How to Ship Photographs Faster, Cheaper and Better

By Ctein Back to

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A positive consequence of the digital printing revolution is that more photographers than ever are makin their own fine prints in both color and black-and-white. Furthermore, more photographers are making some effort to sell their prints, usually at modest prices and with some modest degree of success. Keeping the price low, however, means keeping all the expenses (including your time) low. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition—or at least one that doesn’t bring in a living wage.

As a professional photographer, custom printer, writer and editor, and photo restorer, I’ve been shipping and receiving photographs for more than 30 years. My business has been custom work, with orders running hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Until recently, I’ve rarely shipped more than a few packages a week. Consequently, it hasn’t bothered me to err on the side of caution; it may take me an hour to package work for shipping and end up costing me $20 or $30 in materials and postage, but it’s worth it to me not to have something damaged in transit. It’s not a big investment of time or money compared to the rest of the job. I’m happy to say that I have never, ever had a photograph I shipped destroyed in transit.

I can’t say the same for other photographers. Most of the photographs I get in the mail are either woefully underpacked (the classic situation of the photograph in a manila envelope with no stiffening board and the hopeful legend “Do Not Bend” written on the outside) or so overpacked that it took the photographer twice as long and cost twice as much as it should have.

Recently I had to completely rethink my methods. A special low- price print offer I tendered last fall was too successful! I needed to ship some 450 orders in three months. Without question, $20–$30 shipping and handling costs and an hour of my time per order was not going to cut it.

With a little planning and practice, I reduced the time required to handle an order from start to finish to 15 minutes. Total cost, both the packing materials and postage, was $7. Of those 450 orders, only one had contents that were slightly damaged in transit (and not unacceptably so according to the recipient) and one may have been lost in transit—an entirely tolerable failure rate.

That low an expenditure of time and money opens up all sorts of marketing possibilities. Any of you can take the same approach I did. The specific shipping products and methods I describe herein were designed for 10×12-inch prints; they would work for anything up to 10.5×14-inch prints. With an appropriate substitution of materials they should scale up just fine to 13×19-inch prints and possibly even 16×20-inch prints. The cost of shipping and handling would approximately double, but that’s still pretty economical for large prints. The processing time would hardly change.

Overview

All my photos, whether going to the United States or a foreign destination, are sent via Priority Mail. For lightweight packages such as these, it’s substantially cheaper than any other shipping service.

I don’t buy additional insurance; the loss rate is so low that the insurance wouldn’t pay for itself. Insurance costs anywhere from 1.5% to 3.5%, depending on the value of what I’m sending. Additional insurance means filling out additional forms (more time) and standing in line at the post off ice so the clerk can log in each and every package (more time, still) thus making the proposition even less attractive. Also, for international orders, Priority Mail International includes a certain amount of insurance coverage. For the packages I was sending, I received $60 worth of coverage automatically, with no additional paperwork to be filled out.

There are even cheaper shipping methods than Priority Mail, but I won’t use them. Delivery times are much less certain, handling is much less reliable, and there’s some level on which I’m just not willing to cut corners any further. Furthermore, Media Rate shipments within the U.S. are subject to being opened for inspection by the Postal Service, and First Class International shipping has proven, in my experience, to have a very erratic delivery schedule. For the modest savings, it’s not worth abandoning the reliability of Priority Mail, in my opinion. But, if you’re trying to sell really, really inexpensive photos, there’s nothing to prevent you from giving these other classes of mail a try. I just can’t recommend them based on personal experience.

Keeping the handling costs down means speeding up the process as much as possible and buying your shipping supplies in quantity from companies that specialize in such products. I’ve got word processor tables and templates that generate mailing labels for me so there’s no hand-addressing of packages. I get most of my tape and label supplies from Quill (www.quill.com) and packaging supplies from Uline (www.uline.com); their prices are a small fraction of what you’ll pay at your local office supply store.

The one way in which I’m still in the Stone Age is that I use stamps instead of purchasing postage online from the U.S. Postal Service Web site. There’s a couple of percent discount for buying your postage online, but I haven’t gotten together the printer templates and mailing label sheets I need yet. Something for you readers to consider, though, instead of sheets of stamps.

That’s the big picture. Now let’s look at the details.

Addressing

Almost all my orders for books and photographs come to me electronically these days: e-mail with a credit card number, a PayPal transaction, or an order via Google Checkout. Regardless, it means I’ve got the buyer’s address in the computer, so why not make use of that instead of tediously addressing packages by hand? I just highlight the name and address text in the order, copy it, paste it into my word- processor mailing list table, and select and move the information into the appropriate columns.

Either way, it’s a short hop, skip, and jump to having the mailing information organized in a table, where there’s no risk I misread or miscopied something by hand. My mailing label template takes the data in that table and automatically generates sheets of mailing labels for me. Personally, I like Avery 8164 labels. They’re big enough to hold all the important information in highly readable form, and they’re small enough to f it on the parcel regardless of how big or small the packages.

Some helpful tips. First, many mail-merge programs (like the one built into Microsoft Word) can generate post-off ice barcodes from the ZIP code information. Be sure to include that field in your mailing label template. It makes shipping faster and more reliable.

Second, include a field that prints the contents of the order unobtrusively on the label. That way, when you’re packaging up orders and applying mailing labels to them, you don’t have to refer to a separate order sheet to figure out who is getting what item.

Third, print out a duplicate set of mailing labels on plain paper. Each time you slap a label on a package, check off the corresponding label on the printout. It’s an easy way to keep track of what you’ve shipped and what you haven’t.

Fourth, some services such as PayPal let you get a history transaction report: a formatted text file of your recent orders filtered any of several different ways. That formatted text can be brought into a word processor or spreadsheet program. There you can strip out the unwanted information, retaining the buyer’s name, address, and what was ordered, neatly broken down into columns. It’s awfully nice when you’ve got lots of addresses to process in a short period of time.

Packing

You’ve got orders, you’ve got prints, you’ve got mailing labels. Now you have to make packages. Here’s where efficiency really makes a difference. Figure 1 shows the packing materials I used for my 10×12-inch prints. On the left are precut sheets of 11×14-inch cardboard that I purchased from Uline (catalog number S-3962) for 25 cents apiece. In the middle is a pad of 11×14-inch acid-free drawing paper. On the right are some cut-down sheets of cardboard on top of a Uline 15×111/8-inch white easy-fold mailer (S-345). The mailers run less than one dollar apiece and are scored to be easily folded to a depth of anything from 1/2 to 2 inches (for these orders, 1/2 inch was what I needed). For larger prints, Super B up to 16×20 inches, I’d use the 18×24-inch (S-13354) size.

I prefer white mailers, because I think they stand out a little better in shipping and look a little more professional. So maybe, just maybe, they get handled a little more carefully. Possibly wishful thinking on my part; can’t hurt, might help. For international orders, I use white literature mailers from Uline (S-277). They’re about the same price and they weigh just an ounce more. They’re a little more trouble to fold up, but they provide a really secure packing and they look very professional. This line of boxes is available in sizes up to 24×30 inches. For up to 16×20-inch prints, catalog number S-7871 looks like the best way to go.

First, sandwich the prints between two sheets of cardboard for rigidity, using the acid-free paper to protect them from contacting the cardboard (Figure 2). For long-term storage, you wouldn’t want to rely on thin paper like that to keep the cardboard from contaminating the print; it’s entirely adequate for shipping purposes. You can pack multiple prints this way, interleaving them with the acid-free paper. Tape the edges of the sandwich tightly with four strips of tape (Figure 3). You want the tape tight so that the cardboard exerts enough pressure on the prints that they won’t slide around inside the sandwich.

Center the print sandwich in the unfolded mailer (Figure 4). I include an instruction sheet with my prints, so I put that on top of the sandwich and put a half-sheet of cardboard on top of that (Figure 5). The additional cardboard makes the contents thick enough that when the package is taped closed the print sandwich won’t rattle around.

Fold over the left and right inner f laps (Figures 6 and 7), checking to make sure that the sheet of spacer cardboard is positioned so that the
f laps rest on top of it. Then fold over the outer f laps (Figure 8). Make sure all the f laps are tight and nice and square before taping them down.

Tape all the seams in the package starting with the outer flaps (Figures 9 and 10). Make sure that the tape on the back runs around the edges of the package and holds the outer flaps down tightly. Then tape up the end seams, again making sure that the strip of tape wraps around completely from back to front. Almost any package becomes immensely stronger and more rigid when all the seams are taped. This is one of the keys to really solid packaging without excessive weight or bulk.

Figure 10 shows me using the hobby knife to cut the tape. That’s because that’s the way I’ve been doing it my whole life and I’m pretty
efficient with it (and still have all my fingers). But if you’re new to this, it’s more sensible and a lot safer to buy a tape dispenser or tape gun. They don’t cost much and with a little practice you’ll be laying out strips of tape more quickly than you thought humanly possible. Don’t try to use regular scissors to cut the tape. You won’t wrap more than a few packages before the scissors blades will start to gum up and make it really slow and difficult to cut the tape.

The last step is to add a mailing label, a Priority Mail sticker, and appropriate postage to the front of the package. Now it’s ready for shipping.

Shipping

Unfortunately, security paranoia has made shipping less convenient than before. Any packages that weigh more than 13 ounces have to be hand- checked by a clerk at the post off ice. The good news, though, is you don’t have to be present for this (unless you need the receipt from the cash register) if the parcels are properly packaged, addressed, and have the right amount of postage on them.

All I had to do was let the clerks know that I was leaving a stack of prepared packages for them to check in at their convenience, and walk out. No waiting in line, and it allowed them to handle the packages when there wasn’t a queue of customers waiting for service. Kinder for everybody.

There’s a small chance of the checker accidentally tossing a package in the sorting bin without giving it the official stamp. It has happened to me twice with some 600–700 parcels. If that happens, a day or so later the parcel will come back to you and you’ll have to carry it down to the post office again. Worth the minor risk, in my opinion.

The flats I assembled were right on the edge of the 13-ounce limit. In fact, if there was one print in the package they were under 13 ounces, and if there were two or more they were over. Because I had to clear a very large number of orders in a short period of time, I decided that my time was worth a little more than the money and that carefully weighing and sorting the parcels wasn’t worth it to me. Consequently, I shipped

everything Priority Mail, at the one- pound postage rate (currently $4.95). Had I been willing to do the weighing and sorting or had more consistent weights, I could have knocked about two dollars off the postage for the packages that fell under the 13-ounce First Class limit.

If you’re sending parcels of this sort out of the U.S., you’ll have to make out a Customs multipart “white form.” It’s a real pain and very time consuming for both you and the poor clerk at the post off ice. Whoever designed those forms did not think about workflow or
efficient use of people’s time. The design of those forms requires you to stand in line while the clerk checks in each package individually, and it will take them a couple of minutes to process each package. If you have a lot of foreign orders to ship, be prepared to spend a lot of time at the post off ice, and it would be a kindness to the other customers if you didn’t bring in more than 8–10 at a time.

Conclusions

Is this the best that could be done to minimize shipping and handling costs? Absolutely not. I’m not the first (nor even the 10,000th) person on the planet to set up a mail order business. I won’t be the last. There are lots and lots of people out there who do this much better than I.

For the present, though, this is good enough for me. My streamlined approach has reduced my time and costs way below what they were before. And if the packages I receive in the mail from other photographers are any guide, it’ll work a lot better for many of you than whatever you’re doing now.


About the Author

Ctein
Ctein
Ctein is a technical writer and expert printmaker. He is also the author of Digital Restoration and Post Exposure—Advanced Techniques for the Photographic Printer.