Everything You Need to Know about Custom Packaging for Subscription Boxes

From choosing a packaging type to placing and order and negotiating a price, learn everything you need to know about creating custom packaging for subscription boxes.

Pile of Packaging

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If done correctly, your physical packaging can be key in improving customer experience, and even help drive down churn. It’s on your packagaing that you control your brand; it’s a visual storyboard that should both excite the customer and work to your benefit, spelling out calls to actions for the customer and adding value to the unboxing experience.

Organizing, designing, and ordering custom packaging, however, can be difficult. What kind of packaging exists? How does it actually get created? What’s a good price? How many do I have to order?

These are all questions new and existing subscription business owners should be thinking about if they’re getting ready for their first order. Below, we’ve outlined the answers to these questions (and more), and will take you from inception to completed order on what to expect and how to maneuver during your first custom packaging order.

In addition, we’ve created this short checklist to keep you on track for completing your order:

Download the Checklist
This guide will cover:

  • The different types of packaging available
  • The types of printing for creating custom boxes
  • How to choose a size
  • How to create a design
  • How to find the right manufacturer
  • Knowing what a “good” price is
  • How to place and order

Part 1: The Types of Custom Packaging Available

Packaging Types for Subscription Boxes
Let’s start at the beginning: the types of packaging available. While many use the word ‘box’ in their name, your subscription business is by no means stuck with a box for packaging. There are many packaging options behind the normal box, including:

  • Padded/Bubble Mailers: Bubble or padded mailers using a source of protection directly in the packaging design.
Five Four
Five Four Club packs their clothing into a black bubble mailer.
  • Mailer Boxes: Mailer Boxes are smaller sized boxes, about the size of document envelopes, but with square sides.
Level40two Mailer Box
level40two uses a mailer box to protect the pictures, cards, and posters included.
  • Custom Mailer Envelops: Mailer envelopes are regular, flexible traditional mailing envelopes.
Pipsticks Envelope
Pipsticks uses a clear, flexible mailing envelope to carry their stickers and assorted crafts.
  • Rigid Envelopes: Rigid envelopes use a paperboard layer to add rigidity and durability to the package.
Rigid Mailer
A custom rigid mailer for Photo Barn. Photo Credit: Salazar Packaging

When deciding on the type of packaging you’ll use, you need to think about the contents of your box, their sizes, and how fragile they are. In the cases of large, fragile items, the traditional box mailer may be the best option available.

Questions to consider:

  • What are the largest items I will include in my subscription?
  • What is the most fragile item I will include in my subscription?

Part 2: Learn How Packaging is Printed

 

Digital Printing Machine
A digital, wide-format printing press

Once you have your type of packaging chosen, you can begin to think about how you want that packaging created.

When it comes to printing, there are three primary types of printing methods used for custom packaging:

  • Flexographic Printing: Flexographic printing is the most common form of custom box printing. The way it works is much like a rubber stamp on a large scale – a printing plate with your box’s design acts as a large ink pad that spins on a rotary drum, picking up ink and then stamping it onto your corrugated box.
    • Related Costs: Flexographic printing requires a printing plate to be created. This is the custom rubber stamp used to stamp your design onto your subscription box. Price vary, but you can expect around $1000 per plate. You’ll need a unique plate for each color, so if you use 4 colors on you box, you would need 4 printing plates.
    • Minimums: Due to the machinery involved in flexographic printing, most manufacturers require  around 1000 box minimums for each run.
  • Digital Printing: Digital printing is more common for smaller sized orders. Digital printing is similar to your standard laser jet printer you might use at home. The machine mixes the inks and directly applies the color and design to the box.
    • Related Costs: Digital printing is generally 3-5x more expensive than flexographic printing on a small scale. While there are tools that allow for large runs, generally it’s easier and more cost effective to transition to flexographic printing.
    • Minimums: Digital printing requires much smaller minimums, with the caveat that the costs are much more expensive.
  • Litho Label Printing: Litho label printing, short for lithographic, provides a much cleaner, higher resolution printing that functions a bit like wall paper. Unlike printing that occurs on the physical box, litho label printing is printed onto a paper sheet, processed, cut, and then attached to the box through a form of adhesive. When an entire box is covered in a litho label, it’s called a ‘full label’ whereas a partial covering of the box is referred to as a ‘spot label.’
    • Related Costs: Litho label printing is generally more expensive than flexographic printing, but starts to be competitively priced around the 3000-5000 box mark. At that quantity, litho label may just be a bit more expensive than traditional flexographic printing, while offering a much cleaner, higher resolution product.
    • Minimums: Minimums with litho label printing are more flexible than flexographic printing, but the costs are higher than flexographic printing.

Note: Almost all types of printing will require production of a die, which is a tool they use to cut your box into its shape from a sheet of cardboard. While they are generally priced at around $500-$700, you can avoid this expense by using a stock die offered by your manufacturers. Some manufacturers will have dozens of stock sizes available.

So what’s the best option? Generally, if you’re planning on going with a run over 1000 or so boxes, you can bet on using Flexographic printing. It will offer a high quality form of printing at the lowest price possible for smaller sized orders (under 3000 boxes).

Part 3: Choosing a Size

When thinking about a size, you can always take direction from existing businesses. We surveyed over 100 active subscription business owners, and found that there are three most common sizes for their packaging are as follows:

You can also take a look at the average, median and mode measurements from our survey, as well as the average cubic value:

Choosing a perfect packaging size is the next step in the process. Size isn’t just important for the contents of your box either; it plays a large role in shipping. For example, if you’re using USPS cubic shipping rates, the dimensions of your box can greatly affect the pricing tiers your box falls into.

Generally, USPS cubic shipping is the most cost effective way to ship your subscription. Cubic pricing is not based on weight, but rather on volume. To calculate USPS cubic shipping, follow this formula:

Length x Width x Height / 1728 = Cubic Rate

Note: The longest dimension may not exceed 18″.

For example, if your dimensions are 10″ x 6″ x 3.75″, you end up with 225″ / 1728 = .13

You would then fall in the .2 range, as it falls over .1 cubic rates.

To see how this affect pricing, compare the cubic rates below:

Cubic Feet
Range (up to)
0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.5
Zone 1 and 2 $5.60 $5.71 $5.96 $6.03 $6.64
Zone 3 $5.77 $5.89 $6.18 $6.97 $7.82
Zone 4 $5.89 $5.99 $6.69 $8.01 $8.65
Zone 5 $6.01 $6.13 $8.23 $9.57 $10.55
Zone 6 $6.14 $6.26 $9.09 $11.23 $13.22
Zone 7 $6.42 $6.55 $9.87 $12.15 $14.97
Zone 8 $6.95 $7.09 $11.03 $14.14 $16.91
Zone 9 $9.47 $9.66 $15.34 $19.82 $24.14

 

Note: The one exception to this is if your mailer falls under 16 ounces of weight, which would classify it as First Class mail and lead to better rates.

Why is this important? Because you can strategically size your box to decrease shipping costs.

In the earlier example, we ended up with .13, and by changing that size by just a few inches – 9″ x 5″ x 3.5″ – you then end up with .09 cubic size, which is below the .1 cut off. This means you then can use .1 pricing over .2 pricing, and on average, save $0.13/shipment. Compared to .3 cubic range, you save on average $2.52/shipment.

To get a sense of how shipping costs work, use Cratejoy’s Power Shipping Calculator (Yeah, it’s free 😉

Cratejoy Power Shipping Calculator
With 1000 subscribers, that’s nearly $150 of savings in shipping from .1 to .2. By 10,000 subscribers, you’re saving roughly $1500/month on shipping because of your improved pricing. Compared to .3 pricing, that’s $2500+ in savings from .1 with 1000 subscribers, and at 10,000 subscribers, it’s over $25,000 in savings.

When choosing your size, keep in mind that the result can have a large impact on your business.

Part 4: Creating a Design

After you’ve chosen your size and packaging type, you’re ready to get started on a design.

This part of the process will likely run concurrently with the next – choosing a manufacturer. The main reason this is so is because you’ll need a PDF version of your packaging, perfectly sized to the correct dimensions. It will look something like this:

Box Outline
Once you have your packaging outline in hand, you’ll then need to pull it into a program for editing and designing.

Tip: Not confident in your design skills? Consider outsourcing this part of the project to a skilled designer. Check out our Resources section for designers and consider asking your manufacturer for a referral.

Because the design process can vary, we’ll offer some general tips for the design process:

  1. Choose your program. If using the Adobe Suite, you’ll likely use Adobe Indesign for print-ready designs.
  2. Keep your printing method (Part 2) in mind. Flexographic printing doesn’t provide the same clarity as digital or litho label printing, so avoid small fonts or lines when creating a design for flexographic printing.
  3. Keep colors in mind. For every color, you’ll need another print plate for flexographic printing.
  4. When choosing colors, ask for swatches from your manufacturer to see it in person.
  5. Keep Call to Actions in mind, and make sure you make the most of your design with your box.
  6. Send your final designs to your manufacturer to get their feedback. You should ask them about the clarity and complexity of your design, and if they think what you’ve produced will come out they way you intend it.
  7. Consider having a sample box printed. These are usually expensive (~$200) and don’t come in the same form as normal printed boxes (it will be a hard paper board, not corrugated cardboard), but can be used for early product shots and will help you decide if you like the design.

Part 5: How to Find the Right Manufacturer

A manufacturer should be on your radar as you design your box, namely due to the benefit you’ll get from including them in the design process. For a list of manufacturers, check out our Resources section:

Resources Page
What kind of things should you consider when choosing a manufacturer?

  • Location: Finding a manufacturer close to your is beneficial not just because you can see how your boxes are made, but also because you can reduce shipping and freight costs.
  • Fulfillment: Some manufacturers also offer fulfillment solutions. By working with them on both box production and fulfillment, you can completely remove shipping/freight costs for boxes by keep them all under the same roof.
  • Price: When asking for quotes, have your specific size and order quantity in mind. Compare manufacturers based on price, but also be cautious about manufacturers who offer prices far below others; they may be offering lower prices by reducing the inner and outer liner. “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,” says Dennis Salazar, owner of Salazar Packaging.”…A thinner liner makes it so you can see the flute – the little rivets in the board. A better liner means better printing quality on corrugated.”
  • Turn Around Time: Generally, it takes 3-4 weeks for your tooling to be created (plates and dies) and for a box order to be completed. You’ll also want to add 1-2 weeks for shipping on the order is it isn’t a local or close manufacturer. When thinking about your ship date, keep turn around time in mind when speaking to manufacturers.

Based on these parameters, consider using a spreadsheet to keep track of your quotes and favorite options:

Download Manufacturer Contact Sheet
Manufacturer List

Part 6: Placing an Order & Getting a Great Price

Once you’ve decided a manufacturer, you’ll need to get yourself the best rate possible.

  1. Keep in the type of printing in mind. Expect higher costs for digital and litho label printing, especially at smaller quantities.
  2. Keep box quality and ink quality in mind – recycled or sustainable packaging and inks may be more expensive, but may complement your brand
  3. Keep the different types of board in mind, and considering your contents of the box, ask your manufacturer which flute they suggest for your box.

Generally, you should aim for less than $2 per box when ordering custom packaging, especially if you order over 1000 boxes at a time. As you negotiate prices with manufacturers, keep detailed notes on what influences the price for the – flute type, board type, quantity, and deadlines.

Note: On average, Cratejoy merchants report paying $1.61 per box. 

To get a sense of what are normal costs per box, check out our report on Custom Subscription Box Packaging, which compiles over 100+ reports from merchants on pricing, quality, and satisfaction.

Once you’ve agreed on a price, you can also negotiate on how you remit payment on your order.

  • If your manufacturer also does your fulfillment, ask if they will charge you “as you go” or as you use the boxes.
  • If you’re bootstrapped, ask if you can split payments on boxes and tooling, paying 33% of the total over a 3 month period to improve your cash flow early on.

The Next Steps

With your first order placed, you can begin thinking about increasing volumes and achieving better rates on future orders. Make a point to set a reminder for yourself 30 days before you run out of boxes, as well, so you can order and ship your next round of boxes and leave yourself plenty of time for shipping, packing, and making your monthly deadline.

And don’t forget: you can download our checklist for placing your first order:

Download the Checklist
Have more questions about how to create custom packaging? Add them in the comment section below and let us know how we can improve this guide!

Learn More About Cratejoy’s Custom Box Program!

Check out the standard Cratejoy boxes or design your own custom boxes through the Cratejoy box program! We offer high-quality boxes, fast shipping, and special prices, only for Cratejoy sellers!

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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.

17 Responses

  1. Richard Brown

    Comprehensive and likely helpful to both the subscription box entrepreneur and packaging provider. However, digital production of corrugated is moving very quickly and it would be difficult for the author to keep up with the pace of change.

    We are a producer with both digital and analog (flexo) technologies in-house. We make a popular 9x6x3 REFT with full coverage digital print, no cutting die and exact quantity production sells for $1.48/ea @ 1000 qty and ships in 10 calendar days or less. This is not “3-5x more expensive” than the comparable flexo item. In fact, it will take several runs of 1000 for the flexo price to overcome upfront cost of plates and dies.

    Also, getting a production sample of one’s box is simple. Order 1 and it will be an exact representation of larger orders (material, print, cut, etc) for ~$45.

    We encourage Jesse to visit our production facilities in the Seattle area where digital manufacturing applies to 1 EA or 1 T/L. It’s a great place to see the current state of digital production, web-to-pack automation and more.

    Thanks again for the article as it makes it much easier for the producer to explain aspects of the package creation process and accelerate delivery to the client.

  2. I had no idea there are so many different types of packaging. I also had no idea that the most common size of packaging is eight by eight by four. I’ve heard that there are different types of material you can use for packaging that make a big difference in the cost.

  3. I really like what was said about custom packaging in this article. I can really see how custom packaging can make all the difference for your company. As a consumer, I am drawn to brands that have amazing packaging. I can’t quite explain why, but maybe it’s bright and simple colors that draw my attention!

  4. This is a very comprehensive list of what options are available for custom packaging. I agree with you that your package design is very important in improving customer experience with your company. Looks do matter here as they impact your customer’s first impression.

  5. Very comprehensive article. Is there an industry organization that deals with subscription box? How many orders are small, medium and large subscription box companies fulfilling and do they mostyl subcontract fulfillment to 3PL’s?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hey John,

      That’s a great question! I know that there is an organization in the works called the Subscription Trade Association and I believe it’s associated with the Subscription Summit. However, I don’t believe they have this information yet…and unfortunately, neither do we. Given my experience though, there are all sizes of boxes using fulfillment companies and most of them are using 3PL’s.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help.

      Best,

      Felicity

  6. Crystal Stepanovich

    Good article! I am looking for a company that wants to sub out their box building and loading. We have hot glue guns and staplers. We want to help a company get their product out! Any ideas?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Crystal,

      Thanks! You’ll want to reach out to the boxes you’re interested in helping via their websites. Best of luck – I’m sure there are a ton out there that would love your help!

  7. My brother and I are thinking about starting a business and need custom packages made for the products. I like that you mention how haggling with packaging companies may result in your getting lower quality lining. We want the packages to be sturdy to protect the goods so we’ll be careful not to push too hard when getting deals. Thanks for sharing!

  8. What is the best way to get a very small quantity of boxes printed? Like only 100? Are there any places that allow a much smaller minimum. Because I am not looking to do subscriptions but have boxes available to a small group of customers.

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