Packaging and Shipping Best Practices: Let me take you to church.
January 6, 2013
I’m a huge packaging design enthusiast. I love making boxes pretty. I love earning the excitement of each recipient. I love presenting products in a way that gives them meaning, showcasing their practical purpose and emotional value. One thing that makes working on Hello Holiday so gratifying is that packaging is something I do every day, and I see how it plays a role in our failure or success. As a new e-commerce business, we have a pretty comfortable budget for inventory, but we always scrimp when it comes to advertising. Attention to detail in customer service, including packaging, is how I choose to meet the challenge of making Hello Holiday’s customer reach go farther. I mean, we’ve gotta wrap stuff. We’ve gotta mail stuff. So why not use an effective packaging and shipping strategy to do the work of the ad budget we just don’t have yet?
The most important things to me in creating packaging practices are efficiency, consistency, and whimsy. Efficiency is my top value in all things in my life, consistency establishes standards for your work and signifies professionalism to customers, and the unexpected whimsy balances out the impulse toward a sterile, inflexible process. Something unexpected or personal in each package reminds customers that you’re a small business with time for them, and it can also keep them coming back for more if they associate receiving your product with receiving happiness.
1. Start with the box.
I try to make it so the customer never has to see crumpled-up tissue paper or filler materials, and the easiest way to do that is to start with a box that’s the right size for what you’re shipping. We have boxes for when someone orders one thing that can be folded flat, like one shirt, or one skirt, or one dress, etc. (measuring 11x10x2), boxes for orders of 3-5 items (16x12x2), and we have boxes for people who order a few bulky things, like coats (24x13x4). We also have more irregular boxes for things like weirdly-shaped shoeboxes (12x12x6), a few pieces of jewelry or a belt (6x6x4), and we also have a giant box for extra large orders (28x12x6). If I can help it, I avoid sending things in boxes with a side over 12 inches because then it goes up a class in price. For international orders, I sometimes break my only-in-a-box rule and send things in a plastic envelope (metallic gold PVC!) to save on shipping costs. Above all, I try to ship things so they take up the entire box, eliminating the need for filler.
I buy white boxes because we can’t afford to print our own boxes, and the novelty of the bright white box makes up for it–it’s enough of a brand differentiator against all the typical brown cardboard packages. We also have some brown boxes we received from a friend for free (which is what’s shown in the pictures here). I prefer to ship things in simple boxes (never post office-branded boxes, and never bags or envelopes) because the process of opening a box is visually cleaner and memorable for the customer. Boxes are also recyclable once they’ve reached their destinations and served their purpose.
2. Set the stage for a good first impression.
Once the box is selected, I prepare it by first laying a ribbon measuring 2.5x the box length face-down across the open box. Then I fold a sheet of tissue paper to fit the length of the box and lay it inside, with the excess over the edge of the box. Once the contents are wrapped and put into the box, I wrap the first sheet of tissue paper around the whole thing and tie the ribbon in a bow on top. Any enclosures are stuck underneath the bow. I like to prep this way, making sort of a shell to wrap around the goods, because opening a box to find your order staring right up at you is so anti-climactic. Doing an outer wrap in tissue paper with a box protects the contents and piques a customer’s excitement. It’s a visual signal that an experience is beginning. Simply opening the cardboard box isn’t the “unboxing” part–we do what we can by picking the right box in the first place, but the box experience belongs more to the postal service. They get dirty, beat up. It isn’t until the customer folds back those cardboard flaps that you get to finally introduce yourself as a brand.
3. Wrap items to add value.
Everything I ship is folded to fit inside the box with no wasted space and wrapped securely in a sheet of tissue paper folded to the length of the box. I never send products wrapped in plastic because I think it diminishes the value and creates an unattractive barrier between the customer and the gratification of holding their new item in their hands. Typically when we receive clothing from suppliers, they’re wrapped individually in plastic bags, which I remove to re-wrap in tissue paper. The tissue I use is probably the most wasteful part of my packaging process–if someone orders four things, I’m individually wrapping four things in tissue. I sleep at night by reminding myself that I don’t use any filler in my boxes or plastic envelopes, so that helps cut on waste.
Instead of cushioning small items with crumpled tissue paper, we wrap them neatly with flat tissue and place them inside a muslin drawstring bag stamped with our business name. Typically jewelry, sunglasses, hosiery, and belts go in the stamped muslin bags. I always pull the drawstrings closed and place the bag inside the box for shipment. If the bag needs to be closed more securely, I tie a simple bow. I never tie a knot, because if the customer has to cut the drawstring, the bag can’t be reused.
4. Finish the box with a first impression in mind.
Finally, after I smooth the tissue paper over the top of the order and tie a bow around the entire package, I slide a few things under the bow. There’s paperwork that has to go in every package–packing slip, receipt, and return/exchange information–that we try to make as visually attractive as possible. Next, I include a handwritten note on a large post-it or index card. The message is personal, the medium is cost-efficient. I don’t bother with nice folded greeting cards because most customers throw them away and I don’t want them to feel guilty about it.
With each shipment, we include a small card inviting customers to share their order on Instagram for 10% off their next order, which is an incredibly effective way to spread the word about our business. Many of our customers are the kinds of shoppers who enjoy sharing their purchases anyway, and giving them an added incentive to tell their friends increases our reach immensely. And by naming Instagram as the channel for promotion, we are able to measure the reach gained by each customer who shares their purchase. We ordered our cards on Printstagram. (It’s meant to be formatted as a calendar, but we chose the option to remove the dates and used the same image for each page.) Finally, I like to include something cheap but fun–I usually go with a handmade pinback button. Before I tape the box closed, I give it all one last look. Although this is the last step for me, it’s the very first impression for the customer.
Here are some other rules of thumb I use in packaging:
- Always fold under the edges of the tissue so a raw edge is never showing.
- Order flat tissue paper so customers won’t see creases. If I accidentally crease a piece of tissue when I didn’t mean to (for example, if I fold it to fit the width of the box and it’s too short), I start with a new piece and save the creased piece for cutting up to wrap a necklace or something.
- Avoid tying knots–always use bows that customers can untie easily. Nobody wants to go get scissors, they just want to enjoy opening the damn package.
- When I re-order tissue and ribbon, I always choose a different color. This keeps work interesting and gives me a visual way to realize how often we have to restock packaging (and, of course, how many orders we’re getting). Customers like the variety in color, too.
- When customers can untie ribbons easily and receive flat tissue in boxes, the materials can be more easily reused if they wish.
- Using boxes with tuck-top lids shows customers which end goes up.
- Tape all box seams to protect the contents and avoid wrinkling the tape.
- When packaging orders in batches, write the name of the customer and weight of the box on the lid to be covered with the label later.
- Keep the plastic wrap on the flat tissue so you can pull each sheet out one at a time. I like to lay mine on a table so it stays flat and accessible.
I don’t see this as designing a packaging process–I think of it as designing an UNBOXING process. With every decision I make about materials and method and with every element I put inside a box for shipment, I’m also reverse-engineering the process to visualize what it’s like for the customer. Is the recipient able to open the box easily? Is it easy to understand which way is “up?” Are the enclosures distracting? Does the way this blouse or skirt wrapped make it look expensive? Will people feel moved to share the experience via social media? In the long term, none of this is a waste of time–as you create a process that is efficient, consistent, and a little unexpected, you’ll find the more you do it, the less time packaging each shipment will take.
Here are my sources for the best prices and value I’ve found on the supplies I use: Tissue paper: Paper Mart; Ribbon: Paper Mart; Rayon seam binding: Fabric.com; Boxes: Paper Mart; Enclosure cards: Printstagram; Muslin drawstring bags: Central Ohio Bag & Burlap; Pinback buttons: Buttonbiz