When you first launch your online store, your number one expense is probably going to be shipping. And in the beginning, you’re not going to have the necessary shipping volume to negotiate attractive rates with FedEx or UPS.
As a result, the United States Postal Service will likely be your most economical shipping option. While USPS is not the most reliable shipping option out there, their rates are very reasonable and the shipping speeds are relatively quick.
I still remember the first time that I set foot inside the post office to ship our initial set of orders. There was this gigantic tray of different colored shipping tags with no instructions or labels and I had absolutely no clue what anything meant or how to ship a package.
When I brought my boxes up to the counter, everyone behind me glared at me because they knew that I was going to occupy the clerk for a long period of time. And even when I got to the front desk, I got a disapproving sigh from the person behind the counter.
Do you need delivery confirmation and a return receipt? Is there anything liquid or fragile? Do you need insurance? Would you like express mail, priority mail or first class or parcel post? You do realize that you can print your own labels right?
***Deer In Headlights*** I was so clueless.
Anyway, the purpose of this guide is to demystify the United States Postal Service. And I’m going to outline all of the different options so you don’t embarrass yourself at the post office like I did.
First Class Mail
When it comes to shipping, there is no service out there that can beat the price of First Class Mail. For any package that is under 13 oz in weight, USPS is by far the cheapest and the fastest way to ship ANYTHING in the United States.
According to the USPS website, packages are delivered within 1-3 days “in most cases”. Notice that I purposely put “in most cases” in quotation marks. In practice, “1-3 days” can result in delivery times that are all over the map. We’ve had packages take 1-3 weeks. We’ve had packages get there overnight and we’ve had packages get completely lost in the mail.
But I would say that the average delivery time is about 2-5 days in most locations in the United States. When you ship First Class, you should also get delivery confirmation which will allow you to track your package while it is in transit.
Note: Delivery confirmation is free when you print your labels online or with a service like Shipstation.com
All fine and good right? Where it gets confusing is with the package restrictions that are associated with First Class mail.
First off you have to be careful of the dimensions for anything you ship first class. If you ever ship anything in a large envelope, you have the make sure the dimensions don’t exceed 15 inches by 12 inches. Also, your package must be at least a quarter inch thick.
We’ve been burned by this “quarter inch thick” policy before. Since we ship handkerchiefs, sometimes the package can be extremely thin. If your package does not exceed .25 inches in thickness, it will either get returned to sender or USPS will upgrade the package automatically to Priority Mail and then charge the customer!
Yes, you heard that correctly. We’ve had angry customers call us because they were charged additional postage upon parcel pickup. So today, we pad our thinner packages with extra filler material in order to exceed the quarter inch requirement.
If your package exceeds 13oz in weight, you have to use Priority Mail. According to the USPS website, delivery times for Priority Mail is also 1-3 days which makes it the same speed as First Class mail.
In practice, we’ve found that Priority Mail is slightly faster and more reliable than First Class mail but this a qualitative observation based on our experience. In other words, take it with a grain of salt.
The beauty of Priority Mail is that ALL shipping supplies are FREE!
Simply go onto the USPS.com website and you can order Priority Mail boxes of various sizes and they will be shipped to your door free of charge.
Different Priority Mail Choices
What’s also cool about Priority Mail is that there are many different box choices depending on the weight of your shipment. Here’s a description of your different box options.
- Priority Mail Regional Box – This cost of shipping in a regional box depends on the weight and distance of your shipment. This is the default way of calculating shipping costs whether you use a USPS box or your own box
- Priority Mail Small Flat Rate Box – With this box, you get charged 1 flat rate regardless of weight but you have to use USPS’s special box. Each box measures 8 11/16″ x 5 7/16″ x 1 3/4″ and can be used to ship small electronics or brochures.
- Priority Mail Medium Flat Rate Box – This is just a larger version of the small flat rate box. There are 2 sizes for the medium flat rate box. Box 1 measures 11 1/4″ x 8 3/4″ x 6″ and Box 2 measures 14″ x 12″ x 3 1/2″
- Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box – This is the largest flat rate box that USPS offers. Each box measures 12 1/4″ x 12 1/4″ x 6″
The next logical question is how does pricing for flat rate boxes stack up to regular Priority Mail and FedEx and UPS. I’ve written a fairly comprehensive article on the cheapest way to ship packages that you should check out for pricing info.
Express mail is the United States Post Office’s version of next day delivery…except that it isn’t always next day. Unlike FedEx and UPS which guarantees next day delivery, USPS will take 1-2 business days depending on location.
Therefore you always have to check the website for the exact transit time. In our experience, USPS Express Mail is much less reliable than UPS or FedEx. And even though the service is “guaranteed”, it’s a major pain in the butt to get your money back in the event of a late delivery.
But that being said, Express Mail is much cheaper than FedEx or UPS for next day shipments and USPS also offers “flat rate” box variants depending on the weight and size of your shipment.
Here’s my take on Express Mail and why we don’t really use it anymore for our business. For one thing, the Express Mail pickup is much earlier than FedEx or UPS. Whereas FedEx or UPS packages can be dropped off as late as 6pm in some locations, USPS Express Mail packages must be dropped off no later than 3pm and sometimes as early as 1pm.
Note: The exact drop off deadline for USPS is highly dependent on the post office location
The other kicker with Express Mail is that just because your package is picked up by the post man does NOT mean that it will go out that day. In fact, the only way to truly guarantee next day delivery is to have your package scanned at the post office.
We’ve been burned by this many times. Even though our post man comes at 11am, sometimes our Express Mail packages don’t make it out until the next day which is really annoying. Also, we’ve had experiences where a package was “marked as delivered” when it in fact was not yet delivered.
Anyway, here’s my philosophy with all expedited shipments. Chances are if your customer is choosing next day delivery, they need it the next day. So even though USPS is more economical, you have to decide whether to take a greater risk of a late delivery and whether the cheaper cost is worth it.
In most cases, an Express Mail package will arrive on time or within 2 days. But using USPS Express Mail is a gamble that could easily result in an angry call if your customer needs their order right away.
Miscellaneous Services That Come With Express
- Insurance coverage for up to $100
- USPS Tracking™ to see tracking updates, including date and time of delivery or attempted delivery.
- You can request to have your carrier pick up your package.
- Signature confirmation of delivery
Standard Post is the cheapest way to ship packages via USPS but the problem is that it takes FOREVER. While the USPS website states delivery times of 2-8 business days, in our experience it can take noticeably longer.
In my opinion, you should avoid Standard Post altogether. I’d much rather use UPS or FedEx Ground delivery which guarantees delivery within 5 days. Standard Post is super cheap but the delivery times are somewhat unpredictable.
The only other reason to use Standard Post is if your parcel weighs more than 70lbs and exceeds the weight restrictions of Priority Mail. But again, I would look at FedEx or UPS Ground as an alternative.
Media mail is very similar to Standard Post except that it must be used to ship educational materials like CD, DVDs or books. What constitutes media exactly?
According to the USPS website, media includes…
- Books of at least eight printed pages.
- Films and catalogs of films of 24 pages or more.
- Printed music
- Printed test materials from educational institutions
- Sound recordings – cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs
- Scripts and manuscripts for books, periodicals, and music.
- Printed educational material
- Binders consisting of medical information for doctors, hospitals, medical schools, and medical students.
- Computer-readable media
Realistically speaking, not many people ship media anymore thanks to services like DropBox, the adoption of ebooks etc… Heck, I don’t even use CDs, DVDs or USB drives anymore.
Extra Services Associated With Shipments
Now that we’ve covered all of the possible domestic shipping services that the United States Postal Service has to offer, let’s talk about the extra services that you can tack on to an existing shipment. In my opinion, this is the most confusing part about using USPS.
Here’s a list of the services that can be applied to most packages and when to use them.
- Insurance coverage up to $5,000 – I rarely purchase insurance for our goods because they are not fragile. But one thing I’ve always wondered is how much of a pain it is to actually claim the insurance money. If making an insurance claim is anything like getting your money back for a late Express Mail delivery, then expect to waste a lot of your time.
- Registered Mail – Shipping by registered mail offers the highest level of security for your most valuable items. Packages are insured for loss or damage up to $25,000. I’ve only used this service once to ship some jewelry across the country.
- Delivery Confirmation - This pretty much comes for free with every first class, priority mail and express mail package as long as you print your shipping labels online.
- Signature Confirmation – Buy this if you want a signature confirmation from the recipient. Note: you should get a signature for packages that are valued over $250 in the event of a charge back or payment dispute.
- Certificate of Mailing – Purchase this option to prove the date when you sent out your package. But note, this option doesn’t show whether the person received it or not which is why I’ve never ever used this service before. Supposedly, this is useful when providing evidence of mailing in case there’s an insurance claim.
- Certified Mail – Allows you to see when a letter is delivered. The letter also requires the signature of the recipient. Note: This service is only for letters. The only time I use certified mail is when I’m mailing in my taxes which I don’t do anymore since everything is online.
- Return Receipt – The recipient must sign a postcard is attached to your package which is then mailed back to you as proof of receipt. This is similar to certified mail except for packages and not letters.
- Collect on Delivery (COD) – The recipient pays for the merchandise and shipping when they receive the package. Send contents needing extra care.
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Shipping Via USPS
Almost all of the services and shipping methods can be done online so there’s no real reason that you should ever have to set foot in an actual post office under most circumstances. We do all of our shipping using a service called Shipstation.com
Shipstation.com allows you to print all of your shipping labels from your computer and also interfaces to most shopping carts out there. In addition, they offer significant discounts on USPS shipping that are not available in any retail location or on the USPS.com website. Finally, they also support FedEx and UPS so it’s really easy to compare shipping rates across all carriers.
These days, the only reason to set foot in a physical location is if you need to use COD, Certified Mail, Registered Mail, or a return receipt.
Hopefully, this guide will make using the United States Postal Service less intimidating. Once you have sufficient shipping volume, you can negotiate with UPS and FedEx to get “USPS like” prices. But in the beginning, there’s no cheaper alternative than USPS.
For more information about shipping costs, consult my guide to cheap shipping