Estimating Shipping Weight: A Primer for New Shop Owners
inDecember 9, 2013 - 9:44pm
Its not what you know but what you don’t know that causes all the blisters. That’s why I never wanted to grow up to be a greenhorn. There’s no glamour in it.
So I opened my Ruby Lane shop without a care in the world about blisters. I had years of experience selling antiques and collectibles; no experience selling online, but—how hard could it be—I’d pick the rest of it up as I went along.
I soon learned that when you’re a rookie tenderfoot tourist pilgrim greenie, picking it up as you go is harder than it looks. The most crazy-making part of my learning curve was the “Shipping Weight” field on the Ruby Lane Add-an-Item listing page. I could weigh the item and know its “stand alone” weight, but how could I know its shipping weight without packing it up and taping it shut? Even an educated guess had to be based on experience and know-how I hadn’t had time to acquire.
There had to be something—some formula—all these other sellers knew that I didn’t know. I scoured blogs; I googled, stalked, and lurked, but this information seemed to be so basic, so obvious to everyone but me, it wasn’t mentioned. Nobody wants to waste time reinventing the wheel, especially when the meter’s running, but reinventing appeared to be my only option. I’d need to figure out for myself what everybody else already seemed to know.
At first I tried weighing each item on the postal scale, in an empty box of the right size, then adding a wad of bubble wrap to approximate what the wrapped item would weigh. I got pretty good at that, and felt confident that by adding about 8 ounces to the weight of the item, I could come pretty close to what the final Off-to-the-Post-Office weight would be. Easy peasy. Full speed ahead.
The jolt smacked hard when orders came in and I found myself covering buyers’ shipping-charge shortfalls several times in a row. I know a gusher when I see one, but in plugging it I had to be careful not to estimate too high. Inflated shipping charges would send freaked-out buyers fleeing my shop, never to return. Could I find the Magic Middle between underestimating and overestimating? Here’s what helped:
Discovery #1. Use Those Free Boxes.
Whenever possible, and this depends on the type of items you sell, use USPS Priority Mailing boxes, which come free of charge. (These are not the same as their Flat Rate boxes, but they all look alike, which plunged me into a crash course on how to tell Flat Rate from “Plain.”) The boxes I use most, based on what I sell, are the Small Mailing Box 9.25 x 6.25 x 2; the almost-cube 7 x 7 x 6; and the large Mailing Box: 12 x 12 x 8. The only Priority Flat Rate Box I use is the Small, for costume jewelry and miniatures. Besides being free, their individual weights are fixed and predictable. To cover gaps, I bought a few stock cardboard boxes to ship items that won’t fit into the USPS freebies.
Discovery #2: To Take the Guesswork Out of an Educated Guess, Know Your Box Weight.
You already know what your widget weighs. I still remember how surprised I was to read on my postal scale that a Priority Mail Large Mailing Box, 12 x 12 x 8, weighs 11 ounces EMPTY. So know the “empty” weight of your frequently used boxes, list them with their weight in ounces, and keep that list handy. When you know widget weight and box weight, the only estimating that remains is for the packing or cushioning materials. That brings us to my next discovery:
Discovery #3: Lightweight Does Not Equal Weightless
One quickly learns that even featherweight items (bubble wrap, peanuts, air pillows, and tape) have weight. And an extra ounce of that weight can ratchet you into another bracket.
I once spent an hour repacking one of the large 12 x 12 x 8 mailing boxes because it was 1-1/2 ounces over my stated weight—which weight the buyer had paid for—but that extra 1-1/2 ounces were going to cost me roughly $4. Repacking eliminated the extra ounces, and taught me in a memorable way to have the box size—and weight—in mind when I listed the item. That experience gave me the formula I use now for an item that can travel in a USPS 12 x 12 x 8 Mailing Box: Add at least one pound to the weight of the widget. And remember that 11 of those 16 ounces are going to be BOX. The Post Office recommends a 2-inch minimum of cushioning in every direction, and if you’ve ever seen pictures of parcels tumbling through Post Office machinery, you know why.
Discovery #4: Not Knowing the Post Office Bang-for-Buck Ratio Will Backfire on You.
I suppose there’s a certain grim logic to charges for postal weight increments, but because we forget them at our peril, I’ve made a chart for Priority Mail charges to Zone 8—in 1-pound, 2-pound, and 3-pound increments. It has a permanent home on the lower left corner of my computer monitor. Most of my sales are to Zones 6 and 8, which means shipping charges run high. Three pounds to Zone 8 costs $13.40. Three-pounds-one-ounce costs $16.13. In other words, one ounce over the 3-pound mark costs the same as 4 pounds.
Summary: Formulas that Work for Me.
I specialize in pottery, glassware, decorative household objects, and costume jewelry. I stay away from hernia-class merchandise that weighs a ton. So the formulas I’ve come up with work for what I sell and won’t work for, say, small furniture. Even so, for estimating shipping charges, they’ll adjust for any item you handle frequently and for which you use a standard box.
1) Small Priority Mailing Box, 9.25 x 9.25 x 2: Widget weight + 5 ounces. (3-ounce box, + 2 ounces packing material.)
2) Almost-cube Mailing Box, 7 x 7 x 6, aka mug box: Widget weight + 7 ounces (4-ounce box, + 3 ounces packing material; more if you’ll add a cardboard sleeve to item before cushioning.)
3) USPS large Mailing Box 12 x 12 x 8: Widget weight + 1 pound. (11-ounce box, + 5 ounces for packing material, depending as always on what is being shipped.
These are minimums. Fragile items need more protection.
Skeptics will argue that the Widget Weight + Box Weight + Cushioning formula is just common sense, that even a rutabaga (high fiber, low IQ) knows that much. But consider this: You don’t grow up to be a rutabaga without spending your first few weeks in the dark.
Charlotte de Rosier of RetroPotamus on Ruby Lane