Shipping Your Wreaths & Other Items - Does it Have to be a Nightmare?
It's a roller coaster ride! No....wait...that's not a strong enough term.... It's an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, and packed into a paradox! Or... is it?
From the day Mel shipped her first wreath on Etsy, we have truly struggled with the enormity of information that both is and isn't available about how things work when it comes to shipping, learning through both research and trial and error. To this day, we are still continuing to learn!
We definitely HAVE learned quite a bit. And we still see folks struggling every day, posting questions and asking for advice all over Facebook about how to ship out their wreaths without breaking the bank, where to get the best deals on boxes, and why oh why oh WHY does it cost FORTY FREAKING DOLLARS to ship a wreath 🤬!?
Ahem....pardon me...***deep breath*** 😤😉
So, I though I might share a little bit of what we've learned, and hopefully help some of you out there who maybe are just starting out, or who might be starting to scale up a little bit with your volume and might be struggling with these challenges. Now some of this info may be elementary to some of you, but one of the things we have learned is not to skip past what we think of as the basics that we already know! You never know where a little unknown tidbit might be hiding! With that said...let's dive in!
So how do the shipping companies determine how much it will cost to ship your package? Well, the answer is that there are several determining factors:
- The distance (in zones) from the starting point of the shipment to its destination
- The weight of your package
- The dimensions of your package
- Whether the destination is a residential or a business address
There are more factors, but these are the main four that affect the cost of shipping the kinds of goods we're talking about. So let's take a look at each one.
The actual weight of your package is the starting point for determining the cost of shipping. Take a look at how the rate charts from shipping carriers are laid out:
As you can see...it all starts with the weight. With each pound, your shipping rate goes up. Now, you might be saying "Well...duh!", but there is one tidbit that we sometimes forget with this. Notice that it says "Weight Not Over" at the top. That means the rates listed to the right of each line are for packages that weigh that much or less. So, if your package weighs 4 lbs. and 12 oz. you will not be paying the 4 lbs. rate - you will be paying the 5 lbs. rate. Now, what that also means, is that if you weigh your package and its right at 4 lbs and 0 oz. you might want to be careful! If you buy shipping at the 4 lbs. rate, but your package gets to the carrier, and their scale says it's 4 lbs. and 1 oz. you might have a problem! The package could get held up, or they might make the recipient pay additional postage in order to have it released to them. So if you weigh your package and its right at the next weight marker, you might look to see if you can shave a couple ounces off somehow, or bite the bullet and round up an ounce on the weight you enter just to be safe. (Of course, if your package is a dimensional weight shipment, it won't matter. We'll get to that in a moment.)
When packing your shipment, it's important to remember to keep it as light as possible. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Use the right size box! That means the smallest box that will comfortably fit the item you're shipping. The larger the box, the more the box itself weighs. Plus, the more empty space inside the box, the more fill you might need to use to prevent damage to your items (paper, bubble wrap, foam peanuts, etc.). These filler items, light as they may be, add more weight, and as we talked about above, even 1 oz. can make the difference in paying a higher rate.
- Use the right strength box. Did you know there are different levels of wall strength available for boxes? Sometimes, heavier duty boxes are needed for what we're shipping and sometimes they just add unneeded weight.
- Use the right amount of the right kind of tape. Don't 'over-tape' your boxes. If your're using heavy duty tape, you don't need to double-tape your box closed (especially if the items being shipped are light). If double-taping your box makes you feel safer about it's contents, consider using a lighter-weight tape.
- If you cut your box height down to fit your item(s), and the lid flaps overlap by quite a bit, you might consider cutting some of the flaps off to save some weight. Shaving off that extra cardboard can usually help shed a few ounces.
The other axis you see on the chart talks about zones.
What is a zone? Well, each carrier has ranges of distance from a shipment starting point, and these ranges are broken down into 'zones.' So, for example, local shipments to your own town or maybe one town over might be a Zone 1. A Zone 2 might be up to three or four counties away. Zone 3 might be up to 400 miles away, and so on. If you look at it on a map, it may look like this:
This is a map of shipping zones from one carrier, based on our location in northern Illinois. As you can see, the further you get away from the starting point, the higher the zone number, and thus the higher shipping rate. Looking at the rate chart above, if we send a 4 lbs. shipment to someone in, say, Colorado which is Zone 4 for us, it will cost us $11.55. The same package, going to Arizona (Zone 7 for us) will cost us $20.80 to ship!
For small time sellers and folks just looking to ship a few things here and there, not much can be done to get around shipping distance. If you're a big-time seller or large company, there are ways around it. But it is still important to keep zones in mind. If you're going to offer free shipping on your Etsy, you may want to take an average of all of the costs from each Zone to build into your wreath price. Also, if you're selling through a platform that allows you to set shipping rates based on customer location, it can be helpful in getting your rates set up.
Now HERE's where we run into our biggest issue - especially when shipping wreaths! The big 3 (USPS, UPS, and FedEx) have a little something called dimensional weight.
What is dimensional weight? It's the cubic volume of the package (length X width X height) in cubic inches, divided by the carrier's dimensional weight divisor number (166 for USPS, and 139 for UPS and FedEx).
Did your eyes just glaze over? I know mine did just from typing that. Let's break it down some more.
The box pictured above is 24" X 24" X 8" (yes I know it's not to scale...work with me here 😋) . First, we'll find the cubic volume. To do that, we multiply each of the three dimensions:
24 X 24 X 8 = 4608 cubic inches.
Now, to find our dimensional weight, we divide that number by the dimensional weight divisor for each carrier.
4608 ÷ 166 = 27.76 lbs.
For UPS or FedEx:
4608 ÷ 139 = 33.15 lbs.
So, for the package above, our dimensional weight will be 28 lbs if we ship USPS, and 34 lbs. if we ship UPS or FedEx.
If the actual weight of the package is less than the dimensional weight, then the carrier will determine our shipping cost based on the dimensional weight. Our 4 lbs package just jumped up to 28 lbs.!!! Take a look at what that does to our rate for USPS:
Now, instead of paying $11.55 to ship to Zone 4, we're paying $42.70!!! Holy friggin cow!
Now this is just one carrier. USPS rates increase the fastest among the big 3 carriers with higher-weight (or dimensional weight) packages.
The key number to remember is 1728 cubic inches. That number is equal to 1 cubic foot, and it's once you cross over that number that you have to start worrying about dimensional weight. This is why a 20X20X4 box is sooooo much cheaper to ship than a 20X20X5 box.
20 X 20 X 4 = 1600 cubic inches (less than 1728) so your rate is based on what your package actually weighs ( maybe 4 or 5 lbs. if you're shipping a wreath)
20 X 20 X 5 = 2000 cubic inches = 12.04 lbs. (USPS), so your rate will be based on at least 13lbs.
Also, there's one more thing to keep in mind. A box that is labeled 20X20X4 means that the inner dimensions of the box are 20X20X4. If you measure the outside of the box, you will find that the measurements are actually more like 20.25 X 20.25 X 4.5. Why is that important? Well, the carriers don't go by the inner dimensions. They use the outside dimensions. AND if one of the dimensions is 0.5 inch over, then they round up. So that 20X20X4 box will have it's dimensional weight calculated as if its 20X20X5. Now, some folks get lucky in that they have a pretty good relationship with the people at the counter at their local post office or UPS store, and they might catch a break because the nice people at the counter don't take an exact measurement and will just go by what the box is labeled. BUT...be careful! If a carrier employee or an automated dimension scanner takes a measurement of your package anywhere along its route and finds it to be larger, you will either be back-charged (if you have an account), or the carrier may hold the package back from delivery until the recipient pays the carrier the difference from the original rate you paid.
Finally, when it comes to UPS and FedEx, there's one more thing that can bite you in the butt - residential delivery surcharges. You see, UPS and FedEx prefer to have their trucks make as few stops as possible, and stick to main highways. To ensure this, they use residential surcharges to encourage customers to have their packages shipped to business addresses, which, a) tend to be on main roads & highways, and b) tend to already have regular pick-ups and deliveries. Residential addresses that are waaaayyyy out in the boonies can tend to really bite you, as the more remote a residential address is, the higher the surcharge the carriers will tack on.
There are 3 ways to avoid these surcharges. One is to set up a commercial account with the carrier and negotiate to have these surcharges waived or significantly reduced in your contract. Secondly, you can set up to have your package delivered to a business address or UPS/FedEx store for the recipient to pick up (this can be an inconvenience to your customer or family member, so the savings may not be worth it). Or, a third option is to use one of the third party shipping companies, who offer discount rates, and who also offer service with these surcharges waived or reduced. What are these third-party companies? Well, let's talk about that!
USING 3RD PARTIES
With the evolution of e-commerce in the 21st century, small package shipping has had to seriously do some evolving of its own. Despite the fact that 75% of private sector employers are micro-businesses (companies with less than 10 employees), along with the fact that now over 2/3 of all retail purchasing in the U.S. takes place online, shipping carriers have thus-far largely failed in finding a way to cater to very small businesses. Taken individually, these small 'Mom & Pop' online businesses don't have much business to offer the carriers, so they are not inclined to offer them competitive rates and contracts.
Recognizing the big picture, that collectively these small online shops offer a wealth of shipping business largely being dismissed by the carriers, a new industry has sprung to life in the last 10-15 years. That industry is 3rd-party e-commerce shipping platforms. These companies negotiate enterprise-level contracts with the shipping carriers, thus obtaining rates that are typically out of reach for the individual or small business. They then turn around and offer these discounted rates to small businesses and individuals (usually with a small markup or with membership or other fees). Along with the discounted rates, they also usually offer no residential or other surcharges, and sometimes even a slightly better dimensional weight divisor.
PROS & CONS
Now this sounds like, totally awesome, right?! Why doesn't everybody know about and use these platforms all the time?! Well, like everything, there are pros and cons to using these services. The pros are obvious - primarily lower shipping costs! But what's the down side?
Well, for one, if you are growing your business and plan to at least one day negotiate your own business contracts with the carriers, then using these services puts that goal further and further out into the future for you. You see, when businesses negotiate their contracts, one of the key factors in that negotiation is the already-existing relationship between the business and the carrier. If you're buying your shipping through a third party, you're not using your own account with the carrier and your not establishing a relationship with a sales rep/manager that can go toward negotiating your own rates as your business scales up. At some point, if you plan to grow a business, you'll need to switch over to using your own account with the carrier, and that transition can be a smooth glide or a hard jolt, so keep that in mind if you plan on using these third party platforms long-term for now.
Another tick in the negative column is that, while these discounted rates and waived surcharges are nice, its basically a one-size-fits-all solution that may not necessarily fit your business model 100%. One of the benefits of negotiating your own rates and contracts with the carriers is the ability to negotiate a contract that is targeted toward YOUR business model. Say for instance you ship a LOT of over-sized light-weight boxes, but you mostly ship to business addresses. In that case, when you negotiate your own contract, you may want to prioritize negotiating a really great dimensional divisor number rather than getting residential surcharges waived. This kind of customization isn't possible when you're using third-party platforms.
But, with that said, if you're still only shipping a few packages here and there, and don't plan on scaling up anytime really soon, these third-party platforms are an excellent option to look at. Below are a few popular option. Keep in mind that each of these offer different options. Some only offer discounted USPS rates (which is the worst option for oversized or heavy packages, but perfect for smaller lighter packages). Some offer discounted rates for one or two carriers, but allow you to connect your own account with other carriers so you can include your contract rates when comparing rates for each shipment. Others offer additional features such as inventory monitoring/tracking or customer service/communication options (tracking emails, thank-you emails, etc.). My suggestion is to look at the offerings from each one and pick the one that offers the rates & features that work best for you.
Here are a few of the third-party shipping platforms you may want to look into. This is not an endorsement of any of their services, and we recommend that you research and look at their offerings to make your own decision. A simple Google search of any of these names should bring up their respective sites. For those we are most familiar with, we've added what we know about them. Finally, keep in mind that there are new companies popping up all the time in this sector, so this is not an all-inclusive list.
- Pirate Ship (Discounted USPS rates, no subscription or additional fees, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
- Shipstation (Discounted USPS and UPS rates, many additional features, paid subscription, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
- Stamps.com (Discounted USPS rates, paid subscription, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
- Shippo (Discount USPS, UPS, DHL rates, pay monthly or pay $0.05 fee per shipping label, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
- ShippingEasy (Discount USPS rates, offers free plan up to 50 shipments/month, paid subscription if you ship more than 50, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
- EasyShip (Discount USPS rates, offers free plan up to 100 shipments/month, paid subscription if you ship more than 100, integrates with Etsy & other Sales Channels)
Many of these companies offer additional features and services which may be helpful to you as well.
Ok, whew! That was ... a lot! Of course, this is only the "101" course, and there is a lot more to learn (like I said, we're still learning too!). But hopefully, this answered some questions some of you might have, and helps some folks out.
Thanks so much for sticking with me! If there is anything you're dealing with when it comes to shipping your wreaths or other items, please feel free to shoot me an email & I'll try to help if I can (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
Take care, stay safe & healthy, & have a wonderful day!
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