Hack 31 Save Money on Shipping


Save the seller time, get your item sooner, and cough up less money for shipping.

I hate being ripped off, and one of the most common rip-offs on eBay is inflated shipping charges. The problem is that most sellers who overcharge for shipping don't even know they're doing it.

Sellers want to cover all their costs, so it's the buyer who ends up footing the bill for packing materials, shipping charges, insurance, and the bagel the seller ate while waiting in line at the post office. But even those who charge only for shipping charges may still be charging their buyers too much, simply because they don't know a cheaper or more efficient shipping method.

The problem is that most sellers don't care how much they spend on shipping because, in theory anyway, the buyer is the one paying for it.

If you don't know what method of shipping a seller is using, just ask. You have a right to know what you're paying for, and many sellers will be willing to use a cheaper (or faster) shipping option if you request it.

3.13.1 A Little Knowledge Can Be Dangerous

Fortunately, every buyer has access to the same tools sellers use to estimate shipping costs. The first thing to do when quoted a shipping charge that seems a tad high is to look it up for yourself.

The three largest couriers in the U.S. are FedEx (www.fedex.com), UPS (www.ups.com), and the United States Postal Service (www.usps.com), and all three have online shipping-cost calculators. (Most couriers in other countries have similar services; see [Hack #30].)

Typically, all you need for a shipping-cost quote are the origin and destination zip codes and the weight of the package.[8] The origin zip code can be found in the seller's address, usually included with any payment instructions; if not, just ask. The destination zip code is simply your zip code, which you already know (hopefully). If you don't know the weight of the item, just take a guess. Make sure to include extras like insurance and residential delivery surcharges when choosing your shipping options.

[8] Some shippers ask for the package dimensions, but these rarely affect the price quoted. If in doubt, just make an educated guess.

Armed with the actual cost to ship your item, possibly from several different couriers, you now have two options (assuming your quote is better than the seller's). Either you can contact the seller and request a different shipping method, or better yet, you can offer to take care of shipping yourself.

3.13.2 Excuse Me While I Take Over

People are creatures of habit, and as such require a bit of careful persuasion before they'll change their routine. This is especially true of sellers, who won't want to spend any extra money or time on you or your package. If you want to save money to ship your package, you have to make it worth the seller's while to play by your rules.

As described in [Hack #68], the fastest and cheapest way to ship a package is almost always to use a prepaid shipping label. Using the same technique, you can create a shipping label addressed to yourself, and then email the label to the seller.

Before asking the seller to ship with your prepaid label, make sure there's a drop-off location nearby. Type the seller's zip code into your courier's online location finder to find the closest drop-off box or counter. Most often, there will be one within a mile or two; if not, you may have to scrap your plan. Note that you can often schedule a pickup if there's no drop-off location close to the seller, but this often comes at substantial extra cost.

Before you snap into action, ask the seller if she would be willing to ship your way. Here are a couple of examples of such a request:

  • "Would you be willing to use a prepaid shipping label I send you? All you'd have to do is affix the label to the package and drop it off. I'd save money, and you wouldn't have to wait in line at the post office. If this sounds OK, just email me the weight and dimensions of the package."

  • "I have a shipping alternative that should save you time and save me money. All I need from you are the weight and dimensions of the package, and I'll do the rest. Simply affix the prepaid label I send you, and drop off the package at a local courier counter. Let me know if that's all right with you, and I'll get started."

Diplomacy tip: don't make demands. You're asking the seller a favor, so be polite and encouraging, and make sure to let her know that she can refuse without any ill will. If the seller feels she has a choice in the matter, she'll be more likely to agree.

More often than not, the seller will agree, happy to save time by not having to put together a label and stand in line at the courier counter. (For sellers who refuse, you may still be able to give them your courier account number, or at least request a cheaper shipping method.)

The next step is to prepare the label, a simple procedure outlined in [Hack #68]. But instead of printing the label on your own printer, you'll need to create a file that can be emailed to the seller. PDF files are perfect for this; see Turn Shipping Labels into PDF Files for details.

Turn Shipping Labels into PDF Files

The Portable Document Format (PDF), created by Adobe Systems, allows for the exchange of documents without losing formatting, and is ideal for creating shipping labels that can be emailed. Anyone can view a PDF file with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software, available at www.adobe.com; odds are you already have it installed on your system.

A PDF file can be created from any application, including your web browser (where you'll likely create your labels). Simply print as you normally would (File Print . . . ), but instead of printing to your printer, print to a PDF printer driver.

On any modern Mac, you can create a PDF file from your browser's Print dialog. But on any other platform, you'll need a PDF printer driver such as the full version of Adobe Acrobat (not the reader), a commercial product available at www.adobe.com.

Windows users can also create PDF files using the free Ghostscript software:

  1. Start by installing Ghostscript (www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/) and GSview (www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/gsview/).

  2. Install a free PostScript printer driver (www.adobe.com/products/printerdrivers) and make sure it's set to "print to file." Go to Control Panel Printers right-click the Postscript driver Properties Ports click FILE:, and click OK.

  3. Create your label (see [Hack #68]), and print it to your PostScript printer driver. Choose a filename (such as label.prn) when prompted.

  4. Start GSView and open the .prn file you just created. Go to File Convert, select the pdfwrite device, choose a resolution of 600, and click OK. Choose a filename (such as label.pdf) when prompted.

Alternatives to Acrobat and Ghostscript include Create Adobe PDF Online (cpdf.adobe.com), a subscription-based service; JawsPDF (www.jawspdf.com); and PDFMail (www.pdfmail.com). All of these have free trials.

Once you've created the PDF file with your shipping label, simply email it as an attachment to the seller. Include instructions in your email for obtaining the latest version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader from www.adobe.com if they don't have it already. Make sure to specify one or two nearby drop-off locations, obtained from your courier's online location finder, as described earlier in this hack. Better yet, send a link to the courier's web site so the seller can see the map and any nearby alternatives.

If all goes well, the seller will print out the label, tape it to the package, and drop off the package as instructed. You'll be able to track the package from the courier's web site, and the seller will be out of the loop.