My experience has largely been with USPS, although I've used UPS a bit when USPS was not an option. I've mailed thousands of packages, from gifts to product, through the mail system in the last five years, so hopefully some of my experiences will help those of you who are new or have questions.
Who can I use to mail my packages?
I suggest the United State's Postal Service for both domestic and international shipping. Unless you're shipping furniture or something equally abnormal, USPS's services will be more than adequate for your needs.
There are also private shipping companies available. UPS, FedEx, and DHL are fairly common in the US if you're not a fan of USPS. I prefer USPS because I find their extra services (flat rate boxes, signature service, insurance, etc) very straightforward and easy to use. Also, you can find a post office anywhere. Some regions won't have a FedEx nearby, or there's only a UPS drop box but no store.
Can I print my labels online?
Yes! On the USPS website, you can print labels for priority or express packages. But what if you want to mail your things via First Class (which is way cheaper)? Fortunately, there are subscriptions services like stamps.com that will allow you to print FC labels. However, that may be out of your budget unless you're a legit small business with lots of packages to send off.
What I use is PayPal. When someone pays via PayPal, you can be prompted to print a shipping label. However, if you're sending a gift, or the person paid without PayPal, you can still use their service by going to http://www.paypal.com/shipnow. TADA!
I suggest printing online when possible, because USPS actually offers a small discount when you print your labels online instead of going in to a post office. Oh, and free tracking on your package!
Do I really need tracking? How do I get it?
Tracking is actually called delivery confirmation by USPS, but don't worry, it will tell you as your package hits each hub and post office, as well as when it's delivered. Tracking automatically comes with any labels purchased online. If you go into a store, I think it's an extra $0.85 for domestic and you can ask for it when you pay for your label. I recommend paying for tracking for EVERY package you mail out. You want to know it was delivered in case a customer tries to say it never arrived and wants to scam you for a refund or a free product.
Your tracking number for each package will be available on your receipt.
If shipping internationally, tracking is hella pricy and generally requires you to ship via Priority or Express.
I heard USPS is unreliable and won't handle packages carefully.
All shipping companies are comprised of people. People can be assholes. However, I have had very few problems with USPS after thousands of pieces of mail. Maybe one in a hundred will be in rough shape upon arrival, but I've only had 3 instances ever where a package arrived completely obliterated.
Sometimes there can be a delay, which is why they quote that FC mail will take 2-5 business days. The mail must make it from your post office, through sorting centers, to the destination post office. If you or the recipient live in a small town, or further from one of the main hubs, you can expect an extra day or two to get tacked on to the minimum wait. I live in the middle of the country and rarely does it take more than 3 days to get anywhere.
During the holiday season, USPS gets swamped and the delays can get bad. When I lived in St. Louis, I never saw much delay in my packages, even the week before Christmas. Now that I've moved to a more rural region, sometimes I really feel it. Very few packages have ever gone completely missing, but it can happen and it's more likely if you don't get tracking or insurance.
Speaking of insurance, it's a good idea to get familiar with it and consider buying it for all your packages. I know, it's an extra cost, but sometimes it's really worth it just for the peace of mind. Also note Priority mail automatically comes with $50 of insurance.
How does insurance work?
So you mail a package and you pay for insurance and tracking. It arrives but your beautiful OOAK pendant has been crushed inside the package. Assuming you packaged it appropriately, you can take proof or the broken/damaged item (photos, or have the item returned) and your receipt to file a claim. You will receive your money back, minus the shipping I believe.
Do not lie about the value of your package. USPS will want:
- proof of damage
- proof of value
- proof of insurance
- completed claim form
You will not get your money back if you packaged the item poorly. For proper ways to prepare mail, please refer to this article.
I've never actually had to file a claim before so this is just from my own reading and research.
Can I just write FRAGILE on the package? Will they purposely break packages with FRAGILE written on it?
This is new, but writing FRAGILE or any similar phrase on your package entails a fee; I believe $10. They don't always apply it, but don't get slammed with it. Some people have suggested writing things like, GLASS or PERISHABLE instead of fragile, but to me it's all the same. Just get the insurance or send at your own risk.
I trust my postal workers, I really do. I don't think that they're all out to be jerkbags and break my mail. However, it only takes one. And for all you know, it's not even a guy from your local post office, it's some jerkbag in the mail room on the other side of the country. There are countless tales of horror on the internet about fragile packages getting tossed and slammed and run over, but just remember that no one writes an article when mail arrives fine.
USPS Shipping Restrictions
Be aware that USPS, and other carriers, have a list of things you can't mail. This is usually for safety reasons. Click here for the USPS restricted items list.
Can I under-declare the value on an international package?
If you mail internationally, you'll learn that many other countries levy customs fees that you've probably never experienced here in the states. Some countries do it to maintain their import/mail services, others do it to exploit their citizens. Many people will request you to mark the package as a "gift" or declare a lower value on the customs form.
DON'T DO THIS. It's illegal, and not just like making-an-illegal-u-turn illegal, we're talking federal offense. I know, crazy. Did you know smashing a mail box will nab you a federal felony whereas beating the crap out of your ex could just end with a misdemeaner? Well, the mail system belongs to the feds, so any fraud or misuse ends with a federal violation. Fines and prison time. For lying on a form.
Tell your customers you will not lie on the forms even if they give the world's saddest sob story about how they can't afford the customs fees but really want that scarf for their dying mother's last birthday. If you accidentally mark it wrong and get caught, you'll want to be as honest as possible about your mistake. Seriously though, don't do it.
What happens if I send it to the wrong address?
If you misspell the street name or mix up one number but the rest is fine, your package should be ok. Let the recipient know that you made a mistake so they can either speak with their neighbor or postal carrier and try to nip the problem. Also, most carriers will know that Allison Bailey lives at 117 River Street, not 17 River Street because they deliver their mail every single day. Track it and chill.
However, if a large portion of the address is incorrect or the location doesn't exist, the package will be returned to you under most circumstances (return address is legible). It can take ten days to several weeks though.
If the customer provides the wrong address (moved, gave you an old one, misspelled), you're not in the wrong. You can request they wait until you receive the original back, or file claim if you bought insurance, before moving forward.
How do I ship a print?
Depending on the size of your print, you have two easy options: flat mailers or tubes. You can reinforce soft envelopes with chipboard, cardboard, or anything rigid. However, for prints larger than 8x10, I recommend tubes. You can get cylinders or triangles in singles or bulk from many different retailers. Slide your print in a plastic sleeve for protection, roll, and slide into the tube for mailing. It won't cost any more than if you shipped it flat. However, I know some people hate having their prints rolled so it's up to you.
Just make sure if you sell prints that are 11" long when rolled, you buy a tube that's at least 12" in length.
How do I ship fragile small items?
My jewelry is made from polymer clay and fairly fragile. I place the jewelry in a small Kraft gift box. Inside the gift box is a small cotton block, but I sometimes have to supplement with bubble wrap so the jewelry doesn't bounce around in there. Then I place the box in a 6x9 manila envelope with a business card and tape it closed. If your items don't fit into a small box, consider copious amount of bubble wrap and rigid material. If an envelope doesn't work, check wholesalers/retailers for small shipping boxes. I wouldn't go smaller than 6 x 6 x 6 (mug sized).
What is a Flat Rate Box?
USPS offers this awesome service to make things easier for us. There are several different Flat Rate options including several envelopes and many sizes of boxes. All the FR packages are sent Priority Mail domestically and internationally, with options for Express. You can fill each box as much or as little as you want for the same price. There are some weight limits, but you'd have to be filling the box with cement to even come close.
Best part is all the FR boxes are available for free. You can walk into into post office lobby and get as many as you need or want. Too busy? You can also order them for free online. Your mail carrier will bring them in 1-2 weeks and you never even have to change outta your jammies. Check out what they have here.
Do keep in mind that FR is more about the convenience than price. You'll probably still save money by manually calculating your weight and getting your labels the old fashioned way, unless you're shipping something heavy.
Another awesome use for the FR boxes is if you're mailing things to military. It's the same price whether you're sending it to Fort Benning in Georgia or Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Have a question I didn't answer? Want to make a correction? Leave a comment!