Written by Benjamin Bowles
My name is Benjamin Bowles and I was asked by Rose Souders to write a quick start guide on how to ship your eCommerce products. I used to work in the eCommerce department of the Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire where we shipped between 50-100 packages per day. I also run my own eCommerce store, Benjamin Arms, where I’ve been selling and shipping fencing equipment worldwide since 2009.
Here are the things you’ll need for your small business shipping:
- Printer – Nothing fancy, any inkjet or laser printer should be fine.
- Tape gun – Absolutely required if you’ll be shipping a lot of orders. It becomes a close friend and you’ll give it a name.
- Boxes – A variety to accommodate everything you intend on shipping.
- Packing Material – Cushioning to safely pack your products with.
Are you Allowed to Ship It?
First, make sure that you can actually ship your products. I don’t suspect many businesses will have trouble here as the list of prohibited items is pretty self-explanatory, such as no gasoline, explosives, or ammunition. Check the resources below if you’re not sure:
Wine, Beer, and Liquor
Shipping wine, beer, and liquor have special rules and regulations. If you’re in the industry you surely know more about this than I do. If you need a refresher on the rules, or some packaging suggestions try these resources:
Start with Your Best Selling Products
If you’ve never set up an eCommerce store (or website), then plan for a few days to get everything up and running. You’ll have to configure online store settings, configure product options and variations, and photograph your products before you can take or ship a single order. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to set up 50 SKUs before you launch. Choose your best sellers (and maybe your simplest products with fewer options) and improve upon the system later. Not everything needs to be perfect when you start.
Shipping & Choosing a Carrier
Everyone who’s ever shipped anything has a horror story on one of the package carriers. Every shipper had a package lost by one carrier, swore to never use them again, and only had great experiences with their competitor. I recommend you compare them all to see which will give you the best rates for your package sizes. You can always mix and match any of these carriers to use the best rates for each package size.
To Get Started – United States Postal Service (USPS)
Since this is a quick start guide to start shipping quickly, I whole-heartedly recommend the United States Postal Service for the following reasons:
- Easy to create and print package labels at home (admittedly, the others can do this too but USPS’ system is more straightforward)
- Free boxes – It’s hard to beat free boxes.
- Free shipping of those free boxes – Ship a supply of 1, 5, 10, or 25 boxes to your home or office for $0. It just takes a couple of days.
- Free package pickup. This is especially useful if you’re shipping from home or place of business–your regular mail carrier can pick up your packages along their route if you schedule a pickup online. No need to go to the post office or find a drop-off point.
Choose USPS if:
- Your products fit inside the various free boxes from USPS.
- You regularly ship from your home or office.
UPS and FedEx
UPS and FedEx are both excellent private companies. I’ve used both over the years, but I’ll abstain from giving my recommendation for the same reason I stated in the preface to this section: everyone has a horror story on one or the other, and the best rate for your products is the most important point.
Important notes about private carriers:
- No free shipping supplies – you’ll have to buy your own boxes, but if you were going to buy them anyway, then the shipping rate may be better than USPS.
- Scheduling home or business pickups cost extra. Prepaid and pre-labeled packages can be dropped-off at UPS or FedEx stores for free.
- Tracking services are generally better than USPS, especially internationally.
- Insurance claims can sometimes be easier to file than with USPS.
If you’re just starting to ship I strongly caution against international shipping for the following reasons:
- More expensive – much easier to unexpectedly lose money in the shipping process
- Higher learning curve – more forms to fill out and export laws to learn
- Customers must sometimes pay additional import taxes, which can surprise and irritate them
- International tracking can be less reliable
Just get your new shipping operation up and running first, worry about international orders later. Be sure to disable international orders on your eCommerce system to prevent them.
Buy and Stock Your Boxes
Everything you ship will need a box unless it’s a coconut, which you can just put stamps on and the post office will deliver it. Seriously. It’s considered a “self-contained” package.
USPS is your friend here. As I mentioned earlier, if you have products that fit inside any of USPS’ free priority mail products then this might be the least expensive option as the rate is low and boxes are free. You can order these two classes of boxes for free:
USPS Regional Boxes (link) – Price is calculated based on the distance of the destination. If you’re mostly shipping locally or within your home state then the rate will be very low.
USPS Flat Rate Boxes (link) – “If it fits, it ships” – More variety in the sizes and shapes, and anything that fits in these boxes ships anywhere in the United States for a flat rate.
Consider Flat Rate Boxes
Configuring shipping costs within eCommerce environments can be difficult. Each item usually needs a specific box and carrier setting, and you may need to connect a carrier’s API in order to automatically generate shipping calculations at checkout. If you’re just getting started and these configurations sound confusing, you could choose to use USPS Flat Rate boxes to start shipping faster with less set up.
All Other Boxes
Uline. This company is your best bet. They’re critical in the supply line for countless businesses and stock every type of box and shipping supply you’ll ever need. Order by 3 pm and you’ll have the supplies on your doorstep by the next day.
Packing and Sizing Up Your Products
Be sure to leave enough room for safe transport of your products inside their packages. In general, this should be 2-3 inches of padding between your products and the package wall. If you’re packaging products that are themselves packaged, then you could get away with a tighter fit. If you’re shipping something fragile, allow for more room and cushioning. If you’re shipping fragile items often, order a roll of fragile stickers from Uline.
I’m all about recycling and reducing our carbon footprint and want to tell you about newsprint. Newsprint is the paper that newspapers are printed on and when crushed and crumpled it becomes a cheap, effective packaging material. If you subscribe to a daily newspaper, start saving your old papers. You could also post on Nextdoor or Facebook to ask neighbors to hold onto their papers if you don’t have a subscription.
Newsprint End Rolls – Ok, there’s this magical resource you should know about called “end rolls.” When newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle print their daily paper, they use these large-diameter rolls of paper (like 4 feet diameter, I think). The printers discard these rolls when they only have about 1-3 inches left as they can’t be used for another printing. These end rolls are sometimes hundreds of feet of blank newsprint. The exact same stuff you’ll buy from Uline or OfficeDepot, and it looks totally professional as a packing material. Printers make more end rolls every day and usually give them away, for free, to anyone that comes by their office.
Everything Else: Uline. Try to stay away from packing peanuts. Think of the fishes and ozone, please.
Other Helpful Tips for Small Business Shipping
Try to offer free shipping whenever possible. Even if the shipping cost is added to the total product cost, the data suggests customers love free shipping more than discounts or coupon codes.
I highly recommend automatically sending package tracking emails to your customers. Doing this seriously reduces the amount of “where is it, when will it arrive, where is it now” emails in your inbox. If you can, submit the tracking information directly into an automated email from Shopify, Woocommerce, or other eCommerce systems. If you don’t have those systems, select the “customer notification” option and add the customer’s email when you create a package label online. You customer will then get a notification from the carrier with the tracking information.
Pro-tip: Offering a discount code for future purchases in your receipt emails is a great way to incentivize repeat customers. The same tactic can be applied to these shipping emails. Read more in How to Get Repeat Customers Buying from Your eCommerce Website.
Learning how to ship your products doesn’t have to be daunting, and you can get up and running quicker than you think. You sell awesome stuff so get to work, get your products into boxes, and get them into your customer’s hands.
If you’re looking for more resources, try this shortlist of relevant blogs for assistance + subscribe to the Potluck Consulting newsletter to get our weekly emails. Click the blue “Newsletter” tab at the bottom of your screen.