop Manager.
  2. Click Listings.
  3. Click the checkbox of the listing that needs a shipping profile.
  4. Click Editing options. 
  5. Click Change shipping profiles from the dropdown menu.
  6. In the next window, click the Select profile… dropdown menu and choose a shipping profile.
  7. Click Apply to save your changes.

A listing can only be connected to one shipping profile.

Shopify has similar shipping presets to Etsy.

Shipping software like ShippingEasy or ShipStation lets you set more nuanced shipping rules that automatically assign shipping rates to packages based on their weight and dimensions. 

No matter what system you’re using to generate your labels, you won’t need to calculate these manually or compare rates each time if you set up these rules.

3.7 Carrier Rate Discounts 

Take advantage of carrier rate discounts. These are discounted postal rates that carriers like USPS, UPS, and FedEx give you if you meet certain qualifications. (Example qualifications: having a free account with them, shipping a large number of packages monthly, using third-party shipping software to generate your labels.) 

Discounts can range from 10-80% on some carriers and services. Sounds great, right? So where do you go to get these discounts?

Etsy offers USPS commercial discounts if you purchase labels through Etsy.

Shipping software usually includes carrier rate discounts. ShipStation gives you access to Commercial pricing for USPS, for instance. 

If you ship a large number of packages, you can negotiate discounts with UPS and FedEx. (see image below. PirateShip’s software can save you up to 89% on shipping for small packages under 20lbs.)

4. HAVE A SYSTEM

4.1 Pick a Time 

Do your shipping at the same time each day, or the same day of each week. You’ll be more efficient if you ship four items in one shipping session instead of packing one item in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one more tomorrow morning.

4.2 Pick a Place 

Set up a shipping area in your workspace. 

Stock shipping boxes, packing paper or other stuffing, labels, tape, scissors, pens, and any other supplies you’re going to use every time you ship items. 

Etsy has a good blog post on this. https://www.etsy.com/seller-handbook/article/how-to-set-up-a-shipping-station-for/48046234540

If you need inspiration for your shipping station, Pinterest is also full of great ideas.

4.3 Write Down Your Process 

Any successful business owner is someone who learned to record their everyday tasks in checklists.

If it’s a task you don’t do very often, you’re likely to waste time remembering the steps each time you attempt it. A checklist solves that problem. 

A checklist is also the perfect tool for training a future employee if your business grows large enough to need one.

A checklist might be as simple as this:

  • Print packing slip
  • Select box
  • Package order
  • Weigh package
  • Generate and pay for the label
  • Print label
  • Attach label
  • Ship package
  • Update order status

It could be more complicated, like this:

  • Import open orders into shipping software
  • Filter/organize orders within shipping software
  • Print packing slips
  • Match packing slips to products
  • Pack products with packing slips, stickers, business card, note
  • Weigh packages, if necessary
  • Choose optimal postage among available rates
  • Buy labels and insurance
  • Print labels
  • Affix labels to packages
  • Schedule carrier pickup
  • Pickup happens, carrier scans labels and updates tracking info
  • Software updates order statuses
  • Customers receive a shipment notification

4.4 Refine Your Process 

Every few months review how the shipping station, supplies, and service providers are working for you. Add details to the steps if you find that helpful. If you think of a way to automate some aspect of your product shipping activities, give it a try. Like it? Add it to the checklist. Keep updating that checklist to reflect your new and improved shipping routine.

4.5 Keep Records

You’ll want proof of shipping for every package. These records will help in the event a package is lost or damaged in transit. 

  • Label receipts
  • Insurance receipts
  • Tracking numbers

Most e-commerce platforms and shipping software will automatically hold all of this information for you.

Review

  • Start by knowing your product details
  • Figure out your shipping service needs
  • Set up your reference materials
  • Set up shipping preferences and profiles so you can bulk edit your products
  • Get shipping software if you can
  • Use free services like pickup and shipping boxes
  • Get tracking and insurance when appropriate
  • Document your shipping process
  • Remember that process is always evolving and improving