E-Commerce Small Business Start-Up: Shipping Essentials
When you want to start a side hustle or small business online to sell products at retail prices to consumers, you need to be able to handle the packaging and shipping process that comes after a sale. Besides inventory and a marketplace to drive sales, you also need shipping supplies to run an e-commerce business.
I’ve been running a successful e-commerce business for years now. It generates around $300k in annual revenue and more than $100k in annual profits. My wife and I run it together along with other businesses too, and we don’t have any employees. In this post I’ll be sharing my shipping knowledge from my personal experiences to help you figure out what supplies you need to start your business.
Clean, Open Work Space
The first thing you’re going to need is somewhere to work. This should be a large, open flat space that is clean and clear of items that aren’t used to package and ship your products. Although it’s possible to do this on your kitchen table, you really don’t want to have to do that. I did it for years and it causes a lot of disruptions to the house. You’re also not able to completely set up the area for your work exclusively, so you waste a lot of time setting up and putting everything away each day.
I have a separate building on my property besides my house, and this is where my office is located. It gives me somewhere private to work on the computer, but it also provides the space for shipping e-commerce products. For my purposes, I found it easiest to work using a large rectangular table. I could have a pile of packing paper on one side and do the boxing on the other side. An existing table I had of that size wasn’t very sturdy, so I ended up building my own. With a handful of 2x4s and an 8′ x 4′ sheet of smooth plywood, I was able to construct a very large and sturdy table for packaging.
Next to the table is a metal wire rack – you can find these at Home Depot or Lowes. This holds various sizes of shipping boxes and other miscellaneous shipping supplies that I may need within reach while I work. Being able to stay in one spot while you package allows you to move through many orders quickly.
Corrugated Shipping Boxes
Depending on what type of items you’re selling, you’ll either need padded envelopes or corrugated shipping boxes. If your item is breakable in any way or too big for an envelope, then the boxes are a requirement. In the beginning, a lot of new e-commerce sellers are drawn towards USPS and their free shipping boxes. These can be used if they work for your products, but they’re pretty thin and crumple easily. You also want to make sure to avoid the flat-rate boxes unless you’re shipping something heavy that will fit in them.
Personally, I buy shipping boxes in bulk since I’ll go through thousands of them each year. Even if you’re selling on a small scale, you can still buy boxes in bundles of 25 from suppliers at a really reasonable price. You don’t want to be buying your boxes and other shipping supplies retail at places like Wal-Mart. There are places online that will sell and ship boxes to you, like MrBoxOnline (I’ve shopped there in person in the past). However, you really want to find somewhere that you can pick them up in person to pay much less by avoiding the high shipping costs.
Some larger companies that have nationwide locations, such as Grainger, offer boxes at decent prices. Not all suppliers keep all box sizes in stock though, so you may need to order them a week or more in advance. I recommend using Google to look for “packaging supplies” in your city or nearby areas. You can often find stores locally to buy your boxes. Just check their websites or call them to make sure they have the box sizes you need.
You want boxes that are just a bit larger than the products you sell. Consider customers that will only buy one and those that may buy multiple items on the same order. Boxes that are too big will require extra costs to ship and for other supplies like packing paper. Larger boxes also cost more money than smaller boxes too. Some boxes are much thicker than others as well. Only use double-walled corrugated boxes if you’re shipping very fragile and expensive items that can justify that extra expense.
Packing Paper & Tape
Besides boxes, you’re going to need other packaging supplies too. Sometimes you’ll be able to buy these items at the same place where you buy your boxes. Those same box suppliers often stock things like padded envelopes in a variety of sizes too, so they can be the perfect place for most e-commerce businesses.
Tape to close up boxes is a must for almost everyone, unless you only use padded envelopes. There are some different options here that can be confusing. Tape from a retail store is expensive. You’ll go through a lot, so it’s worth buying cases of 72 rolls from the packaging suppliers. I use a 2″ clear tape that’s one of the thinnest available from my supplier – it’s one of the cheapest and does the job. You can also take a branded approach and get a paper tape and even boxes branded with your company name, but you have to buy a lot of supplies when placing those orders.
Something to package the items you ship to protect them from damage is necessary too. You’ve probably seen the air bubbles that Amazon likes to use. A machine and supplies to do that can run you a solid $5,000+. I find packing paper to be much more economical and easier to use, especially for the products I sell. The items I’m selling can get damaged in shipping fairly easily, so I need to wrap them to protect them. The paper simply works good for my needs, so your needs may be different. Packaging supply stores often call this paper newsprint. Newsprint bundles can be bought in 25- or 50-pound packages for the best prices. I like using a 2′ x 3′ sheet, but again, your needs may be different.
Printer, Paper & Shipping Labels
The next thing you’ll need is a printer. Both paper and shipping labels will also be needed. It’s possible to use paper only and then print shipping labels to tape onto the boxes, but it’s much faster and easier to use self-adhesive labels.
Normal printer paper has two purposes. First, you may have an easy way to print a list of all of the items you need to ship so you can gather them – I’ll talk about this more in a minute. Next, it’s usually a good idea to print a packing slip for each order. This shows the order information including the price and items purchased. It can also be a great place to include a bit of marketing material for your business to refer new customers or encourage repeat sales. Printer paper is reasonably priced to buy from places like Staples in 500 sheet reems.
Self-adhesive, printable shipping labels can be expensive if you buy them at retail stores. I buy them on Amazon here: 2 Labels Per Sheet Self-Adhesive Label.
When I first started with e-commerce, I just used the normal inkjet printer that I already owned. I was burning through an absurd amount of ink with it though. It was also annoying when I needed to print 50 packing slips and shipping labels and had to wait forever for the printing to finish. Eventually upgrading to a laser printer was the best decision I ever made. They still have limits on how many pages they can print before a drum needs to be replaced, but they’re much faster and more cost-efficient.
Brother makes black and white laser printers that are less than $200 – usually shaped like a cube with the top chopped off. These do an excellent job, last for a long time and print quickly. Around Black Friday each year, office stores like Staples or Office Depot will often have sales on these printers. It’s sometimes cheaper to just buy a new one each year instead of buying new drums when they run out.
One of my favorite tools for e-commerce is ShipStation. This is a service that comes with a monthly fee, but I personally find it to be necessary and a huge time saver. When you have regular sales and especially when you have 100+ active sales at a time, you need a way to help manage your packaging and shipping operation. You also need a way to keep track of orders to ensure you don’t miss one because this happens more easily than you would think.
ShipStation lists all of your active orders in one place. It will sort them by order age, so you can focus on the oldest orders first. You can print out pick lists for a set of orders to collect your inventory. You can also print packing slips for each order with details about the purchase and even custom information you want to display there for marketing. Once you have boxed up orders, you come back to ship station to input the box dimensions, weight and other shipping info. A lot of that info can be pre-filled and order info like their name and address are input for you automatically. You can then pay for and print shipping labels for your orders directly through ShipStation, even using multiple carriers like USPS, UPS and FedEx.
Another great aspect about ShipStation is its interconnectivity. E-commerce can happen in a variety of places on the internet like your own website, eBay, Amazon, Etsy and more. You may choose to sell through multiple marketplaces to boost sales. With ShipStation, orders from all of those places are automatically loaded onto the platform for you so you can just focus on shipping orders. You don’t have to bounce around from one website to the next to get through orders, so this is insanely helpful for productivity.
USPS, UPS & FedEx
Depending on what you’re selling, where you live and where your customers live, you may choose to use a variety of different shipping carriers. I personally use USPS Priority Mail, USPS Priority Express and 1-3 Day Air Services with UPS for my business. However, I ship fragile and LIVING items that need to arrive quickly and need boxes instead of envelopes. Some of the boxes are larger and heavier, which I typically ship UPS since they’ll give better rates for larger items. Most smaller items go USPS. However, I also give my customers the option to choose shipping services on their orders.
The shipping carriers that you should use with your own business will depend on your own situation. If you sell a small, lightweight item that won’t break easily, you can potentially use padded envelopes and ship them very cheaply using USPS First Class Mail. Small and very lightweight boxes can also use this same service, but I believe they must be less than 13 ounces in weight.
Very large and/or very heavy packages are usually best shipped UPS or FedEx. Check rates for both and choose the better rate for your customers depending on what you’re shipping. It’s also worth noting that FedEx delivers on Sunday, which the other two big carriers do not do. UPS won’t even deliver on Saturday in some locations. The services and resulting prices that you offer to your customers can make or break an e-commerce business. When your shipping costs are too high, many people will back out of a purchase when they get to the checkout stage.
With a service like ShipStation, you can actually connect a digital scale to your computer using a USB cable and easily obtain the weight of a package. However, you need to make sure you have the right scale.
Stamps.com is another similar service just for USPS, but ShipStation is much better. However, Stamps offers some digital shipping scales for sale on their website. The smaller USB scales that they sell that are for lower weight limits (less than 70 lbs if I recall correctly) are the ones you want to use. DO NOT buy the big rectangular scale they sell that can handle 400lb packages. Even though they sell this scale, it doesn’t actually work with Stamps.com or ShipStation – I found this out the hard way.
Using one of these digital scales and ShipStation, you can quickly select an order, put the box on the scale and then click a button on ShipStation to have the weight input automatically. I’m able to assign the shipping info, package dimensions and weight for each order in a few seconds, so it’s much faster for processing a small or large number of e-commerce orders using this device.