How to Choose Cost-Effective Retail Packaging Materials
This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
As any retailer knows, getting your product safely to the customer is vital for fostering trust and loyalty. At the same time, going overboard on shipping supplies will lead to heightened materials and shipping costs, which deter shoppers and cut into your bottom line. The challenge of packaging is to find the most secure, cost-effective method for getting your goods to your customers in one piece.
This guide is for small retailers looking to find the best way to ship products. Here, we will look at different shipping containers, cushioning options, and how to seal and brand your packages—no matter the shape and size. We will also look at cost estimates so that you can predict how much you need to spend on packaging materials.
1. Choose the Right Container: Boxes and Mailers
The first step to successful shipping and packaging is to choose containers that will be the right size and material for your products. For the majority of cases, you will be looking at either mailers or boxes at this step.
For the best shipping, you want your merchandise to fit snugly in its container. Using the smallest box possible will help you save on shipping and materials costs and prevent your items from getting tossed around in transit.
TIP: You will likely have to use multiple types of shipping containers, depending on what works best with individual products.
Remember, however, most items will need some sort of additional packaging materials, and more delicate products will need a lot of cushioning to stay secure. Consider the fragility of your products and the space that extra padding will take up when selecting your shipping containers.
Additionally, different types of products need different levels of durability from their shipping containers. For example, at my store, we used simple polyethylene mailers with no additional cushioning materials to send clothes to customers. However, if we needed to ship jewelry, we would use small tight, cushioned boxes to avoid damaging our more delicate items.
Here, we will look at the different types of shipping containers so that you can choose the best option for your business and save on shipping costs.
Bubble mailers are waterproof bag containers that have a bubble lining to provide light protection to your goods. They come in various colors and sizes and are great if you want to add branding or labels. They are also a highly cost-effective option.
Best for: Small items that require no additional cushioning or packaging; hard objects (books, candles, flatware), durable plastic containers with liquids (shampoo and conditioners, lotions, creams), and small boxes (jewelry boxes, batteries, nails and screws)
Sizes: 10 in. x 13 in., 9 in. x 12 in., 6 in. x 9 in.
Cost: $0.50–$1.00 per unit
A fold-up mailer is a flat cardboard container that comes in varying thicknesses and provides no additional padding. Fold-up mailers get their name because, to assemble, you place your item in the center and fold the box up around it.
Best for: Flat items greater than 1 inch thick (textbooks, framed artwork, etc.) and flat items that need slight padding (candlesticks, plates)
Sizes: 0.5 in to 2 in. thick, 12.5 in x 12.5 in., 20 in x 16 in, 24 in. x 24 in., 18 in. x 24 in., 14.5 in x 11 in.
Cost: $1.00–$4.50 per unit
Polyethylene mailers are thin plastic, rectangular bags that provide no padding and are nearly weightless. They are an extremely cost-effective option for retailers, and some will even use these as a second layer of waterproofing on top of boxes and other shipping containers.
Because these mailers are thin, I would suggest always going with tear-proof polyethylene mailers to avoid damages or lost items in transit.
Best for: Soft, durable items (clothing, cushions), flat and durable items (books, cutting boards, etc.), and waterproofing layer to other containers
Sizes: 6 in. x 9 in. to 24 in. x 24 in.
Cost: $0.13–$0.17 per unit
Standard Corrugated Boxes
Standard corrugated boxes are your typical cardboard boxes. They provide a great option if you need to send large merchandise, anything over 40 lbs., or if you need to fit a lot of protective cushioning around your product. They are more expensive than other types of shipping containers, but they are much larger and necessary to ensure items don’t break through their packaging.
Best for: Items thicker than 4 inches, items that need extra packaging materials, and shipments with multiple items of various types or sizes
Sizes: 16 in. x 12 in. x 12 in. to 24 in. 20 in. x 24 in.
Cost: $0.20–$3.50 per unit
Multi-depth boxes are standard corrugated boxes with multiple perforations that allow you to tear layers off and make the box into the size you need it to be. They are a great shipping container option if your products have the same length and width, but you ship them in various quantities or if there are only minimal size differences between your products.
Best for: Items thicker than 4 inches and items that need extra packaging materials (has the same utility as a standard corrugated box)
Sizes: 8 in. x 8 in. x 8 in. to 36 in. x 36 in. 36 in.
Cost: $0.75–$10.00 per unit
Double Wall Box
Double-wall boxes are cardboard boxes that have two layers of support, making them ideal for heavier items. Again, while these boxes are costly, they are necessary to prevent the breakage or loss of heavy goods during transit.
Best for: Merchandise over 40 lbs. and products with sharp edges that might cut through weaker containers
Sizes: 16 in. x 12 in. x 12 in. to 24 in. 20 in. x 24 in.
Cost: $0.80–$27.00 per unit
Bulk Cargo Container
Bulk cargo containers are your largest shipping container option and are typically used when sending bulk or wholesale orders. They also feature double wall cardboard and are hard enough for heavy, bulky loads.
Best for: Bulk orders, multi-box shipments, and extra-large items
Sizes: 36 in. x 36 in. x 36 in. to 48 in x 40 in. x 60 in
Cost: $9.00–$80.00 per unit
2. Select Cushioning and Void Fill
Once you have chosen the containers that make the most sense for your merchandise, you will then select your cushioning materials. Void fill or cushioning is designed to keep your product safe and prevent them from getting damaged in transit.
Here, we will take a look at the kinds of different cushioning materials that are available and examine uses, as well as the typical cost and pros and cons, of each.
Bubble Wrap is a plastic sheet with aerated pockets that provide a cushioning layer to parcels. It is great because it comes in a variety of sizes, is flexible, and can be wrapped around irregularly shaped objects. Additionally, Bubble Wrap is lightweight, but it does create a bulky layer and takes up a lot of space in boxes and around objects.
Another option you can look into is DIY Bubble Wrap. In this case, you have an air filling machine that you can use to make your own bubble sheets. If you process lots of orders that need bubble wrapping, this is a good option that will save you money over time. The air filling machine does run a high ticket at ~$1,500, but for the right company, it is a cost saver.
Cost: $20.00–$200.00 (depending on roll size)
Air pillows are larger aerated pockets that you can use to create sheets of cushioning around objects. Unlike Bubble Wrap, air pillows are not particularly flexible and are better suited for regular-shaped objects or irregular items that don’t require tight wrapping. They also take up a lot of space in packages but are very light.
They are unique because you do not receive them filled; rather, you receive large sheets of plastic rolls that you fill yourself using an air cushion machine. While the actual sheets of air pillows are extremely economical, unless this cost-saving can offset a $1,500 filling machine, this might not be your best option.
Cost: $95.00–$125.00 (depending on quantity)
Packing peanuts are Styrofoam pieces that are used to fill open space and nooks and crannies in parcels. They are extremely lightweight and provide a good layer of protection around irregularly shaped items. Additionally, they are a cost-effective option and are even reusable.
The biggest drawback to packing peanuts is that they are an environmental hazard. In recent years, however, new biodegradable packing peanuts have been introduced. These options are made of starch and dissolve in water for easy disposal, and they provide all the same benefits as regular packing peanuts. They do have a slightly higher price point, but prices have been dropping as biodegradable peanuts become more and more commonplace.
Cost: $2.00 per cubic foot (Styrofoam); $3.50 per cubic foot (biodegradable)
Styrofoam sheets are just as they sound—sheets of Styrofoam that you can use to line packages, like in the picture below.
They are great because they offer a lot of protection, making them perfect for fragile items. At the same time, they weigh next to nothing, keeping your shipping costs down. However, due to the level of security they provide, Styrofoam sheets tend to run a high ticket price.
Foam rolls are large sheets of polyethylene that you can use to wrap delicate objects. You will frequently find this kind of cushioning with ceramic and glass pieces. They are flexible and lightweight and can easily be cut down to any size. They are an expensive option, however, and can be bulky, requiring larger shipping containers.
Instapak® is a type of foam packing material that expands and forms to the shape of the object it is touching. It is extremely durable, making it perfect for your most delicate products. It is also lightweight and won’t take up unnecessary space—it will fit perfectly into whatever you put it in. While it is a great product, Instapak foam is the most expensive option on the list.
Cost: ~$5.00 per unit
3. Consider Fragile or Irregular Items
There are some items that require special care so that they arrive at their destination safely. Here, we will look at how you should best handle irregular goods.
- Multiple items: If you’re packing multiple items, you may need to wrap items individually with a thin layer of foam or bubble wrap to prevent scratching, then fill the remaining spaces with peanuts.
- Delicate items: You’ll want to use a combination of Styrofoam sheets, Bubble Wrap, and peanuts. Use the Styrofoam sheets to line the perimeter and create a buffer—Bubble Wrap on the actual product and peanuts to fill the rest of the space.
- Sharp edges: It’s important to cover any sharp, protruding edges on your item(s) by putting them in another box within the container, folding a thin layer of cardboard over the edge, or using double wall boxes.
- Rugs, fabric, or wallpaper: Be sure that you do not fold items that should not crease. Rather, roll them up and use long tubular or rectangular boxes to ship.
4. Purchase Tape and Labels
Once your product is packed away, it is time to seal and label your package before you send it off.
The first thing that you will want to do is acquire the right kind of tape based on the material of your shipping container. For cardboard, there is a variety of packing tapes specifically designed to seal cardboard boxes. If you do use lots of cardboard, you should also invest in a tape gun to expedite and simplify your process. Otherwise, mailer options typically have self-adhesive strips, making your life easy.
Once your package is sealed, you can begin to label and brand your parcel. Most importantly, you will need to adhere postage or a stamp to a visible spot on the top of your package. From there, you can add decor and branding, as you like.
Branding might look like attaching a sticker with your business name or using decorative tape with your logo. It might also look like custom packaging. While custom packaging might cost a bit more than a standard box or mailer, it is a great way to reinforce your brand. Typically, you can expect to spend anywhere from $1.00–$18.00 per box, depending on how much ink you use and the size of the container.
If you want customized packaging that has your branding, then read our guide to creative packaging ideas to learn more and help boost your shoppers’ experience.
There are a slew of options when it comes to shipping materials, and choosing the right packaging material will ensure that your parcels arrive in a cost-effective and safe manner. From the container you choose to put your items in and the cushioning materials to the labels and branding, doing shipping effectively takes time and consideration. Using this guide, you can learn more about the best shipping material options on the market and to choose the best methods for your business.
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