Reader T. would like everyone to know that the members of the notorious Stupid Shipping Gang aren’t necessarily stupid. There could be a perfectly valid reason why your bubble wrap is wrapped in bubble wrap, a small clock comes in a box large enough to store your fiancée, and every ten-foot power cord requires its own wooden pallet. They’re just working with what they have, within the rules they’re provided, and trying to get your item to you in one piece. On their end of the transaction, these decisions aren’t so stupid. What seems wasteful to us consumers may actually save the company money.
I’ve worked at several different distribution centers for some big-name contenders in the office supply business and have some valuable insight into some of the actions of the “stupid” shipping crew. I put stupid in quotes because, contrary to popular belief, there is actually a perfectly legitimate reason why that SD card got put into a box that could accommodate a pair of winter boots.
I’ll start with the jeers I see most often regarding misuse of packing material.
1) “Why can’t they just put XXX in a padded mailer?”
There are several reasons for this. First, padded mailers are EXPENSIVE. There isn’t a good price break on those like there is with boxes. Even if you buy them hundreds of thousands at a time.
Second, padded mailers are not as padded or secure as you think. The paper and padding material can be ripped open by the high-speed belts at shipping facilities or while in transit on a truck. If you put a small item in there, it stands a reasonable chance of falling out somewhere.
Third (which also ties in with the second point), they’re a liability to the bottom line of the sale. Padded mailers can be folded, crushed, and generally mangled much easier than a box. They can also be “lost” in transit and never seen again. As much as I hate to question the integrity of my fellow man (especially those in charge of making sure items get from point A to point B) theft happens. When you’re making sales where you may only see as little as a few cents’ profit, you have to make DAMN sure that the product will make it there, and make it there in one piece.
Padded mailers also take time to pack and double check, which can slow the whole process down to a near standstill while the guy at the end of the conveyor goes to scan them out manually because the conveyor system doesn’t always catch them all.
Lastly, padded mailers contain plastic. Yes, I know that there are mailers that use shredded paper as padding, but those are more expensive and don’t work as well. We work hard to meet certain initiatives put forth by the government to be as eco-friendly as possible and that goes all the way down to the paper towels we use in our restrooms. If a padded mailer gets tossed into the garbage, it ends up in a landfill. While the paper will degrade quickly, the plastic bubble liner will stay for years, even decades. And not many people (if any) will bother to separate the paper shell form the bubble wrap lining to recycle it.
At one job we tested using some sealable heavy duty bags (basically one step below tyvek) but ended up ditching them because we got too many complaints from the carriers of the bags getting ripped on their conveyors and from the customers that they weren’t getting their product or that it was mangled up.
2) “Why did they use such a MASSIVE box?”
Again, several reasons for this (prepare for a wall of text on this one).
a) Like I mentioned above, boxes have huge price breaks the more you buy. Most box makers give you those price breaks based on how many of a particular box you buy. Some offer collective deals where they count your total order across multiple sizes towards that amount, but they are generally aimed at smaller businesses that may only order a thousand or so boxes at a time. Which brings me to the next point…
b) Having as few different sized boxes as possible is the name of the game. I cannot stress how much time and effort goes into box selection. I have been on several committees whose sole purpose was to closely examine the boxes we were using and if we could consolidate two sizes into a medium size, do away with one size altogether, or to change a size. We would spend months analyzing years’ worth of expenditures into packaging versus margins. We strived to have no more than 5 different sized boxes at any given time.
Keeping this number low helps keep costs low (as stated above) by giving us better deals when we buy them, saves space when storing them (which allows for more product to be stored on-site), streamlines our conveyor system and makes it easier to load trucks. The easiest part about the whole process was selecting a box to fit our largest item. The rest was a slow spiral into insanity.
c) Sometimes, we just run out of the appropriately-sized box. We make orders for boxes several weeks (sometimes months) ahead of time, but even then that’s sometimes not long enough for the mills to produce what we need, and, as such, causes us problems. So what do we do? Put it in the next size larger box. Because you’d much rather get your item on time in a larger box, that not receive it at all (or much later), no?
d) Sometimes it’s cheaper to ship it in a larger box. Yes, you heard right. We work closely with third-party carriers (UPS, FedEx, etc) to get the best rates possible and sometimes we’ll get a better rate shipping a larger box versus a smaller one. This happens for a couple reasons; 1) those carriers do their own research and find that boxes within certain dimensions better fit in their trucks and flight containers. While you can fit more smaller boxes than larger boxes into a finite space, sometimes a lot of those smaller boxes end up creating blank space through their odd dimensions which makes it harder to fit in larger boxes. 2) carriers will also figure out which size you ship the most often and try to give you the best deal on that particular size.
e) You may have ordered an item that was on backorder and only received a partial shipment. When a customer places an order, our shipping system takes into account their ENTIRE order and after pulling the dimensions of the products ordered (yes, we have dims on every. single. item. that we sell, upwards of 3 million different SKUs) it assigns that order a box size. If you ordered a keyboard and a pack of CD-Rs, it will default to the larger item and assign a box accordingly. If the keyboard is on backorder, we will still ship you the CDs because it’s worth it for us to take a small hit in profit to keep you as a customer by at least getting you some of your order on time.
“But why don’t you just swap the box out for a smaller one?” you ask? Well, let me put it this way. These distribution centers are often 24hr operations. While we try to swap out boxes as much as we can, we simply just run out of time. To switch a box, we have to reprint the shipping label and packing slip, hand-tape a new box, and send it through the conveyor system to get scanned out and put on a truck. While that might not sound like a lot, this is a job where seconds count. We got (on average) about 10,000 orders a day which covered about 35,000 cartons going out our door. We’re only allowed a small percentage of that to not ship out (usually around 0.2%) and any more than that throws a red flag at corporate which starts a formal inquiry process where we better have a damn good reason for going over that number.
Thanks for the insights, T! It’s true that we’d rather receive an over-packaged item than an under-packaged one, but bubble wrap wrapped in bubble wrap will never not be funny.
We know that a lot of you have particular insights into jobs and businesses that most consumers don’t know much about, or about which they make huge assumptions. Do you want to share those insights with the Consumerist readership, potentially making their transactions smoother and your life easier? Send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.