USPS – Detailing The “Faster” Shipping Options

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The USPS offers two package shipping options that promise 2-3 day delivery anywhere in the US.  The service is not guaranteed by USPS but, except for peak holiday seasons, it is a reliable service that will typically meet its own service standards.

Let’s look at the unique characteristics of the two services

USPS 1st Class Package

  •  For packages or envelopes 13 ounces and under
  • Rates based on weight the are same for all addresses in the US including AK and HI
  • Can be purchased online from selected authorized vendors (not usps.com) or at the Post Office
  • Tracking available for 90 cents extra at the Post Office or free when purchased at selected vendors

Priority Mail  

Available for all weights up to 70 pounds

  • May pay extra for weight over a one cubic foot threshold **
  • Rates based on both weight and distance
  • Postage can be purchased online (at a discount) or from the Post Office (retail)
  • Free tracking
  • Free pickup on request
  • Free flat rate boxes (unlimited weight to anywhere in the US) available
  • Maximum box size = 108 inches, length + girth *

Here are the common characteristics for these two services:

  •  Insurance available for a fee – starting at $1.95 for $1-$50 of coverage.  For $51-$100, the insurance fee is $2.45
  • Delivery date is not guaranteed
  • Delivers to PO’s, FPO’s, APO’s and every valid address in the US
  • Delivers Mon-Sat (as of this post)
  • Drop off with any USPS letter carrier or at USPS locations
  • Certified Mail, Registered Mail, Signature Confirmation, and COD all available for a fee

I know, I know – this is old-hat review for some of you, but it is important to understand the details of these as well as the slower delivery options I’ll discuss in the next post. Stay with me.

Next up – USPS Standard Mail and Parcel Select.

*   Girth” is the total inches around the smallest two dimensions of a box .  The length is the largest dimension of the box.

**  Over one cubic foot (1728 cubic inches) “Dim Weight” rules apply.  Dim Wt = length x width x height of the package divided by 192.  For a 12” x 12” x 13” package, the calculation would be 12x12x13/192 = 9.75.  You round dim weight up to the nearest pound so the package will be rated at the larger of actual weight or ten pounds.

Meet the Carriers – First USPS

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The service of choice for most small internet shops is the USPS  — the Post Office.  It’s interesting to note that there are other carrier options that are cost effective and superior for some shipments that might be overlooked.  We’ll discuss that in future posts.

The USPS actively promotes their package shipping services – most notably Priority Mail, their 2-3 day service.  The reason is that it is profitable for them in an otherwise sea of red ink.  Since they are already delivering to every mailbox and PO Box in the US 6 days a week anyway, the marginal cost of carrying, sorting, and delivering packages – particularly smaller ones, is very low.

Services aimed at small internet shops are:

  • Priority Mail                  2-3 day service Best for shipments under one cubic foot
  • 1st Class Package       2-3 day service For shipments 13 ounces and less
  • Standard Mail               2-9 day service Purchased at the Post Office
  • Parcel Select               2-9 day service Purchased online from approved sites

Standard Mail (formerly Parcel Post) and Parcel Select are basically the same service except that the Parcel Select labels and postage must be purchased online.  Parcel Select is discounted to reflect the labor savings of not involving USPS employees in the purchase transaction.

Priority Mail has similar discounting (about 12%) if it is purchased online with a shipping label either on the USPS.com website or at another approved site rather than at a Post Office.

1st Class Package postage can be purchased at any USPS branch or printed with labels from some approved, non-USPS sites.

Any of the labels purchased online come with a tracking number and barcode that allow free USPS tracking.  According to the USPS, these are scanned each time the packages go through a USPS sorting or delivery station, including when it is delivered to the mailbox or PO Box.  The results can be tracked online.

The jury still seems to be out on this service as there are complaints of missing scan information and long delays between scans causing uncertainty about expected delivery dates.   My personal experience has shown this to be a reasonable tracking mechanism, but perhaps not yet at the reliable levels offered by the private commercial carriers.  What do you think?

Using the USPS services involve a trade-off between speed, package visibility, convenience, and quality versus cost.  I’ll discuss the some of the USPS services in more detail in my next post.

Invest in an Accurate Shipping Scale!

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When she first started her shop, my wife used a digital kitchen scale with a weight limit of five pounds in 1/8 ounce increments.  The weighing platform was small making it challenging to read when weighing boxes larger than its 4” square platform.

An item weighing five + pounds read  five pounds.  When re-weighing any package, it often showed 1/8 to ¼ ounce discrepancies.  The limitations weren’t insurmountable, but inconvenient.

After a few months of questionable guesstimates, we bought an AWS-Postal® digital, self-zeroing shipping scale with a decent- sized weighing platform, and 55 pound capability.  Out-of-pocket expense was less than $20 on Amazon, including shipping.  [If you don’t need as high a weight capacity, there are plenty of other scale options available for even less.]

The scale weighs to 1/10 of an ounce and the weight always matches the calibrated scales at USPS and FedEx.  It runs on either AA batteries (making it portable) or a power cord.  It has already paid for itself many times over.

How does it pay for itself?  Its great accuracy allows you to manage the weight of your finished shipment.  Here’s why that’s important:

The carriers have you round up the shipping weights to the nearest pound (or ounce if under 13 ounces for USPS).  If you can manage the weight of your shipment accurately, you can sometimes remove 2 ounces or more from shipment.  Doing this, a 1.1 pound shipment, ships as one pound rather than 2.  For a Zone 8, USPS Priority Mail shipment, this difference is $3.37 ($9.88 for two pounds, $6.51 for one pound).  There are similar savings for both USPS Standard Post and Parcel Select.

I would say that for about 10% of my wife’s shipments, by substituting a lighter box and/or packaging materials, we are able to shave off enough to reduce the package chargeable weight by one pound.

In a previous post, I wrote about my wife sending scissors for 1st Class Package rates.  In that instance, an accurate scale may present the opportunity to shave a little off the shipment and bring it down to a 13 ounce package, instead of paying a one-pound charge on the shipment.

If you have shipping questions on material covered in any of my blogs, please send me an email to gtc1963-shippping@yahoo.com.  I’ll include answers to some of them in later posts.

Next – we start talking about carrier choices

Buying Packaging for Less, Much Less

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You may get in a position where you need to buy packaging materials, boxes, envelopes, and cushioning.  You may have many similarly-sized items to ship or all sources of cushioning materials have dried up.  For whatever the reason, you can buy smart.  Here are some ideas, based on my experience:

I need one large box to ship a specific item.

One source we have used is the local U-Haul® operation.  They have very affordable cardboard boxes in many sizes.  I usually can find one in a size large enough to accommodate the item and the necessary packing material that works well.  Yes, it says U-Haul on it but it is new and gets the job done.  I have found them to be the least expensive source in my area for a single box.

I need 25, 50, or 100 of the same size box or shipping envelope.

Folks, meet Uline® [www.uline.com].  This company has distribution centers in key locations throughout the US and will ship virtually any kind of packaging materials to your door at very reasonable prices. Examples from their website:

  •  6” x 6” x 6” corrugated boxes  — 27 cents each                              [sold in bundles of 25]
  • 12’ x 12’ x 12’ corrugated boxes — 67 cents each                            [sold in bundles of 25]
  • 4” x 4” x 4” corrugated boxes — 18 cents each                                 [sold in bundles of 25]
  • 6” x 10” bubble mailer (padded envelope)  15.6 cents each              [bundle of 250]
  • 8.5’ x 12” bubble mailer – 23 cents each                                           [bundle of 100]

Yes, you’ll pay UPS shipping to your business, but even with that expense, their prices are outstanding.  If you happen to be close to one of the distribution centers, it could pay to pick up your order.

How about bubble wrap, tape, packing popcorn??   

 I again call your attention to www.uline.com.  For instance, we purchased a 12″ x 250’ roll and for the number of packages we ship it has lasted well.   We purchased the perforated type that allows you to tear off 12” at a time, handy for smaller items.  The roll also has the advantage of being reasonably compact, making storage easier.  In addition, they also offer tape , plastic bags, and “popcorn” pellets at very reasonable prices.

I’m sure there are other similar outlets, but the key is to anticipate the need and buy in bulk to save money and shipping costs.

Does anyone else out there have other sources we should know about?

Next up – Get an accurate shipping scale!

Shipping Envelope Option

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Cardboard shipping boxes may not be the container of choice for every shipment.  For lighter, flatter, less fragile items, a shipping pouch or envelope may be your best option.  This choice is valid even if you have to pay for the envelope instead of using a recycled box.

Why?  — Weight, convenience, and overall costs.

Shipping envelopes are light.  Even a large padded envelope weighs only an ounce or so.  A properly wrapped item weighing 6-10 ounces will have a final shipping weight under 13 ounces – a very key number.  [More on that later.]

Self sealing envelopes are also easy to use without the necessity  of tape.

Keeping overall weight under 13 ounces, will allow the shipment to be sent for $3.77 or less anywhere in the US via USPS 1st Class Package, significantly less expensive than other, slower USPS delivery options.

Real Example Shipment

My wife’s shop on ETSY sells among other things, a wide range of vintage items.   Sewing scissors are one such item.  She sells them for $10-$20, depending on age, condition and quality.  It is important to keep the shipping costs low to offer customers good value on these lower-priced items.

The three pictures above show how my wife recently packaged the scissors first in small sheets of cardboard, taped them together, and placed them in a bubble wrap envelope for shipment.  This protected the scissors from any damage — cosmetic or otherwise — and the total packaged weight was just 10 ounces.  The scissors alone weighed six ounces.

The customer was in Iowa, a Zone 7 shipment from us in Oregon.  Shipping cost $3.26 by USPS 1st Class package rate that the USPS says should deliver in 2-3 days — the same service level as Priority Mail.  In a small box, the packaged scissors would weigh over 13 ounces and would not qualify for the 1st Class package rates.  Its shipping would be  $6.35 for USPS Standard Mail (formerly Parcel Post) and deliver in 4-5 business days.  We saved over $3.00 by packaging appropriately.  Added cost for the padded envelope? – just 75 cents.

By creatively packaging, my wife gave her customer excellent service and value, along with allowing her to price shipping competitively.  In this case, she was even able to help pay for the packaging materials in her low shipping charge.

Next – buying packaging for less – far less.

Inside the Shipping Box

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I posted earlier on some simple rules to package your shipments safely and economically.  It’s now time to get comfortable with what needs to be used to protect your products inside the shipping box.

In her shop, my wife packs nearly every shipment using combinations of the following:

  •  Plastic bags
  • Tissue paper
  • Bubble wrap
  • Styrofoam popcorn
  • Crumpled craft or newspaper

On certain larger or more fragile items, we sometimes recycle cardboard cut in strips or the foam cushioning found in electronic component packaging, cut to fit.  These are used for blocking the items in place and cushioning against the outside of the box.

Most of these items can be found and recycled at no cost.  Shipments to you and your family/friends often contain suitable materials – just make sure they are clean and dry.  We have also found that some commercial shipping locations allow people to recycle their packaging materials at their shops and will provide it to you at little or no cost, especially if you are a customer.

I recommend that you  wrap your items in a plastic bag as part of the packaging for shipment.  Ziploc® bags (or similar) in quart and gallon sizes work great for small items.  Lock in a little extra air to add some protection.  Depending on the item, wrapping in tissue is a good idea and makes an attractive presentation.

The heavy foam cushioning found in electronic shipments is usually glued together into a design to fit the product in the box.  It can be pulled apart and cut into strips or blocks with a utility knife and then placed strategically to cushion fragile items from the outside of the box.

Newspaper is a last resort, but might be needed if there is a larger area to fill.  It doesn’t protect as well and it is heavier than other options, but the price is right.  If  newspaper is part of your packaging material, make sure your products are enclosed in plastic or tissue to prevent newsprint from rubbing  off on them.

Bottom line, most packaging materials can be recycled – and thus free or at least very inexpensive.

Next up – the shipping envelope option.

“Free” Shipping Boxes!

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An associate of mine has a saying: “Beware of carriers bearing gifts.”  He of course means, there are sometimes unintended strings attached.

USPS offers free shipping boxes of varying sizes for their Priority Mail service.  They are attractive, well-designed boxes that can be used to ship any weight to any address in the US for a flat rate.

Box sizes range from about 8.5” x 5.5”x 2” for a “Small Flat Rate” box to 24”x12”x5.5” for one of the “Large Flat Rate” ones.  When payment is made at the Post Office the postage cost ranges from $5.80 for the small box to $16.85 for the largest box.  They offer a discount of approximately 12% if the postage and label are produced online at USPS.com or at an approved host site.

So just use those free boxes and your troubles are over, right?  Maybe, but it may cost you.

Let’s say you have a four pound shipment going to the other side of the US (2000 miles) that will fit in a Medium Flat Rate Box — that is a great deal — $11.30 on line versus $14.29 (also on line postage purchase) for Priority Mail service in a similarly-sized box you provide that also weighs four pounds.   That’s a nice $2.99 savings,

However, if you have the same four-pound shipment traveling, say 250 miles, the cost of shipping it in your packaging by Priority Mail would be $7.36 (postage purchased on line).   Use the same $11.30 Flat Rate Box for the shipment and the “free” box just cost you $3.94.  In the same example, a “free” Large Flat Rate Box would cost $7.94 more.

It sometimes pays to supply your own boxes or other shipping containers.  Box characteristics should look like this:

  1. Undamaged (and nice looking) box capable of handling another shipment
  2. Limited graphics and labels, remove or cross out bar codes
  3. Multiple sizes – under one cubic foot (12”x12”x12”) if possible (more on that in a later Post)
  4. Smaller boxes for small, lighter weight items

If you are of the mindset to reuse and recycle, there are plenty of ways of getting good boxes – from stockpiling from shipments to you to asking friends and neighbors to recycle their boxes through you.  This should cut down considerably on your need to purchase boxes unless you need specific box characteristics to protect or publicize your products.

Next up – free packaging materials.