Practical Ecommerce

How to Pack and Protect an Ecommerce Shipment

There are three main aspects to packaging for ecommerce shipments.

  • Protection. Helps prevent damage to the items during transit.
  • Presentation. Gives perceived value to the customer.
  • Cost. Often a limiting factor.

In this article, I will address “protection” matters: How to prevent a shipment from being damaged during transit.

What to Protect Against?

When considering protection, it is worth considering that it is nearly impossible to have no damages in shipments — without excessive cost. There has to be a compromise between an acceptable number of damages compared to the cost of additional packaging. That balance varies greatly among companies. It is dependent on the value of the item, the value of a customer’s repeat business, and the ease with which a replacement can be sent. There is no point triple-wrapping a USB cable, for example. But an urgent, high-value machine part might benefit from a paranoid level of wrapping to ensure the customer has it on time and not damaged.

Consider how the parcel be handled and what you should protect against. Postal and carrier workers will throw light parcels when sorting. Parcels will drop down chutes and possibly fall from conveyors. You should prepare items to withstand at least a 3-foot —roughly 1-meter — drop onto concrete. Expect your packages to get briefly rained on, slid around the van floor and stacked beneath other packages. If your parcel is traveling outside of the country, expect it to get dropped and bumped more than once.

There are a variety of packing materials designed to protect against different types of abuse during shipping.

There are a variety of packing materials designed to protect against different types of abuse during shipping.

How to Pack Fragile Items

First, consider why items break and how you can prevent it. Fragile items can get damaged by impact or by stress and torsion. Packaging, therefore, needs to have both damping against impact and, also, structural rigidity. Remember, too, that products can damage themselves and can still break, no matter how good the outer box. To prevent this, make sure that nothing can move within the package. Glass is a good example of this. It is incredibly strong but very brittle. If glass jars are stacked in an ordered way and packed tightly together in a box, you can easily stand on it and it will withstand impact. There’s no need for padding between the jars as they can’t strike each other. If they are loosely arranged in a box, however, they will hit each other and smash, even if surrounded by heavy packaging.

Packing and Shipping Materials

For packing and shipping, you need “outer” materials, “impact protection” materials, and “void fill” materials. I’ll describe options for each, below.

Outer Materials

  • Polybag. Very cheap and offers excellent tear and water resistance, but offers no other protection or structural strength. Polybags are very easy to throw, so they may get rougher handling when being sorted. Polybags are suitable for items that are already well boxed — but require more confidentiality — or for soft, non-fragile items.
  • Jiffy bag. Cheap and offers similar protection to polybags, but with some added cushioning against minor impacts. Jiffy bags are suitable for smaller, non-fragile items that benefit from a little protection.
  • Single-wall corrugated box. Cardboard prices have risen substantially over the last 12 months. But cardboard is still very economical packaging. Cardboard is structurally strong. It offers good impact protection and surprising resilience to short periods of rain.
  • Double-wall corrugated box. Made with two corrugated layers that offer additional rigidity and impact protection. This is particularly suitable for very fragile or heavier orders — more than 20 pounds, or 10 kilograms — where a single wall box is likely to deform when lifted.
  • Book wrap. The Amazon-style packaging is ideal for books, DVDs and smaller flat items. These are quite expensive, but they still offer value for high-end books or long-distance travel.
  • Card envelope. This is the new favorite for small books and DVDs. Card envelopes are much cheaper than book wraps. The protection level is quite low, but it prevents damage to corners of books and DVDs.

Impact-Protection Materials

  • Kraft or brown paper. Use this scrunched up into sausage shapes and zigzagged across and around the item. This provides excellent protection and is easily reused or recycled by the recipient. Note, however, that on long transits it can collapse under heavier loads.
  • Bubble wrap. Can be quite expensive, even if bought on trade-sized rolls. It’s very good where an item needs complete coverage against impact protection, such as glass. For other purposes, brown paper is usually more effective and less expensive. Even after long transits, brown paper maintains good protection if used several layers thick. Some manufacturers make bubble wrap that you can tear in a perfectly straight line. This saves much time and eliminates the need for scissors and knives.
  • Corrugated roll. Single-ply corrugated board on a roll. This can be used for lining thinner boxes to increase their impact resistance, or for wrapping around bottles. Corrugated board can collapse under heavy loads, but it has the advantage of having some structural integrity that prevents dents and bending.
  • Specialist protection. There are a number of other high-protecting items available. These include self-activating foam bags that mould and set to form a perfectly shaped cradle. They offer the very highest level of protection, but have a price tag to match.

Void-Fill Materials

  • Kraft or brown paper. If more loosely scrunched, this can be used to stop smaller items from moving inside the box. It is cheap and effective, but won’t hold up against heavy items.
  • Air cushions. These are small air filled bags that are nearly strong enough to stand on. They can be inflated on site to reduce storage. The only disadvantage is that the inflating machine can be expensive to purchase, though many suppliers will lease you one for free if you buy their product. We use them frequently in our fulfillment center.
  • Loose fill. Foam chips or packing “peanuts.” These are the bane of our lives. They are expensive, take up huge amounts of space, and end up all over the floor. It best to avoid these. No customer over the age of 12 enjoys cleaning them up.

Environmental Concerns

If you choose the right suppliers, you’ll be able to find all the materials above in various recycled and biodegradable forms. Remember, however, that the most environmentally friendly method is to use less packaging, as even recycled materials emit CO2 when they are processed.


James Hyde
Bio  |  RSS Feed


Get the Practical Ecommerce RSS feed

Comments ( 5 )

  1. Derek Bacharach February 14, 2012 Reply

    I won’t sell glassware on my website because the risk of it breaking and the TIME to pack the glassware securely is not worth it.

    I kicked and screamed to ship ceramic coffee mugs but I finally caved in. If you heard someone screaming outside before the holidays and you don’t know who it was, that was me when a customer purchased 6 coffee mugs from my website.

    Luckily I’ve been pretty successful with my shipments getting to where they need to go without the items getting damaged. This comes from my ebay consignment days when I agreed to sell (& ship) a client’s antique Irish Belleek china years ago.

  2. John Lindberg February 15, 2012 Reply

    My company does order fulfillment for others in fairly high volume and we track the packing material cost vs. effectiviness carefully. After testing almost every combination of materials and buying strategies, we have ended up with the following as our optimum solution…

    1. 36" x 1200 ft rolls of Kraft packing paper purchased by the pallet at a typical cost of about $30 per roll or $.008 per square foot. We use different kinds of packing materials for differing levels of product protection, but Kraft paper is the backbone of our routine pick, pack and ship operations.

    2. The second most used packing material for us is 3/16 bubble wrap purchased in 48" x 750 foot rolls at about $.057 per square foot. This is about 7 x the cost per square foot compared to Kraft paper, but for merchandise that can not tolerate impact, we have found this to be cost effective.

    3. We also use air pillows, which we buy on rolls of about 2,000 square feet at a cost of a little less than $.10 per square foot. When inflated using supplier provided equipment, this material has the best impact protection, but there is a hidden cost which is forced use of a larger size shipping cartons. It is true however that there are some merchandise types that can be shipped safely no other way.

    4. The cost of shipping cartons tends to vary by the carton surface area and not its physical volume. In our business model we use 8 stock box sizes that vary from .1 to 4.5 cubic feet plus a range of custom sizes provided by our clients. Our carton cost varies from about $.25 each to about $1.08 and we buy in manufactured lots of 4,000 to 6,000 boxes per size per run so as to earn the best corragated square footage discount from the carton manufacturer.

    5. We also buy padded jiffy mailers and vinyl poly mailers in sizes #1 to #7 and at cost rangiing from $.18 to $.48 each, depending on size and special features like gussets and self sealing adhesives. We use releases from general purchase orders to minimize cost while maintaning quality–important as cheap mailers can fail in transit.

    The only thing I can add about our experience with packing materials is that labor cost should be taken into account when buying supplies. A "cheap" packing material that slows down parcel output per hour can easily end up costing more in the end.

    John Lindberg – President
    EFULFILLMENT SERVICE INC

  3. James Hyde March 14, 2012 Reply

    Derek, we feel your pain with glass but it is possible. Using a combination of bubblewrap, kraft paper and void fill it’s possible to send glass without any issues (we regularly send our jars and mugs).

    As John suggests though, this is labour intensive and comes at a premium. It doesn’t fit with our usual processes, so the items have to be premium themselves to justify the cost. You couldn’t do this with budget pint glass economically!

  4. Leah Blachaniec October 19, 2012 Reply

    You make some great points in this article! It is crucial to protect fragile items, and a helpful resource I have found is Smoothmove supplies. This company has different specialty boxes designed for transporting fragile items, and offers great packaging protection like bubble wrap roll and foam. Check out http://www.smoothmovesupplies.com, it is a great resource that can aid in transporting items!

  5. Sammy Haskins December 2, 2013 Reply

    We’ve been using CorgiPack corrugated mailers to ship our books and tapes to customers. I expect they’d work for any small package.

    The good part is that they are rigid and light which saves on shipping. They are fast to use and the wrapping process tales about 15 seconds. It’s like wrapping a Christmas package except the Kraft “wrapping paper” has a corrugated insert in the middle. The insert cushions and form-fits the contents so there’s no need for bubble wrap or wadded up paper.

    Overall, its the best shipping method I’ve found in my 15 years as a bookseller.

Email Newsletter Signup

Sign up to receive EcommerceNotes,
our acclaimed email newsletter.

And receive a free copy of our ebook
50 Great Ecommerce Ideas