Shipping a physical product

I never thought I’d be in the business of shipping a physical product. As a freelance developer, I always thought I would only ever offer services, or at most, a digital product like an e-book. So when my wife self-published the DIY Stitch People book, we had to figure out how to get those books from point A to point B.
When we first started selling the book, we didn’t have any sort of system set up. When we needed to ship a book, we’d go to a local place that handles everything from packaging to shipping. We’d buy a padded envelope, stick the book in, seal it, and then head to the front counter and read back the name and address of the customer while the person on the other side of the counter typed it in and generated a label. Then that person stuck the label to the envelope, threw it in a pile with other outgoing mail, and we paid for the envelope and postage.

This process sucked, especially when we had to ship out over 50 pre-orders at once. We were at the store for about 2 hours, and the receipt we got at the end was super long. Here’s a picture of the nice employee holding our receipt:

Stitch People Receipt

On that receipt were the tracking numbers for each package, too. So we went home and typed in each tracking number for each order and sent the customer their shipping confirmation email.

Lizzy and I quickly realized that this process wasn’t going to work. It was time-consuming, expensive, and error-prone. First, we found padded envelopes online at ULINE. Buying in bulk online was definitely cheaper than buying individual envelopes in the store. Problem solved (or so we thought–more on this later).

Next, we looked for a way to generate labels at home. That way, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time at the store reading off the names and addresses of each customer. We love podcasts, so we’d heard a lot about Stamps.com. We signed up and started generating labels at home.

With our new envelopes and the ability to generate our own shipping labels, the next iteration of our shipping process was set. When an order came in, we’d throw a book into a ULINE envelope, go to Stamps.com, copy and paste all the customer information, generate the label, print it out, and tape it to the front of the envelope. Then we’d copy the tracking number and paste it into Shopify, which would send the customer their shipping confirmation email. And because we were using USPS (Media Mail, because we’re shipping books), we could leave the envelopes for our mailman to pick up, so we didn’t have to leave the house to ship. Not a bad improvement.

But this process got cumbersome after a while, too. The copying and pasting from Shopify to Stamps.com wasn’t very slick, and we were still making a few mistakes every now and then when generating labels. We figured that since the customer information was already in Shopify, there had to be a way to easily generate the label and update the order with tracking info without copying and pasting. So I went in search of another solution and landed on ShipStation.

I’ve written about ShipStation (and some of this other stuff) already in another post. It’s a really great solution and is what we currently use. When an order comes in, we go to ShipStation, where I’ve created presets for all the different options for shipping that we use and offer customers (international, media mail, priority, etc). It pulls the order data in from Shopify, we apply a preset, and then generate and print the label. As soon as the label is generated in ShipStation, it sends the tracking number back to Shopify, and the customer is sent their shipping confirmation email. Another big improvement.

When we first started using ShipStation, we were still printing labels on regular paper with our ink printer. It worked, but it was a hassle. The labels we generated were 4×6, not 8.5×11, so we were wasting a lot of paper. And taping labels to the front of the envelope sucked. Lizzy’s mom (who helps with fulfillment) suggested we look at a thermal label printer that worked with ShipStation. We found the Dymo LabelWriter 4XL on Amazon.

DYMO LabelWriter 4XL

With this thing and some cheap generic labels, things got really easy. Now we could process a batch of labels in ShipStation, the tracking numbers would get sent back to Shopify, and we could print on sticky labels without needing ink. The thermal-printed labels (the exact size of the generated label) just peel off and stick right to the package. This was a HUGE improvement for us.

The most recent thing we changed was the envelopes. We were getting complaints from customers that the packages were being mutilated in transit, arriving bent and creased. First we tried contacting USPS about it and learned that there’s nothing they can do. With Media Mail especially, our packages were being tossed around with much bigger and heavier packages. If we wanted to keep using USPS (they’re the cheapest option for us), we’d need to look at new packaging.

I checked out the ULINE catalog and found their Easy Folder Mailer boxes which work perfectly. It’s a tight fit because our book is spiral bound, but it protects the book so much better than the envelopes. It’s a bit more work to put the book into one of these things, but since we started using the boxes, we haven’t had a single complaint about the condition of the book when it arrives. For us, it’s definitely worth it.

And that’s where we are today. When an order comes in, we grab a box, fold it around the book, tape it shut, go to ShipStation, print out the label, slap it on the front, and leave it for the mailman. ShipStation talks to Shopify and sends over the tracking number, which is automatically sent to the customer. It’s not a perfect system, but we’ve found a nice rhythm to our shipping process. And I’m sure we’ll find other ways to improve as the need arises.

Do you ship a physical product? What would you suggest we do differently?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I’m a process man, so reading this story got me really excited. I think finding existing tools and stacking them together is one of the most rewarding experiences of building a process. I’d guess it’s almost always more efficient to do it that way until you’ve grown so much you have to build a custom solution.
    This post reminded me of a great article I read recently:
    On MVPs, Gluing Things Together, and $270 Flights to South Africa.

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