Packaged Goods

So maybe packing product into containers to be shipped to customers isn’t the sexiest part of multichannel selling. But it is one of the most important.

Why? Because improper packaging can lead to damaged product and the resulting returns, wasted shipping expense and customer dissatisfaction. In a worst-case scenario, poor packaging can generate negative word-of-mouth — and prevent customers from buying again.

So perhaps it’s time to give your packaging a little more thought and emphasis. Let’s start with a review of some key packaging options. First off, the two key components to packaging are the package itself and the protective fill, called dunnage.

The most common types of packaging include:

  • Corrugated cartons

    Common types of dunnage include:

    Cartons offer more strength than envelopes and mailers, but they cost a bit more and require more labor. For one, you typically need boxes in several sizes. Variable depth, multiscored cartons, which offer different size options in a single box, might be an option; these typically cost $0.75 a piece.

    If you sell heavy items, double-walled boxes, which cost about $1.20 each, work well. When using cartons, you’ll want to make sure the crush test weight will accommodate your product’s weight and hold up during transportation.

    The downside to cartons is that assembling a box and adding dunnage takes time. If yours is a high-volume, low-SKU business — say, only four different items to choose from for every order vs. 500 items to choose from — it helps to be set up in advance.


    Have the cartons pre-assembled for your order pickers on the front end of the package assembly line. You should also use a packing station at the end of the package assembly line to increase the speed of your order processing.

  • Padded envelopes and mailers

    These present a low cost option (roughly $0.20-0.50 each) for small, consistent products, such as different items of the same size and weight that you anticipate shipping over an extended period of time.

    Options in this category include bubble mailers and padded mailers with protective cushioning (for CDs and DVDs, for example). Tyvek and poly mailers work well for soft goods (T-shirts, flexible items) and rigid mailers are fine for literature or paper goods (books, advertising and promotional materials). Padded envelopes and mailers add very little weight to small items, keeping postage low.

    For smaller items or soft goods, packing envelopes and padded or bubble mailers can be efficient. There is no assembly time, and the dunnage or padding is included in the envelope.

    In-line padded envelope machines can greatly increase the efficiency of consistent items being packaged. The cost to buy or lease a machine can be offset by using less labor to package the orders.

  • Custom packaging

    Many companies offer automated machines that can make packages on demand, fitting right into your packing or conveyor line. For instance, some machines include padded envelopes or pouches on a roll that are cut and sealed to size, and carton erectors.

    As with packaging, there are numerous dunnage options. And the selection of filler is every bit as important as the type of package.

  • Newsprint paper/paper fill


    The plusses here are that paper fill is fairly low cost (approximately $0.02 per sheet); it can be made from recyclable or eco-friendly materials and it’s non-marking (meaning it won’t soil the product being shipped).

    The downside is that many consumers see this as garbage and become annoyed at having to dispose of what can be quite a bit of paper if the shipment is in a large box.

  • Bubble wrap

    This renown plastic wrap with air bubbles is great for packing fragile items. Its protective power comes at a price, though, as it can be expensive to use compared to other types of dunnage at $0.75-$1.25 per sq. ft.

  • Inflatable packaging systems

    This type of dunnage — usually in the form of customized/variable air pillows — is versatile; it adds very little weight to packaging and provides excellent cushioning. It can also be cost effective ($.05-$0.10 each), with one caveat: You typically have to buy or lease an inflatable packaging system. This will cost you $2,500-$10,000 to buy or about $1,000 a year to lease. As such, it becomes cost effective only if you are going to use it for continuous use, like the same products over an extended period of time.

  • Custom filler

    The most common types of custom dunnage are liquid foam machines and foam instant packs. Liquid foam machines can create a customized void-fill that conforms to irregular-shape items.

While this option is great for oddly shaped, fragile items, as you might expect it’s going to cost more than conventional dunnage ($7-$15 per package). So you need to weigh the need for superior protection vs. the cost.

Foam instant packs are lower-cost versions of the liquid foam machines; they cost about $1.50-$5.00 per package. So they’re still a higher cost option when compared to paper or air bag systems. The benefits of foam instant packs are that they are portable and easy to use: You break a chemical seal to activate, and set it in the package. The instant pack will expand and fill to a custom fit.

Keep in mind that the packaging should fit the product as closely as possible, allowing for as little use of dunnage as possible. This is not to say you should skimp on dunnage — you shouldn’t. If the packaged product has room to move, it could suffer damage as a result.

But customers do not want excess dunnage that they view as “garbage” in their order or package. Excessive paper or packing peanuts can create a negative impression as soon as the package is opened. So be mindful of the presentation to your end customer.

What’s the best to use? That depends on your product line, target audience, and budget. But bear in mind that some customers view bubble wrap and air filled bags as “clean fill,” whereas paper or peanuts may be seen as annoying garbage.

For help you might tap into the expertise of your packaging suppliers. Several vendors have packaging experts that you can use to explore different options for your products.

If you need custom packaging for irregular or high priced goods, many vendors will test your packaging to ensure that your product will survive transportation to your customers, and arrive undamaged. Some shipping vendors will also certify your packaging, allowing you to submit claims for transportation damage pertaining to the certified packaging.

Be aware of how packaging can affect your shipping costs. Packaging adds weight to orders. The weight difference between using a double-walled carton vs. a single-walled carton with foam or air filled dunnage can be significant.

An 8″×8″×8″ single-walled carton with two sheets of newsprint dunnage weighs half a pound. A double-walled carton can weigh a few pounds, not including the product being shipped. Depending on your shipping rates, carton and dunnage selection could affect your cost by $0.20 to $0.50 per package.

Working with different combinations of packaging can help you remove enough weight to have your package ship at a lower rated shipping weight, thus adding this money back to your bottom line.

If you are shipping through the U.S. Postal Service or a postal consolidator, be aware of additional charges that may be added to nonmachinable and balloon packaging.

Some examples of nonmachinable packages include mailing tubes, packages weighing more than 35 lbs., packages with a height or width greater than 17″, or length greater than 34″. The balloon rate applies to packages weighing less than 15 lbs. and having a length plus girth of more than 84″, but not greater than 108″.

Dimensional weight factors also have continued to change. Instead of offering a range of oversized cartons at a set rate, small package vendors have gone to the usage of true dimensional weight calculations to arrive at billing rates.

For instance, if the measurements of a package (L x W x H) are greater than 5,184 cubic inches (12″ x 12″ x 36″), the package will be billed at the dimensional weight (L x W x H/194) or the actual weight, whichever is greater. Packages less than 5,184 cubic inches are billed at their actual weight. The dimensional calculation for international packages is L×W×H/166.

Again, different packaging combinations may allow large, light-weight items to ship at a rate closer to their actual weight. The dimensional difference between a 12″×12″×12″ carton and a 13″×13″×13″ carton is about 2.5 lbs.

Because shipping vendors bill according to a scale that rounds up to the next full pound rate (a 3.2 lb.-parcel is billed at the 4.0 lb. rate, for example), you don’t need to make big changes to affect your rate. A few ounces in dunnage or a half-inch in packaging could move you to a lower rate, saving you money on every package.

Proper packaging, like product development and marketing, is a critical part of the overall process. It’s also one that could have a significant bottom-line impact in many ways.

Thomas Kiesling is operations manager at New Berlin, WI-based service provider Christopher Morgan Fulfillment.