Creating Custom Packaging for Subscription Boxes: An Interview with Salazar Packaging

Custom packaging is one of the best ways to communicate brand messaging and reinforce your value to customers. It can also be the source of $1000s of cost, consume tons of time, and yes, provide you with tons of headaches.

Custom Packaging For Subscription Boxes

We sat down with Dennis Salazar, owner of Salazar Packaging from Chicago, Illinois. He supplies custom packaging for 100s of companies, include Harry’s, Warby Parker and Madison Reed.

Custom packaging is one of the best ways to communicate brand messaging and reinforce your value to customers. It can also be the source of $1000s of cost, consume tons of time, and yes, provide you with tons of headaches. In an attempt to remove some of the confusion around custom box printing, we sat down with one of the leaders in custom subscription box packaging, Dennis Salazar.

Salazar owns Salazar Packaging, a custom box manufacturing facility out of Illinois. He’s been working in the subscription box space since 2010, and today, works with 100s of subscription box companies. Dennis prides himself on being upfront with customers, explaining the reality behind costs, and making sure new business owners make the best decisions possible early on.

Custom Packaging for Subscription Boxes: A Sit Down with Dennis Salazar

Jesse:  Hi, Dennis! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Dennis: Certainly! I’m excited to get caught up a bit and talk more about custom packaging.

Jesse:  We’re really interested in leading this from a first-time-buyer perspective – some basic stuff about boxes, ordering, etcetera – but we’d also like to cover some points useful for those in the medium to large sized business range. Let’s jump into it!

Q: What minimums should first time buyers expect?

A: This is our most frequent question, and it varies from supplier to supplier. For us, it’s 1000 units.

Q: Where does that minimum come from? Why is it so high to begin with?

A: Well, that’s a quote for our flexographic print process, the most common kind of printing for subscription boxes starting out. A flexographic machine pumps out about 5000 boxes an hour. When a manufacturer considers set up and a limited run, it becomes hard to run it for less than 1000 boxes. Minimums vary depending on the set up, but we’ve been able to make 1000 work for minimums.

Q: If a subscription wants a smaller order, what are their options?

A: Anything less than 1000 boxes means we’d use “digital” printing, or encourage them to use labeling, or what most people call “stickers” these days.

Q: What’s the difference between flexographic and digital printing?

A: Flexographic is essentially a big rubber stamp and inkpad. The print plate spins on a rotatory drum, picks up ink, and puts it on the cardboard. Generally, 1 plate equals 1 color. So if you had a 4-color design, you’d need 4 print plates, theoretically, for flexographic printing.

Digital is a little different, and we do offer packaging options for that. The advantage here is two-fold: first, you don’t need to buy print plates, meaning you can take the ~$2000 in setup costs for flexographic printing and put that money somewhere else. Here, it’s not a big ink pad like flexo printing; rather, it’s more similar to a laser jet desktop printer, just with different hardware. Basically, the machine makes the colors and mixes them perfectly, then jets them onto your board. It can provide photo quality colors, but it’s 3-5x more expensive. They do have high-speed digital equipment for large orders, but generally, I suggest small orders (less than 1000) use digital due to it being easier to control the production process.

Lastly, you do have the option of Litho label printing. This is printing on paper liner, which is then layered on box. It’s more expensive than flexographic, but it starts making sense around 3000-5000 boxes. At that point, it can be as cheap as flexographic with an improved print quality.

Q: When should a customer expect to see a significant drop in price?

A: Well, regardless of box size or style, usually making the jump from 1000 to 2000 is where you see the biggest price reduction, with about a 20% drop in cost. At that point, it can cover shipping and other expenses.

But you need to keep shipping costs in mind. 1000 boxes is probably a pallet’s worth. So ask yourself, Where are you going to put it? How many can you afford AND stock at once. Some of our customers use storage units, garages, etcetera. The point is, don’t over order boxes unless you’ve got a solution for storing them.

Keep in mind that the percent of decrease continues to get smaller after 2000. 2000 to 3000 might be 12% drop. Next might be 8% drop, from 3000 to 5000.When you hit 20-30,000 boxes/month, that discount begins to flattens out more, and the increments are much smaller. I like to remind customers that just because you buy 100,000 boxes, doesn’t mean you get them for free. The perk is volume though – when you save $0.05 on 100,000 boxes, you’re talking serious money.

Q: When would you say is the time to order custom printed boxes?

A: I think when you get up to about 300-400 subscribers, you’re ready for custom printed boxes.

Q: Who does the graphic design work? Do many manufacturers offer a solution for this?

A: Some do, but we offer 3rd party referrals, and we work with 100s of graphic designers. While we don’t do the work, we guide the design, size, weight, and so on. Generally, it seems like 50% of people who come to us already have designers, and 50% don’t, and we offer referrals for them.

Q: Anything a graphic designer or owner of a subscription box should know about design?

A: YES. Big yes.

The problem with graphic designers today is that whoever has a piece of software thinks they’re a graphic designer. Sure, they can make some stunning images, but it’s on a computer, not a piece of corrugated board. That’s our number one reminder for designers: Keep it mind this is from physical printed boxes – and that’s different than web design.

We recommend that owners emphasize to their designers that they need to understand flexographic printing. We call it “Flexo-Friendly Artwork”. They need to understand that process and design around the process, realizing that it’s ink being stamped on cardboard. This is an especially common problem with reverse prints, or prints that use the natural color of the box in the design. The density of reverse prints requires a heavy coat, which means bleed. Small, non-bold fonts, lines or artwork, is not as flexo friendly in these applications, because of the reality of bleed.

Q: What is flute? About how thick/thin does a box need to be for shipping? 

A: “Flute” denotes the thickness of the cardboard. Out of the 100s of clients we word with, the overwhelming standard is B-Flute, 1/8” thick. We rarely see C-Flute, which is a notch thicker than B flute.

What’s really up and coming is E-flute. E-flute doesn’t look as “industrial” as B-Flute; it has a nicer quality and looks more like a “retail” quality box. It looks like less of a shipping box and more of a piece of product packaging. Some clients that use this are Harry’s, Warby Parker, and Madison Reed.

The last one is F-Flute, which is one notch thinner. I mean, this is very thin. With F-flute, you’ve got to be careful with size and design of the box. It’s like building columns – you need to know where to put them and how to engineer them so the roof doesn’t cave in. It’s not about your 1 pound of contents in the box either; it’s about to 30 pounds of boxes on top. We rarely advise using something this thin.

Q: What about type of board? What do you need to know in terms of actual lining of the corrugated board?

A: Okay, there are dozens of paper combinations, and they are all rated on pounds per square inch. To give you a sense of how custom this is, if someone wants 1000 boxes, we can tailor make the paper for that print job.

Q: I see. I use Kemi White on my current box. Anything you say about that choice or other things you need to know about liner?

A: Well, I rarely sell Kemi White. It’s a really nice board, but first off, it’s expensive, and second, not everyone can print it. If you want a glossy, Kemi board, you need to print it on a machine with dryers, so the ink dries quickly. Kemi is a whiteboard with a white coating on it. It prevents bleeds and dramatically affects how the board absorbs the ink, which is great for sharpness and quality, but it must be dried very quickly.

Outside of Kemi, keep in mind that if you’re haggling hard and trying to lower the price, a manufacturer may reduce the liner, both inner and outer, of the paper stock. This gives them a couple % margin on the sale. The problem is that a thinner liner makes it so you can see the flute – the little rivets in the board. Personally, we increase paper thickness of the liner, so you can’t see the flute. So whatever your choice, just be sure you find a board with good thickness. It will be nicer looking and work better with ink, which is especially for flood coats. A better liner means better printing quality on corrugated.

Q: Sounds like liner is a big thing. Anything else we should know about it?

A: Keep in mind that liner deals with both print in and print out.

So, in a typical combination, the outside liner is thicker than the inside. Why? Because the outside sees more wear and tear. For example, you might have a 42 outside, 32 inside. If you’re printing outside and inside, you need to make sure the printing is equal on both sides, so 42 and 42. These numbers are just examples, but make sure your manufacturer is making the weights even so the ink sets correctly on both side.

Q: What about colors? Like, colors of the board?

A: There are only two natural colors: brown and white. We put all flood coats on white board for more consistent color. Not everyone does this though, and when they don’t, it can lead to spotty color. Brown boxes are naturally spotty, except with a black flood coat. Other than black though, any flood coat should probably use a whiteboard. You don’t want an orange or light color flood coat, as it will be spotty and inconsistent.

Q: Are there big differences in inks/eco based inks? 

A: Nowadays, most printers use water-based inks. It’s a really cool process, and when the inks are applied the water is then purified before reuse or waste. Most ‘eco-inks’, which were big a few years ago, were made from corn/soy inks. Those are expensive and mostly phased out because of the improved technology and process with water based inks. Generally, you only have to be careful with overseas boxes, which can use harsh lacquers. Most everything domestic is going to be pretty eco-friendly these days.

Q: This has all been really useful. What other expenses should someone plan for with their first order?

A: First off, when it comes to flexographic printing, keep in mind the cost of tooling. You have “Plates,” which are basically your big rubber stamp. These generally range from $400-600 per color, and that varies by size of plate, complexity and size of image. Keep in mind that if you print inside and out, you have two plates – not one. Even if they’re the same color, they are different patterns and therefore different plates.

Next, you also have dies, which is basically a big cutting sheet for cardboard. These cost in the $800-1000 range. If you want to avoid this cost, you want to find someone with common die sizes. For example, we have 30-40 of the most common sized dies we offer to customers for free.

Other than that, keep shipping and freight in mind. Like I said, every 1000 boxes is probably 1 pallet, and shipping cost can add up.

Q: Got it. Outside of that, what would be the biggest piece of advice you have for a first time buyer?

A: Don’t rush into it. We advise a lot of people away from custom packaging until they’re ready. It kind of takes people by surprise, but we do it because we want people to save money. Coming a few $1000 out of pocket can break a small business, so we emphasize being certain about the order before hand.

Besides that, I like to say, “Every box tells a story. What does your packaging say about you?” Make sure your packaging communicates something amazing before you pay for a big custom order.

Q: Do you offer other packaging solutions besides corrugated boxes? Maybe some alternatives to boxes?

A: Absolutely. We offer mailer envelopes and matching rigid mailers. This is great for non-fragile items, like socks or clothes. The cost is significantly less, it’s cheaper for you to ship, and it still looks as wonderful as custom boxes.

Q: Great. Thanks so much for your time today!

A: Absolutely. Excited to see you guys grow!

This piece was contributed in part by Dennis Salazar of Salazar Packaging. 

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About Jesse Richardson

Jesse Richardson is an author, educator and co-founder of several successful subscription businesses. He focuses on building engaging communities and has been described as "insanely customer centric." Find him in the Subscription School group or at his blog.

3 Responses

  1. Juan

    Hey Jesse. I just want to say thanks for all the hard work you put into this. I have been reading guides, seeing videos and listening to your cast the last month or so. My friend got me into this and it seems like a solid plan.

    I am a bit stuck though on the packaging. As I am new I won’t be able to afford custom packaging. But I always read about just a regular box with a label or sticker. I have not found a guide that gives me more info on this as what is a regular box or where do I find these stickers. Yeah, I feel like I am asking to be spooned but I just want more info. I am guessing I would need custom sticker/labels to place on each box with my logo or whatever else k want no?

    Any help would be appreciated.


  2. kiahna

    hey this may be a very dumb question but its been a long week of reading article after article to start a subscription box and I have to ask.. do you ship the package directly in your custom mailer boxes? where do you put the shipping label if so and if not how do you ship.

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