Written by Benjamin Bowles
This guide is meant for businesses that suddenly find their businesses closed, have inventory, need to quickly learn how to ship their products, and want to do it as inexpensively as possible.
A little introduction: My name is Benjamin Bowles and I work in the eCommerce department of the Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire where, before all this, we shipped out anywhere from 50-100 packages per day. I’ve also run my own eCommerce store, Benjamin Arms, where I’ve been selling and shipping fencing equipment worldwide since 2009.
I was asked by Rose Souders of Potluck Consulting to write a quick start guide on how to ship your products during the Coronavirus pandemic. Let’s get started.
First, 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 – Material and cushioning to safely pack your products with.
This is a GREAT time to start eCommerce
Everything is Online Right Now
With the shelter in place order, your customers have no choice but to buy online most everything they used to go out to get:
- Groceries? Online. “How Grocers Can Handle the Online Grocery Surge”
- Cocktails? Online. “Cocktails To Go? You Can Now Get Your Drink from Local Restaurants”
- Wine tastings? Online. “Priority Wine Pass – Virtual Wine Tasting”
- Dates? Online. “11 Virtual Dates You Can Go On in Quarantine”
- Fun, real-world experiences? – Online. “Airbnb Debuts Online Experiences With Unique Activities”
Online is all people have right now, so it’s time to join in!
Your Community Wants to Help
Customers may know you personally or have visited your store before and want to support you through this tough time. They could also be complete strangers that have never visited but want to support their local shops and economy. These are strong motivating factors that normally don’t exist and are specifically driving customers to shop online.
A Very Forgiving Customer
In normal times, the success of eCommerce websites depended significantly on the simplicity and functionality of the shopping and checkout process. If your customers found broken links, out-of-stock products, dysfunctional checkout forms, or even a “buy now” button in an ugly color they would leave your store.
Right now – and I really think it’s right now and won’t last for long – your customers will be more forgiving than ever on new, shaky, or atypical eCommerce systems, higher shipping costs, Google Forms ordering pages, or recycled newspapers as packing material. You’ve got a higher chance of eCommerce success than in the past.
Build a quick Shopify site or install WooCommerce to your existing WordPress website. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect; your customers will forgive you and you can improve it later.
New to eCommerce? Start with Only Your Best Selling Products.
If you’ve never set up an eCommerce store (or website), then plan to spend at least a few days getting everything up and running yourself. 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 sell 50 SKUs first thing. Choose your best sellers (and maybe for simplest products with fewer options) and improve upon the system later. Not everything needs to be perfect.
Now to Shipping… Can you Even 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. Just to be safe check the resources below:
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:
Choosing a Carrier
Everyone who’s ever shipped anything has a horror story on one of these carriers. Every shipper had a package get lost by one carrier or the other, swore to never use them again, and only had great experiences with their competitor. You’ll get a preference eventually, but right now during this pandemic, it’s most important you just get started and get the best rate. Do your due diligence and compare the rates for all your package sizes. You can also mix and match any of these carriers to suit the best rates for each package size.
My Pandemic Choice – United States Postal Service (USPS)
Since this is a quick start guide to start shipping for the lowest cost, I whole-heartedly recommend the United States Postal Service as your Pandemic Package Carrier (PPC for short) 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 [empty] 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 business – your regular carrier can pick up your packages along their route if you schedule a pickup. No need to go to the post office or find a drop-off point. Stay home, save lives.
Choose USPS if:
- Your products fit inside the various free boxes from USPS.
You regularly ship from home or still have an office open for pickup.
Get Started with USPS:
- Measure your products and choose a box that fits
- Order free shipping supplies
- Calculate rates
- Create an account
- Create a label
- Schedule a pickup
UPS and FedEx
UPS and FedEx are both excellent private companies. I’ve used both over the years, but I am abstaining from giving a recommendation on these two for the reason stated in the preface to this section: everyone has a horror story on one or the other, and right now the best rate is most important.
Important things about private carriers:
- No free shipping supplies – you’ll have to buy your 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 package drop-off at UPS stores is free.
- Tracking services are generally better than USPS, especially internationally.
- Insurance claims can sometimes be easier to file than with USPS.
Get Started with Private Carriers
- Size up your products
- Order boxes (more below)
- Calculate rates: UPS or FedEx
- Create accounts: UPS or FedEx
- Create a label: UPS or FedEx
- Schedule pickups: UPS or FedEx
Since you’re just now starting to ship I strongly caution against international shipping at this time 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 sometimes must 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.
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. #America.
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 will be the least expensive option as the rate is low and boxes free. You can order these two classes of boxes for free:
USPS Regional Boxes – Price is calculated based on the distance of the destination. If you’re shipping within Sonoma County or California from Sonoma County then the rate will be especially low.
USPS Flat Rate Boxes – “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.
Maybe Choose Flat Rate Right Now
Configuring shipping costs within eCommerce environments can be difficult. Each item usually needs a specific box and carrier setting. There are plugins for automatic shipping calculations at checkout as well as other ways to recoup your shipping costs, but during this pandemic choose a flat rate for shipping and utilize USPS Flat Rate boxes to start shipping faster with less set up. Worry that the flat rate boxes cost your customer too much? See A Very Forgiving Customer.
All Other Boxes
Uline. Right now this company is your best bet. They’re critical in the supply line for thousands, if not millions of businesses, and stock every type of box and shipping supply you’ll ever need. Order by 3 pm you’ll have the supplies on your doorstep by the next day.
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 packaged themselves then you could get away with a tighter fit. If you’re shipping something fragile, allow for more room and cushioning and if you’re shipping a lot of fragile, 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 newspapers are printed on and when crushed and crumpled become 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. Think it’s weird to package your professional products in old newspapers? See A Very Forgiving Customer.
Press Democrat – Ok, there is this magical resource called “end rolls.” When newspapers like the Press Democrat print their daily paper, they use these large-diameter rolls of paper (like 4 feet diameter, I think). When the roll has only about 1-3 inches left, the printers discard it as It’s not nearly enough 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. The Press Democrat makes more end rolls every day and gives them away, for free, to anyone that comes by their office. I’m not sure if they’ll do this during the shelter order but it’s worth giving them a call and maybe they’ll leave them outside for you.
For a photo of what these end rolls look like, check this link.
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.
If you can, figure out a way to automatically send package tracking emails to your customers. If you can submit the tracking information directly into an automated email from Shopify, Woocommerce, or other eCommerce systems then for the love of all things that are holy do it!
If you don’t have those systems, select the “customer notification” option when creating a label online and add your customer’s email directly to the carrier. They’ll then send a notification to your customer that a label was created and provide a tracking link.
Doing this seriously reduces the amount of “where is it, when will it arrive, where is it now” emails in your inbox.
Rose stepping in here – 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 on “How to Get Repeat Customers Buying from Your eCommerce Website” here. Okay, back to Ben.
I really hope this quickstart guide helps my fellow craftspeople and business owners. Learning how to ship your products doesn’t have to be daunting and I know you can get up and running quicker than you think. We sell awesome stuff so let’s get to work, get our products into boxes, and get them into our 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 purple “Newsletter” tab at the bottom of your screen.