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Cost-effective packaging for booksellers—Part 2

Selecting packaging materials for your mail-order business

By Stan Modjesky
Source: O.P. World, July 1998

If you do a lot of shipping, you will need to know the costs of packing and shipping a book, otherwise you don’t know whether the shipping charge you levy is adequate to cover costs. This is far easier if you use new materials. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to gauge costs if each shipment means rummaging around for the proper box and padding materials. Here are a few recommendations:

The best boxes

I prefer either new boxes or once-used ones. The latter can be found in almost any large city. I suggest you check the yellow pages directory. Here in Baltimore, I have a source that supplies over-runs, misprinted, and once-used boxes. Of course you can buy new boxes from a source like Viking Office Supply or Kole Products, but shipping them may add to your cost. The most expensive sources are the so- called discount office stores. With a bit of research, you should be able to find a source of boxes that will ship one or two books at less than 75 cents per box. The boxes I am currently using cost 40 cents each, in bundles of fifty.

My favorite box style is the “one piece folder”. When packing books in this style of box, you lay the book on the flat board and fold the box around it. There is only one set of flaps to be taped and the boxes store more compactly. I buy bundles of one-piece folders in whatever size I can find that is close to 9 x 12 inches, and 1 1/2 to 3 inches deep.

The most annoying boxes are die cut. Usually sold as “literature” boxes, these have a hinged lid. They need to be punched out of the flat sheet form in which you get them. I’ve found they make a lot of mess and cause numerous paper cuts.

It also pays to have on hand a couple of sheets of corrugated board, from which you can make a box to suit any need at hand. Whenever I get something in a large box, I save the side panels if they haven’t been damaged. Alternatively, you can buy sheets of double-wall corrugated board from your box supplier.

Proactive protection

When it comes to bubble wrap, I use the small bubble type, with bubbles 3/16 inch thick, as I’ve found the large bubble type does not conform well to the corners of a book. This material can be re-used, provided you carefully examine each piece to make sure most of the bubbles are intact. But it’s far easier to buy it by the roll than to sift through a pile of scraps.

Office supply stores (such as Staples and Office Depot) stock a 175 foot long roll of 12 inch wide material. If you find a wholesale source, you can buy the large rolls, and even have them cut to whatever width you please. The large (500 foot) rolls are manufactured 48 inches wide.

Instead of paying $22 for a 175 foot roll at the office store, I buy a 500 foot roll of 12 inch bubble wrap for around $35. I recommend that you avoid the “foam wrap” padding materials. These tear easily, especially at the corners of a hardback book.

Plastic peanuts are the one shipping material that you can economically re-use, provided you have a good source. My first store was next door to a gift shop, the owner of which was only too happy to accumulate a large box of peanuts for me to recycle. At my new location, I have a neighbor who gets lots of incoming shipments, and she saves peanuts for me. The only drawback of this kind of recycling is that you’ll end up with a mixture of shapes, colors and sizes. I don’t consider that a problem with shipping books. If I were shipping electronic equipment, I would need to be certain to use only the anti-static peanuts, but it’s not an issue for the book business.

Newsprint is a good inner wrapping material, if you can find a dependable source of it on rolls. Note that newsprint does not mean old newspapers, rather it is the inexpensive paper on which newspapers are printed. If I routinely used paper to wrap books, I would also consider rolls of kraft (brown) paper or white butcher paper.

Shredded paper is a good filler material. If you have access to enough unprinted paper in letter or legal size, it might be worth investing in an inexpensive shredder to produce your own. But be cautious about using printed paper next to books, even in shredded form; as the inks can offset to the books.

Book bags

I stock a few different sizes of comic book bags to accommodate everything from pamphlets to folded newspapers. They are available from Bags Unlimited, comic book shops, Pike’s Packaging, and a few larger catalogues. When buying these, bear in mind that the manufacturers’ sizes are crimp-to-crimp for an empty bag. An 8½ x 11 inch bag will hold an 8-1/2 x 11 inch book only if it is relatively thin.

There in a jiffy

Jiffy Bags have gotten a bad rap from booksellers, but the problem is that they are so often misused. There are two kinds of these bags—the bubble padded type and fiber filled. After some experience, I wouldn’t use a bubble bag to ship a romance paperback across the street. The outer paper of these is just too thin to survive. The fiber-filled bags, on the other hand, comprise two layers of heavy kraft with an inner filling of what looks like clothes dryer lint. The filling redistributes itself somewhat during shipping, which means you still need to protect the book’s corners. But the two layers of paper are very tough. The fiber-filled bags weigh about twice what the comparable bubble wrap bags do. But since package shipping charges usually increase in one pound increments, the extra weight will rarely cost more to ship.

For routine, inexpensive shipments in Jiffy Bags, I over-wrap the book with a layer or two of bubble wrap before putting it in the bag. For more sensitive books, I protect the corners either by sandwiching the book between two sheets of corrugated cardboard (great for paperbacks) or by making a “sleeve” box to go inside the bag. With the box inside the bag, I don’t need to worry about whether it covers all six sides of the book.

Select tape carefully

Masking tape and duct tape should never be used in packaging for shipment. They are especially disastrous when used on the outside of a package— and they look amateurish.

I use 2 inch wide transparent packing tape for most packaging work. Not only does it work well for sealing inner and outer packages, but a couple of strips will protect mailing labels. After quite a bit of experimentation, I have discovered that there are no bargains to be had in this tape. The thinner varieties lack tensile strength, and it just seems to me that they are not quite as “sticky”. I’ve recently experimented with Scotch 3750, a fairly heavy tape. For my taste, the adhesive is not quite strong enough, and it smells bad. The best buy in 2 inch tape I have found is the premium-grade house brand tape sold at Staples.

Bubble wrap sticks better to the old- fashioned cellophane tapes and the outer packing tape than it does to the removable tapes sold in green boxes. Still, I find myself using the “magic” tape inside packages because it’s inconvenient to stock the cellophane tape.

I also keep on hand a roll of 3/4 inch nylon filament tape. This is useful for reinforcing a box that contains a heavy book, or is a little weak around the edges.

The US Postal Service uses a 2 inch plastic tape with a repeating pattern of Priority Mail labels. You can generally get a roll for the asking. It’s far too thin to be of use for strengthening a package, but on a large box, having a band of this stuff around the perimeter makes it easier for mail handlers to spot, compared to a couple of Priority Mail labels.

All self-adhesive tapes stick best to themselves. Thus, the strongest bond will be a band of tape that runs around the perimeter of the package and overlaps itself.

If you have money to burn, or are packing several thousand large boxes each year, you might consider kraft paper tapes with water-activated adhesives. These come reinforced with nylon filament, and are quite strong. You can buy dispensers that will spit out a predetermined length of tape at the touch of a button. However, the tape itself is costly, and even the cheapest dispenser will set you hack $100.

Block it out!

I rarely use boxes that have been through the mail, but occasionally the boxes I buy have printing on them. Ordinarily, I don’t worry much about this, but when shipping overseas, I find it best to block out any reference to foodstuffs, drugs, chemicals and the like. Kole Products sells a block-out paint, in a flat tan, which matches most kraft boxes. However, since they sell it in six packs and I don’t use much, I simply pick up a cheap can of tan spray paint at the hardware store.

Invest in labels

Pre-printed custom labels cost only a few cents each in quantity. If you’d rather not invest the $30 to $50 to order them, you can use computer printed labels or a return address stamp on a blank label. You don’t need anything fancy, but a label is always preferable to writing the address directly on a box. Labels make it easier for mail handlers to route the package, provided they are legibly addressed. I own five computers, but I keep a typewriter on hand for addressing labels. Even the neatest hand lettering seems to be more subject to misreading than a typed address.

Several shops to which I sell send a label with their address preprinted in the “to” section, and the “from” section blank. Occasionally, the post office will misdirect a package back to me if I fill in my return address. When sorting hundreds of packages per hour, mail handlers tend to look for the most individual looking address on a label. Accordingly, if you send out self-addressed labels, it’s best to put your address in both the “to” and “from” spots. And if you’re mailing to someone who has sent this kind of label, use their return address rather than your own.

Forms you’ll need

If you’re shipping overseas from the U.S., you will need one of two customs forms. Form 2976 is a short form, used on most small packages. Form 2976-A is a triplicate form used on larger, heavier or more valuable packages. The triplicate form is attached in a transparent envelope.

Global Priority Mail may be sent in one of two flat rate envelopes, at $3.75 or $6.95. However, these are a lightweight card stock, and suitable only for the thinnest books. At a somewhat higher rate, you can send up to 4 pounds in one package using Global Priority Mail. The Postal Service has a label for use on these weight-based packages.

My local post office also keeps me supplied with a couple of pads of Priority Mail labels. For the majority of the packages, which go Book Rate, I have a stamp that reads “Special 4th Class Rate.”

I rarely ship by any carrier other than the U.S. Mail, but for the times I use UPS, I keep a couple of their shipping forms on hand. Now and then I even use one of the local postal stores, and I have a few of their forms on hand. It saves quite a bit of time and aggravation to fill out the forms ahead of time, especially if you can type in the information.

Tools of the trade

Most of the tools you need for packaging are obvious: a straightedge, a box cutter or X-Acto knife, and a stapler (preferably a heavy-duty one). For making or re-sizing boxes, you’ll find it easier to make neat creases if you score the corrugated board. The perfect tool for the job is a double-ended roller, which is used to install window screens. You can get one at the hardware store for less than $5.

Selecting a shipper

I won’t go into the merits of the Postal Service versus UPS versus Roadway Packing, and so on. Likewise, I won’t waste time arguing over book rate mail versus the bound printed matter rate. This is constantly being discussed in online forums, and has been thrashed about at far greater length than warranted here.

It does bear mentioning that for shipments that go from one country to another, the governments’ postal systems appear to do the best job of working together and handling the customs issues. Some Canadian colleagues have reported that the private sector carriers use a subcontractor to process the customs paperwork, which adds a few dollars to every package, whether or not it is subject to duty.

If you’re shipping to a book dealer outside your own country, the receiving party will usually be able to guide you.

It’s also worth mentioning that the US Postal Service has an overseas mailbag rate that applies to books. The minimum mailbag (or M-Bag) weight is 11 pounds, and includes the weight of the bag.

You must use inner packages that are individually addressed and have the appropriate customs forms, and there is a special M-Bag tag, applied at the post office. If you are shipping by mailbag, I’d recommend having a bag on hand when boxing up the books. Some boxes that look like they’ll fit into a mailbag have a deceiving way of being too big.

I figure that any expenditure on packaging equipment and materials must be amortized in one year. Knowing approximately how many packages I’ll ship in a year allows me to calculate the cost that a piece of equipment will add to each package, and decide whether the investment is worthwhile. For example, I have recently received a lot of sales pitches for postage meters. Given last year’s mail order volume, the meter rental would add almost a dollar per package to my costs. The time saved at the post office window does not justify the added cost.

Finally, be sure to figure out the total costs of all of your packaging supplies so you can recoup some of your time and expenses.

Having the proper supplies on hand will allow you to run your mail order business much more efficiently. One obvious benefit is you lower the risk of loss or damage in transit. But properly packaged merchandise also shows you care about your inventory and your customer’s satisfaction.

Stan Modjesky, owner of Book Miser, inc., specializes in Books on the Performing Arts.