When I started this little at-home business of mine, I knew nothing about shipping. Zip, zero, nada – it frankly seemed like a scary foreign concept to me. Thirteen years later, I know more – although I would never consider myself to be an expert in the matter. Like a lot of things in my life, I have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Given that I’ve just shipped three pieces out in the last few weeks, I thought it might be a good idea to share with you what knowledge I do know, and what works for me – who knows? Maybe it will help someone.
Shipping large pieces across the country can be a daunting thought, at least it was for me. My first online order was a small side table; the pure joy and excitement I felt by that one sale is almost indescribable – I’d finally ‘Made it!!’. So off I went, all business-like, to the local UPS store and asked for a quote. You can imagine how deflated I felt when I was told it was going to cost almost $500. $500 delivery on a $120 table, how was this possible?? The reality of it (in my opinion) is that companies such as FedEx, UPS etc. don’t cater towards small businesses. Even when I called and asked for a ‘Small Business Discount Rate’ (I’m not sure that’s the correct term) and used it on their shipping calculator, the shipping amount was cost-prohibitive (I think I was given a 60% discount). If you’re shipping small items, it may be worthwhile – but big items, nah – try something else.
If you have a small(ish) piece, something like a chair, Greyhound Shipping is always a good option. Now to be completely transparent, I haven’t used Greyhound for several years – mainly because I work with much bigger pieces these days. But – over the years, I have used the service many times and it was the most cost-effective way – but it’s not without its cons. There are strict size and weight limitations (it has to be under 100lbs). You have to box it yourself, and drop it off at the nearest Greyhound station. Once the package is delivered to the final destination, Greyhound will call your client to pick it up. Greyhound will hold you package for 3 days, after that they charge a small holding fee. I had a lot of success with this method, although I didn’t like having to find a box suitable for my pieces (cardboard boxes are expensive!, plus you also need bubble wrap, peanuts etc – this is something that I hadn’t factored in when I quoted people), time driving to the station etc etc. Lots of things to consider when using this service. Funny story (totally not funny at all), I had sold a very lovely chair (I think to Chicago) and used Greyhound. When the chair got there, Greyhound called the client and asked them to come and pick it up. And they called again. And again. And then they called me, and I called the client. We were both told the same thing ‘Yes, I’ll pick it up in a few days’. And Greyhound called me again, I called him again and…..finally (this is weeks in the making) finally the client went to the station and guess what? Yep, no package. Greyhound had made the decision (which I totally get) to get rid of it. To this day, I imagine a Greyhound worker sitting on a very beautiful chair, sipping their coffee. What also hurts is that I had made the foolish decision not to charge the client for delivery straight after the sale. The agreement was that he would pay on delivery, once I knew the exact amount I was being charged by Greyhound. Because he never got the chair, he never paid me the shipping. Complete rookie mistake. Could I have chased him? Sure, but sometimes you just have to let things go because the time/energy you have to invest in it, just isn’t worth it. But – lesson learned.
Once I made the transition between ‘smalls’ and larger pieces of furniture, I needed to quickly figure this stuff out. I jumped straight into the deep end and looked into the crazy world of freight delivery. I used freight shipping once. Yes, they can give you business discount if you ask, but generally speaking freight companies are geared more towards big business. I remember, quite vividly, taking a dresser to the freight station in Portland, filling out the lading bill and then someone asking me when I was going to put the piece on a pallet for them to load. WHAT? Where the flip do I get a pallet? It was a memory that I don’t like to revisit because it threw me way out of my comfort zone. I like my comfort zone. Don’t make me leave it. Fortunately, a lovely man found a discarded pallet, a massive roll of shrink wrap and packaged it for me, and off went said dresser. But to me, it’s too much work. Plus, unless you have a large vehicle to transport your palleted piece, I wouldn’t go this route. Although, that said, I believe there was the option of the freight company coming to pick up the piece but it was an additional charge. But you still need to pallet it at home, and…(tense, nervous headache starting) too much work.
A safer, easier option is UShip. If you’re not familiar with www.uship.com it’s a website whereby drivers ‘bid’ for your job. You list your piece of furniture (or whatever, piano, motorcycle, ugly garden statue that cousin Myrtle says she can’t live without – you name it, they deliver it), you tell them the pickup/drop off locations, size etc. and drivers will send you quotes; essentially, they bid against each other. You have the option of accepting or declining. If you accept a bid, you have the option of including insurance. I have a love/hate relationship with insurance – waste of money when you don’t need it, priceless when you do. For the bigger (more expensive pieces), I recommend buying the insurance (yes, there’s a deductible, but that’s pretty standard anywhere). Another important factor is that each driver has a ‘star’ review (I only pick drivers with 5 stars). One of the pros on UShip is the vast amount of drivers crisscrossing the country; often they have a full load going to a destination, but really want to fill up going back home. What I really really really don’t like about UShip is the business model. They charge you around $25 for using the site (payable when you book) BUT they also charge the driver a 20% commission for using the site, which seems really unfair. So if a driver charges you $100 (to make my math easy), you pay $125 to UShip, and the driver then only gets paid $80 from UShip. Not fair, the life of a long distance driver is not an easy one – and UShip laughs all the way to the bank. Regardless, you book a driver – you pay UShip upfront, and they issue you a code. The money goes into an account, once the delivery has been made and everything is hunky dory, you share the code with the driver, who gives it to UShip, who then release the funds. It’s a very safe transaction. What I have tended to do (and I’m certain I’m not alone) is that once I’ve connected with a driver and I like them (they’re professional, take care of my pieces etc), I will then contact them outside of UShip and work with them independently.
Let’s kind of change topics for a moment, because I think this is quite important (and actually someone just asked me about this week, so it’s fresh in my mind). Selling through Etsy and the whole concept of ‘FREE SHIPPING’. I’ve had an Etsy site for about 12 years, I honestly thought I was wasting my time posting my stuff because there are a trillion bazillion pieces of painted furniture on the site. However, I’ve sold many pieces from Etsy. It’s a great platform to use because of the vast readership (for some reason, a lot of my pieces go to the East coast). Etsy charges you a commission for selling the piece on the platform (currently 6.5%) this is on the sale of the piece PLUS the shipping fee (even though the shipping fee isn’t going to you, normally). One of the main problems I have with the platform is that you only have two options in regards to shipping, when you’re doing the listing. You can name your shipping price OR you can put down ‘Free shipping’ – those are the only options, they don’t leave you the option of leaving that area blank. Now, please allow me to get my soapbox out and tell you why I have a big problem with this.
Ahem (clears throat), testing, testing.
Because my pieces are of all sizes, weights etc. I don’t feel comfortable putting in a ‘firm’ shipping price because there are too many variables involved; sure I can put an ‘estimate’ but it’s just a pure guess given that shipping prices are so fluid. If I leave that blank, the default on Etsy is always ‘FREE SHIPPING’, because of this default I have to mention in all of my listings that local pickup from Portland, Oregon is greatly welcomed, but if shipping is required I am more than happy to find reasonable quotes. What this means is that a customer can purchase the piece from my website, but the transaction isn’t complete until shipping has been agreed. I’ve never had a problem. Why don’t I just use ‘FREE SHIPPING’? This is where I have a problem. ‘Free’ shipping isn’t ‘Free‘ shipping – it’s just a hidden charge. People do offer ‘free shipping’ all the time and it’s a GREAT marketing strategy but all they did is increased the price to absorb the shipping fee. I think this approach only works if your delivery area is pretty small. Let’s talk this out: I’m in Portland, Oregon – so let’s say I think $500 is a reasonable amount for shipping, so I ‘hide’ the shipping fee into the listing price. To make a decent profit I need to make $1500 for my dresser, so now I have to advertise it for $2000 and ‘include‘ free shipping; this way I get my $1500, and I know that the shipping portion is covered. This is great for the buyer on the East coast because $500 isn’t outrageous (I mean it is outrageous, but not outrageous when you think most big box stores RH, Rejuvenation etc. charge $250 surcharge for large items – but it still hurts) that’s great and dandy, but for the buyer on the West Coast they’re paying way more than they should (they’re paying the hidden $500, when shipping may only be $200 to their location). Does that make sense? This I have a problem with. From the get-go, I wanted to make it clear that I had no intention of making a profit on shipping, and it feels that if I use the ‘Free Shipping’ marketing angle, I could be making money on shipping – so I don’t do it.
When you purchase a piece from me this is how it works: Usually clients will contact me, tell me they want to purchase it and understand that shipping isn’t included. Most clients (thank you all!!) will go ahead with the purchase (more recently from this website), knowing that we’ll have conversations about the shipping charges – this is where that beautiful golden term ‘trust‘ comes into play. Once the transaction has gone through, I’ll reach out and tell the customer that I’m happy to work with any shippers they may have used in the past. If they don’t know of any, I’ll reach out to my regular drivers to get quotes and I’ll also put a listing on UShip. I should note that with both my drivers AND UShip, pieces of furniture are blanket-wrapped and often shrink wrapped (you do not need to box them yourself. This is a service that the drivers provide). As and when, quotes come in, I’ll let the customer know – they then can make make an educated decision which quote to accept. Sometimes clients will be more concerned about price, others will be concerned about timeframe – everyone has different needs. Yes, it’s more time involved on my side because, in regards to shipping, I’m the middleman – this I don’t mind. I see arranging shipping as just being a part of my job, and I don’t expect to get reimbursed for that. Maybe this approach doesn’t fit everyone but, for me, it works. I like to think that’s the beauty of working with a small business – the personal touch and good customer service is invaluable (and I say this as a customer myself). If you decide to use one of my drivers (and not UShip) then you pay the driver directly on delivery. Again, another thing I like – it’s a transaction strictly between the driver and the customer, I don’t see any of that money. If you go the UShip route (as I’ve mentioned) you have to pay me upfront so that I can deposit the funds with them (receipts are also available, so the client knows EXACTLY what they’re paying for).
I’m sure there are things that I’ve forgotten. If you have any questions, please just let me know – maybe it will prompt my memory 🙂
Hope this helps!!