Shipping & Fulfillment Best Practices: Part 1, Operations

Shipping is an exciting time of the month, but the operations and logistics behind this process aren’t always easy. Follow these best practices to keep shipping smooth and simple every month.

Shipping is an exciting time of the month, and the truly offline side of your subscription business comes to life: your product is being assembled and soon your customers will be opening their box, perhaps for the first time. Mastering your monthly shipping (the process of packing, labeling, and sending off your product) is no simple task, and operationally it can be especially challenging for first time subscription business owners.

Just remember: Fine tuning this element of your business not only helps improve customer experience (ie. how happy the customer is), but it also can save you money, time, and headaches down the road. 

With shipping, there are two major elements to consider:

  1. The operations behind shipping. These are the logistics you handle as a business owner.
  2. The customer experience with your shipping cycle. This relates to the way the customers experience shipping and receiving the box – from communication to opening your product.

Internal Logistics Behind Shipping

The operations you must handle as a business owner is the perfect place to start when thinking about shipping. This includes how you design your packaging, who delivers your mail, and how you handle fulfillment and label printing. Each of these operations have several elements and considerations to them, so remember to follow up by reading each of their associated guides. For the purpose of this guide, we’re just concerned with how these relate to shipping specifically.

1. Planning for Shipping in Package Design

You should think about shipping weeks, even months, before your first package is delivered to customers. Begin in the design phase.

Why are we concerned about the shipping process in this phase? Two reasons: first, not all packaging and box styles accommodate all types of products, and second, shipping will take a toll on your packaging, and you should plan your design and experience around this. Take these few considerations into mind when designing your boxes for safe, care-free shipping that results in a positive customer experience:

  • The Types of Products You Include: Procurement and product choices should be the first thing you think about when designing your box. Brainstorm the types of products you’ll likely include in your monthly shipments, and try to pull real life products off shelves in your local stores to really get an understanding of how they feel and move around in a package. Here are some specifications to consider:
    • Product Size/Dimensions: Do you plan to regularly include long or bulky items? Could it ever? It may be tempting to choose a box as small as possible to keep material and shipping costs down, but it will restrict your procurement opportunities. For example, consider items like toothbrushes, tea tins, or even large pieces of food, such as artisan Italian salami or a long box of French cookies.
    • Product Safety: Do you plan to include fragile products in your box, such as those packaged with glass, containers with oil, or thin, breakable food items? The structure and stability of your packaging should keep these types of products in mind. How strong is the shipping box material? Should you have packing material or an additional panel/support brace in the package to prevent the box from being crushed or moving around? Do the panels on the box shape/style you’ve chosen flex or bend? You want your products to fit snugly, as to maintain packing integrity. For example, a package that used packing material like shredded cardboard or wooden fiber around products will help prevent movement of products and help insulate them from damage. Remember that fewer instances of broken items means fewer customer replacements.
  • What your package looks like: There a lot of things to keep in mind when creating a custom packaging, but in regards to shipping, there are two things I recommend thinking about most: first, creating an iconic look from a distance, and second, practicality of design for a shipping process.
    • Iconic Branding: Your brand has a distinct look, feel, and customer, and this should be reflected in your packaging. Ask yourself how you can add tasteful vibrancy to the outer look of your box. Bright colors and designs that cleverly use a cardboard backdrop will not only provide instant gratification to customers who see it from a distance, but will also intrigue those who see the package – this is an advertisement for your service!
    • Practicality: Design must also be practical. Consider how damaged your box can be in transit, and seek out examples each month. What’s happening to your design in the process of transit? Likewise, design around where your shipping label is placed. Consider setting aside a specific area in the design to serve as the home for your label (perhaps creatively interact with the label through the design, too).

2. Choosing a Carrier

With a strong package and elegant design in place, the next step in shipping is choosing the pair of hands who will deliver the box: your mail carrier. There are many carriers to choose from, so how do you choose a carrier that works for you? While many of these carriers provide great service, we suggest considering these main points when making the choice for your business:

  1. Delivery Time: Once your customers know their package is on its way, you want to get it to them as soon as possible. In fact, surveys suggest that, in addition to knowing a fixed date for shipping, getting next day delivery is one of the most desired “premium” options customers want. The takeaway: providing a fast shipping service will improve the customer experience.
  2. Tracking for Customers: The carrier you choose should also have a simple ability for customers to track their boxes (we’ll talk about this in Part 2, as well) via tracking numbers. Make sure your customers will be able to track their packages with ease.
  3. Tracking for Customer Support: Tracking is also important for your customer support team. When choosing a carrier, make sure its easy for customer service agents to access tracking numbers/shipment information for customers, in case you receive requests regarding shipping. Confusing, complex systems means more time spent on these requests and more training needed by agents. (As an example of an easy tracking system, consider the USPS. You can simply web search your tracking number and be directed to it.)
  4. Pick Up: Scheduling pickups means saving yourself a trip to the carrier. Make sure your carrier will be able to pickup from you or your fulfillment partner.

3. Fulfillment & Packing

Whether fulfillment is outsourced or in-house, you want to be sure your packages are being handled with the utmost amount of care. Analyze the packing line, how products are stored/handled during packing, cleanliness of the facility, storage of your packaging/box flats, and ease for moving around finished boxes (as with a pickup by your mail carrier). Having a large, customizable space that’s kept clean and near commercial shipping docks means you’ll be able to easily scale up your packing lines and get boxes out the door quickly. If you plan to outsource your fulfillment, look for facilities with these qualities.

When packing the boxes, remember to focus on aesthetic quality and product integrity. Set standards for your packing process – how much should products move around during transit? How much space should there be in-between products, if any? What products should be stacked on another? How do you prioritize printed material? How does the unboxing experience unfold, and how does packing influence that? In many ways, you want to curate the opening of your subscription box as much as you do curate the products you include.

4. Labels and Printing

Closer to the actually shipping time, you’ll begin to have to think about labels and label printing. There isn’t too much to worry about here, but there are some basic considerations you should be mindful of:

  1. Type of Label: Not all labels are created equal, and not all surfaces are equally accommodating to adhesive. Consider the stickiness of your label, how easy it is to be placed on the box, and its relation to the quality of the printer.
  2. Type of Printer: Labels can take a long time to print depending on your printer and the size of your batch. Don’t bottleneck shipping and fulfillment with a label printer that takes an extraordinarily long time.

Up Next: Customer Experience

With your internal operations fully thought through, you’re ready to jump into thinking about shipping from the customer perspective. Check out the second part of the guide:

How useful did you find this article?

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 3.75 out of 5)

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.

9 Responses

  1. Travis

    If I outsource the fulfillment, do they take care of printing the shipping labels and I just send them the subscriber list? How does that work. Thanks

  2. Margo Johnson

    I have a question. for the actual box that the items are packed in , lets say our branded box which will have our label and or printing designed on the box.. Should we be putting this box inside another outside box to ship out? This can be super expensive. I was thinking of wrapping our designed box with craft paper and tie with our signature ribbon. Do you think this is a good idea? Could you please let us know your thoughts?

  3. I am curious if you have a few recommendations for a thermal printer. We are have a cratejoy site and are launching this week. We are doing our own fulfillment for the first box. Just curious if there is a certain tried and true thermal printer and label that you or others have found to be the best based on experience.

  4. It may sound silly, but I’m having trouble figuring out where to put the actual label. USPS wants it on top of the box, but that looks terrible for branding. It also says they don’t want it over a seam, which was my other idea… Help!

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      There are no silly questions! Can you put in on the back of the box – like pretending it’s the front? Nothing is worse than having to cover up your branding with the shipping label!

  5. Jesse, I love the idea to choose a shipping character that includes customer tracking. I’ve been wanting to ship an important package to my brother. I think that I should find a carrier service that could take some extra care to take care of my package.

  6. Hi there! I’m panicking because I’m down to the wire here… Will it sell? Will everything fit? Will all of the packages arrive? Squirrel…

    So, I have my Cratejoy store up but I’m just now reading that it may not be the best place for quarterly subscriptions. Is this the info you have? Do you have any other recommendations for sites that better work for this?? Thanks!

Leave a Reply