What Startups Should Know About Packaging but Don't

Shipping for e-commerce: the obvious, common pitfalls, and a few gems of wisdom

Welcome to Inside the Box

Hey, this is Duff and Ian, of Packaging.net, here to talk about the super exciting world of packaging for startups. Packaging may not seem that exciting, but in reality… that’s mostly true. It’s not really that exciting. It does have A LOT more to do with your success and failure than you might realize though.

Up until what feels like last week, there hasn't been a lot of overlap between the world of packaging and "high tech" — which is anything with an ON switch to the packaging industry. As more and more direct-to-consumer and consumer-package-goods startups join the perpetual new-version-of-an-old-thing gold rush though, we are seeing some oft-repeated but easily avoided mistakes. This article focuses on packaging used for shipment. There are a similar set of mistakes with packaging used for retail but we’ll touch on those more in the future. As a favor to ourselves and our inboxes we thought it’d be a good idea to write this all down. So here you go.

If you have questions not answered in this article, please don’t hesitate to ask in our forum at https://forum.packaging.net


1 - Don't be Weird

There are a few absolutely tried and true, goto, old standby packaging options you should use if you aren’t sure what else to do. Just because you found a crazy deal via Amazon for octagonal clear plastic vinyl hat boxes doesn't mean you should use them for your first product out the door. The tried and true packaging options are:

  •   Poly Mailers 

  •   Bubble Poly Mailers

  •   32 ECT/200# Corrugated Boxes

For most things, most of the time, one of these three options will get the basic job done reliably and cost effectively.

Poly Mailers

This is just a thin but tough plastic bag with a glue strip (or even a second glues strip to permit returns). The default color is a sort of off-grey. You probably have a few in your garbage can right now. They are moisture resistant and survive the automated machinery of most common shippers (USPS, Fedex, UPS) pretty well. They are very inexpensive but do not offer much in the way of protection for your goods, which is fine if your goods won’t mind a bit of drop kicking (more on that later).

Great for: Anything Apparel, Small items in non-shippable boxes like gift boxes

Bubble Poly Mailers

All of the above but including a layer of bubble wrap built in. They cost a bit more than plain Poly Mailers but offer a a reasonable level of physical protection for small goods without the hassle of stocking separate bubble wrap, tape, etc.

Great for: Small goods that can take a little bit of abuse, Small goods that are in non-shippable boxes that are a bit less tough

Corrugated Box (ECT32/200#)

You probably have one of these from Amazon on your stoop right now. 200# refers to the weight of the paper that goes into the construction. 32 edge crush test, ECT, refers to an engineering type test of the box. For most common purposes ECT32 and 200# are interchangeable. This is the standard for boxes most of the time. If you see boxes a whole lot cheaper than what everyone else is charging, it’s usually the weight of the paper that’s been cheaped. Corrugated boxes are distinctly different from gift and display boxes that do not have that ribbed corrugated sandwich in the middle. Without special considerations, gift and display boxes are no good for shipping standalone.


2 - Fit Matters

Just like clothes, a good fit is really important. Ill sized packaging is expensive, wasteful, and leaves customers with a bad impression. On the other hand, overkill packaging is also bad. Triple boxing and foam wrapping titanium coasters — even if they're 3D printed is no good. Too much packaging is just as bad as too little.

Ever order a toothbrush from Amazon? Sometimes it shows up in a washing machine box. As a startup you probably can't afford to be like Amazon. It’s fine if you aren't yet positioned to do branded and custom designed-to-size packaging. With a bit of testing and some attention to detail, you can find a good fit with stock packaging. You will probably have to look beyond Amazon.com though.

We can guarantee that whatever expense you save by limiting the size selection of your boxes and/or oversizing them, that saving will be rapidly eaten up — and then some — by all the fill you’ll need to use and all the damage that will happen to your goods.

Less common, but still problematic, don’t make your thing FIT into a box it is just to big for. Over-expanding the seams of the box by jamming your thing in there destroys the boxes ability to protect the product. It defeats the whole point of using a box in the first place. Think “fat guy in a little coat”, RIP Chris Farley.

A good fit means that your item is comfortable or maybe a touch snuggly, inside the box. Minimal fill is necessary to keep it from shifting around. If you have to deal with a large range of possible shipment sizes, look closely at Variable Depth Boxes that can probably solve that for you while keeping your packaging materials inventory to a minimum.

Look at: ULINE or our own Packaging.net Catalog


3 - Get it There in One Piece

You make a great product, what's the point of doing that if it doesn't reach your customer intact?

A rule of thumb in packaging: if your product can be broken by drop kicking in transit, it will be. Taking into account the point above about overkill — no amount of drop kicking is going to bust titanium coasters. If some non-nuclear level of force can damage your product, your packaging needs to be able to take it for the team.

PSA: Please don't ever, ever, ever, use packing peanuts. They give the whole industry a bad name. There is always a better option.

How to get it there in one piece? It’s a pretty simple flow chart. Can your thing break from shock? If yes, then a box needs to be involved somehow. It’s the part of the packaging that takes the shock instead of your thing. Some dependable combinations to consider:

  • Small things that when fitted in a properly sized box, are awkwardly small to ship? Put the boxed item in a Poly Mailer or Bubble Poly Mailer.

  • Small to medium things that are pretty tough? Poly Mailer, Bubble Mailer and/or wrapping the thing in foam roll or foam tube. Not a good idea for things with sharp edges. Over wrap the foamed thing in pallet wrap instead of tape.

  • Medium to large things need a box and fill. The box should be a 32ECT/200# common stock box size that fits your thing when rounding up your things dimensions a bit. For fill use kraft paper, indented kraft paper, foam roll, foam tubing, crinkle paper, or small bubble wrap.

  • Large things, things that are distinctly heavy for their size and/or that have sharp edges need a heavy duty box, often called double wall or triple wall boxes. For fill use large bubble wrap, corrugated honeycomb, corrugated pads, instant foam (pricey), styrofoam blocks, cushion pads.

  • Oddball things. Wine bottles, crazy shaped things. There really isn’t anything in this world that does not have specialty shippers for it. Check our catalog or ULINEs for a specially crafted shipper only for that thing.


4 - You’re Gonna Put Your Eye Out With That Thing

No one wants to lose an eye or a finger opening your thing. Sometimes called Wrap Rage, more than 7,000 people a year end up in the ER from a package opening related injury.

For a website or app, user experience is a huge part of building brand recognition and loyalty. With a physical product the same applies to its packaging, from the shipment box all the way down to the product. Unboxing has become it’s own genre of entertainment on youtube. Big companies fail here all the time. Stand out and make your unboxing a win for your customer and a win for your brand. A customer who almost loses a finger on your razor edged clamshell it's not going to have long term positive associations with your product.

It's a meme at this point, but we've all gotten those packages from China that happily survived the trip but are now entombed in 7000 layers of impenetrable yellow tape. That packaging is great for protecting the goods but really fails the user experience test. You need to think about and test the experience your customers are going to have when opening their shipment. That means all the way through opening to using your product. Test your product and consumer experience as it will be shipped. When we ask whether a product has been tested that way, 99.9% of the time we get “No, we never thought to try that”.

User experience friendly packaging options:

  • Use Poly Mailers with tear strips

  • Use Bubble Mailers with tear strips

  • To get foam roll or foam tube to stay put and hug items, use pallet wrap instead of tape

  • For boxes, just a single line of tape for each top opening and bottom opening is correct

  • If a box cutter is going to destroy your thing when the box is opened, use a cardboard insert or clearly label your packaging


5 - Cheap Tape is Like the Thermal Exhaust Port of the Deathstar

You got a seed round. You spent every waking moment for years refining and perfecting your product. Your launch was a huge success and now your first orders are shipping en masse. All that crashes and burns because you cheaped out on tape and now your goods are laying in random corners of package processing centers nationwide. Tape saves companies lives. If your packaging opens in transit everyone has a bad time. 99% of the time, that happens because you went cheap on tape.

The old faithful for tape is: 2 mil brand name box sealing tape with acrylic adhesive. If the tape is sold as economy or has a lot of other suspect adjectives, don’t use it for sealing boxes. Use it for your mother-in-laws moving day. Quality tape is very clear (unless intentionally colored) and should not have a yellowy tinge. Yellowy tinge is ghosts trapped inside telling you not to use that tape for shipping.

Sealing a box with quality tape takes only a single strip for the top opening and a single strip for the bottom opening. No really, that’s it. If you find yourself needing to do crossovers and wrap arounds, or other strange things, you are literally taping over other problems in your packaging.

For boxes there is something even better than old faithful 2 mil box sealing tape. And that is — drum roll please — reinforced paper tape. It is every bit as glamorous as it sounds. It’s main advantage is that it completely and irreversibly bonds itself to the box. It has the added bonus of being tamper resistant.

Paper tape is cheaper in the long run than plastic tape but it’s disadvantage is that it requires a dispenser machine. That machine luxuriously bathes the diva paper tape in warmed water so its adhesive is relaxed and settles in for the long haul when applied to the box. Don’t try and use paper tape without a dispensing machine. Don’t try and use paper tape without a dispensing machine — be honest you were still gonna try it before we said it the second time. If you use a lot of boxes, then as you start to scale up, a switch to paper tape is something you should definitely evaluate.

Before you have the scale to afford custom boxes and mailers you can probably afford custom tape. It’s awesome and a great way for your brand to stand out. It’s probably the thing that puts most packaging peoples children through college which is also neat.


6 - Printed Collateral

Of all the gems of wisdom we are dropping here, this is probably the one gem that offers the highest bang for your buck. You’ve probably handled a million of these in your life but have never paid them much conscious mind. A critical part of packaging for many products is an insert card that might include brand identity, promotions, possibly important instructions. Anything that you want your consumer so see first thing and to make a great first impression. Can be as simple as a “Thank you for being a customer” note card.

For whatever reason these cards are called “printed collateral”, probably after the movie. As a startup, printing something in a business card size can be really economical but we would urge you to go as big as you can that is consistent with your product and that you can afford. Printed collateral is a little touch that really makes a big difference in consumer experience. If it tells them to pull the little tab thingy from the battery compartment so your thing can work even though you say that twenty five times in the manual that no one reads, it probably saves you about 10,000 support calls too.


7 - Packaging That Looks Stunning on a Shelf Can Look Alligator Chewed on Arrival

Your packaging arrives looking like it was just regurgitated by an alligator with a peptic ulcer. Ripped, torn, dirty. This is caused by wrong material for the job syndrome. Materials that are perfectly suitable for retail can fail completely at shipping. What starts out great may not look that way after its been through the gauntlet of hands, machine, trains, planes and trucks it takes to get to your customers door.

In particular white finishes soil quickly and take on a muddy alligator chewed appearance. Weird dings, holes, and splits often happen —dun dun dun—from the inside. If your product has unprotected sharp corners and edges, inadequate fill and/or too roomy a box, your shipment turns into that scene from Alien where your product is fighting to explode out from your boxes chest and breed lots of new little products. Use cardboard inserts, foam roll and pallet wrap to dull those corners and edges.

To avoid the scuffed alligator chew finish use clear bags or shrink overwrap to maintain your packaging’s appearance in transit. For things shipped in Poly Mailers or Bubble Mailers, like a t-shirt, consider using a cardboard insert. The insert will help maintain the overall shape in transit rather than the bag arriving in a crumpled ball.


Thanks for reading and we’ll be back with more soon. We were gonna call this Top 10 Mistakes Packaging Startups Make but as you can see there are only seven things.

We really do love your questions so head over to our forums at: https://forum.packaging.net and ask away.

Sign up now so you don’t miss dramatic and bombshell developments in the fast paced and dynamic world of packaging.

In the meantime, tell your friends!