Hack 68 Cheap, Fast Shipping Without Waiting in Line


Generate prepaid shipping labels online to save money and time.

"Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and long lines at the post office."

You know the drill. Take your package down to the post office. Stand in line. Stand in line some more. Then, watch while your package is weighed, listen to your shipping options, and pick whichever one is cheapest. Go home, and do it all again next week. But the worst part is that it's completely unnecessary.

Most major couriers ? and nearly all couriers in the United States ? offer online shipping services. Here's how it typically works:

  1. Go to your courier's web site and sign up for an account; at this time, you'll enter your mailing address and, optionally, payment information. You'll need to do this only once. See the next section for courier-specific tips.

    Before you're ready to ship, you can get a shipping cost quote from any courier web site. Do this before sending a total to the high bidder (see [Hack #66]), and you'll never underestimate shipping costs again.

  2. Enter your recipient's address into a form, as well as the weight and dimensions of the package. (To avoid typos, make sure to use copy-and-paste rather than typing your customer's address by hand.) The return address is filled in automatically. Figure 6-3 shows the FedEx Ship Manager; note that the return address, which isn't shown, is filled in automatically.

    Figure 6-3. The FedEx Ship Manager lets you print out a prepaid shipping label in about a minute
  3. Print out a prepaid shipping label and affix the label on your package.

  4. Drop off your package at a local customer counter or, for an extra charge, schedule a pickup. You can find the closest drop-off location on the courier's web site.

  5. Track the package using the tracking number generated with your label. Make sure to keep permanent records of all your tracking numbers; if your customer claims the package never arrived, you'll need to be able to track it.

The entire process takes about a minute, and requires no waiting in line and no guesswork. See [Hack #69] for any additional forms you might need when shipping to other countries.

This procedure can also be used if you're the customer; see [Hack #31] for a way to quickly send a prepaid label to the seller.

6.5.1 Courier Notes

Here are some tips and considerations for the "big three" shippers:

  • United States Postal Service (USPS). Not only can you print prepaid labels from the U.S. Postal Service web site (sss-web.usps.com), you actually get a better deal if you do so. The Delivery Confirmation option, which adds a tracking number to most types of postal mail for an extra charge, is free if you print your mailing labels online. Another perk of USPS is that you can print a label without postage and use ordinary stamps instead; this is useful for those who can't or don't want to pay with a credit card.

    Due to postal regulations, any package weighing one pound or more must be handed to a postal employee inside the branch (albeit usually without having to wait in line). Only packages weighing less than one pound can be dropped in mailboxes.

    You can get special labels designed especially for USPS Click-N-Ship by going to www.labeluniverse.com/USPS.html. But if you want to save money, you can simply use ordinary paper and a lot of tape (just make sure not to tape over the barcode).

    If you have a choice, never use USPS third class (standard) shipping. Although it may be slightly cheaper than Priority Mail, it often takes up to a month to deliver, even within the same state (despite what the USPS web site says). If you're shipping something heavy, use FedEx Ground or UPS Ground instead. The only time when third-class postal mail should be used is when you have no other choice, such as when shipping certain types of chemicals.

    Probably the biggest drawback to USPS Click-N-Ship is that, at least at the time of this writing, ordinary international shipments are not supported (unless you want to pay extra for Global Express Mail). This means that if you're shipping to another country, you'll have to use FedEx or UPS if you don't want to wait in line at the post office.

  • Federal Express (FedEx). Shipping with a FedEx account number is one of the slickest systems around. Even when you're not using FedEx Ship Manager (www.fedex.com), you can simply hand-write your account number on a FedEx Express airbill or FedEx Ground form.

    The FedEx Ship Manager, shown back in Figure 6-3, allows you to send any package to just about any destination around the world. When you've filled out the required fields, click Get Courtesy Rate to see the estimated shipping cost on the fly.

  • United Parcel Service (UPS). UPS has gone to great lengths to integrate its services with eBay and PayPal. For instance, eBay's calculated shipping feature (see [Hack #45]) is provided by a UPS subsidiary.

    Although you can ship from the UPS web site (www.ups.com), it is probably more convenient (and no more expensive) to ship directly from PayPal. Start by logging in to PayPal and going to My Account Profile Shipping Preferences to choose the types of transactions for which the "Ship" button will appear in your transaction list. Then, click the History tab and you'll see the Ship button next to applicable transactions; click Ship to generate a UPS label for that customer. Figure 6-4 shows the PayPal shipping form, which conveniently enters the customer's address for you. (Note that this is available only for buyers in the United States.)

    Figure 6-4. PayPal Shipping lets you create a prepaid UPS label without having to type the customer's address

    You'll be covered under PayPal's Buyer Protection policy only if you ship to a customer's "confirmed" address, as described in [Hack #67].

    When you're done, PayPal will even email the tracking numbers to your customers so they can track their packages themselves.

6.5.2 Shipping on the Cheap

If buyers pay for shipping (and they usually do), then why should sellers care how much it costs to ship a package? If you charge a fixed shipping amount, then every penny saved is a penny earned. And if you charge the exact amount to ship, then you'll get more bids for being able to ship for less.

The other major shipping expense comes from packing materials, both in the cost of the materials themselves and the impact they have on the total shipping cost.

Here are some tips for saving money with packing materials:

  • The number-one rule is to never throw out packaging materials; recycle and reuse them as much as possible. Not only will you save money, but you'll help reduce the increased strain on landfills caused by the growing popularity of eBay and mail-order shipping in general.

  • Air is the best packing material on earth?it's lightweight, an excellent heat insulator, and extremely cheap. Bubble wrap and foam peanuts are terrific examples, and can be reused again and again. Tip: use clear trash bags to collect foam peanuts from packages you receive.

  • Don't throw out form-fitted styrofoam. Instead, break it apart and use the fragments to fill space in your own packages.

  • Most couriers will not only provide free cardboard boxes of all sizes, but they will even send them to you free of charge if you ask.

  • Buy packing tape in bulk to save money. (Avoid independent packing/shipping stores, which usually grossly overcharge for packing materials.) Better yet, use a courier that provides free tape; if you're shipping with USPS Priority Mail, for example, you can use all the "Priority Mail" tape you want for free.

  • Don't use newspaper or shredded paper to wrap or cushion your items. It's much heavier than foam peanuts, the ink can rub off, and it won't protect your items nearly as well as bubble wrap.

  • Finally, when using prepaid shipping labels, you can place them in clear, self-adhesive "airbill" sleeves, freely available from couriers like FedEx and UPS, thus saving the time and expense otherwise spent on wads of packing tape.