One of the scariest parts of opening a soap company tends to be the huge task of shipping handmade soap and cosmetics, but it doesn't need to be this way!
While shipping may seem complicated, if you streamline your processes and have all your ducks in a row, you will easily rock your customers' expectations and deliver your stellar products in a well-branded, beautiful, and timely manner.
This guide will walk you through setting up some of these processes, as well as creating rock-solid shipping policies and providing a word-of-mouth-worthy experience for your customers.
Are you ready to start shipping handmade soap? Let's find out...
This handy-dandy guide is divided into ten parts to cover all your bases and features a recommended supplier list at the end. Ready to rock your shipping? Let's go:
Be prepared for efficient shipping practices.
When you open up your proverbial doors, be prepared to quickly and efficiently ship your handmade soap and other products.
Designate an area as your order picking and shipping area, if possible. Store all of the supplies you need in that area in an organized manner, so you always have what you need. You should have both scotch tape and shipping tape, as well as scissors, pens, permanent markers, and the packaging materials (kraft paper, tissue paper, shreds, packing peanuts, shipping boxes, and/or mailers) handy. You'll also want to make sure you have a flexible ruler or measuring tape and a postal scale. Don't forget to stock up on customs forms, if you ship internationally, and all your branded marketing mojo like thank you cards, business cards, and samples (if you do them.)
Organize your supplies in a way that makes sense for the flow of packaging an order, so everything is easy-peasy when it's time to pick an order and ship it. I'm right-handed and like to work from left to right, so my shipping station was set up with the inner packaging material (tissue and packing peanuts) on the left, marketing materials and pens in the middle, and the outer package, scale, and customs forms on the right.
Ensure that you are encouraging good record-keeping here as well!
For example, I used two print-outs of every packing list while picking orders. One packing list was for internal use, where I noted what was included in the package (checking items off as I packed them, as well as any extras or marketing materials), what type of outer packaging I used, what its dimensions and weight were, and what method of shipping to use. I noted the order number on the bottom of the package, so I could match it to the in-house packing slip and ultimately, the shipping label. The second packing slip went inside the order for the customer.
When I was ready to print shipping labels, I only needed to deal with a stack of packing slips instead of the full boxes, mailers, and such. I would print the order number on the shipping label in the notes section (just the number, no mention of it being an order, etc.) so I could match the label back up with the box. I've shipped thousands of packages this way, and have never sent the wrong order to a customer. I think it's a nice system that has two advantages:
- Streamlines shipping when you are going at it solo
- Gives you a solid record of what went out in orders and when
When my husband could help me ship orders, he would pick the orders, and I would double-check his packing slip and then package the order. Eventually, we started using boxes and trays to contain orders as they moved through the process. How you handle this is completely dependent on the order volume and the number of people you have involved with the shipping of your handmade soap, bath, and body, or cosmetics products.
Have your shipping policies in tip-top shape.
Your internal and external shipping policies should already be lined up before you start shipping out orders, so if you don't have any policies yet, get on it! When you craft up your policies, ensure that they reflect your brand through the tone and word choice, as well as stay positive! No one wants to read a list of "No, we don't do this or that!"
You also want to make sure your policies are in compliance with any laws or regulations. For instance, in some U.S. states, you are required to state your refund or return policy at the point of purchase or before the transaction is completed.
Here are some common questions you'll want to get answered for yourself and your customers:
- How long with it take me to ship an order from the time I receive it? (often referred to as the turnaround time or processing time)
- What mailing services or providers will I use? Will I offer any rush or expedited services? (USPS, UPS, FedEx, Canada Post, etc.)
- Will I ship internationally or domestically only? (If you sell online, shipping internationally isn't as scary as it sounds!)
- Will I offer insurance on all packages or only some? What factors will dictate insurance? (An upgrade option for the customer, or certain dollar value on the order?)
- What will I do if an order is lost or damaged in the mail? (Will you offer a refund or reship the order? Will you require proof from the customer, and if so, what proof is acceptable?)
- What should a customer do if they are having issues with their order or the shipping time? (Do you want them to call you?
- What will I do if I have an unexpected delay in shipping an order? (Will you call your customer or email them? Will you offer a refund on the spot for the delay? Will you include extras or write a note?)
- Will I accept returns from customers? What do they need to do to return an order? (Will I refund only the product cost or shipping costs as well? Will I ask the customer to pay return shipping costs or will I take care of that?)
- Am I doing everything I need to do to be protected by any payment processing seller/buyer protection practices? (If you accept payments via Paypal or other common payment processing, they usually have a Buyer or Seller Protection policy that requires you to keep certain records! You want to make sure you are keeping up with them, otherwise, an unsavory individual could take advantage of your lack of preparation and get their money back AND keep an order.)
Don't be naive and think these things won't happen to you, because they will! This order was wrapped in bubble wrap but was shipped in one of the old school USPS flat rate cardboard mailers. One of the mail sorting machines must have choked on it because it literally split the bars of soap in half (a recipe so hard that you couldn't dent it by throwing it on the concrete floor!) Be prepared and know exactly how you'll turn a bump in the road into a ramp to stellar customer service!
Manage shipping expectations upfront.
Just as you should have your policies lined up and ready to rock, you need to clearly and concisely ensure you are communicating those policies to your customers. Yes, tuck them away on your policies and customer service pages, but also remember to put them front and center.
You may want to consider mentioning the most important parts of your shipping policies (like the turnaround time and return policy) in your product descriptions, in your customers' order receipts, in your customers' shipping notifications, in the orders themselves, or even a behind-the-scenes blog post showing off your sexy shipping station.
You also need to manage YOUR shipping expectations. How many orders can you realistically ship a day? Do you need to set aside shipping days? Or do you plan on shipping orders daily? And if so, at what times? You really don't want to be caught with a flood of orders without an action plan or an understanding of what you can realistically handle.
Protect your pretties (and bring in the brand love.)
Shipping handmade soap may seem as simple as throwing it in a bubble mailer and sending it on its way, but I can't count how many times I've ordered handmade items from makers only to be deathly disappointed by the shipping and packaging choices.
Inside and out, your handmade soap should be protected and carry a whole lotta brand love.
The outer mailing container should prevent the soap from being damaged in transit, and you have a ton of options to choose from. Depending on your recipe, you might get away with a bubble mailer, but you will likely see damages from time to time (as shown above!).
You could go with plain kraft or white corrugated boxes. An option to add a little brand love is by using a custom rubber stamp to stamp the exterior of the box with your logo, slapping on a custom sticker, or having the boxes custom printed.
A lot of American soapmakers opt for USPS flat rate and regional rate options, even the fab flat rate bubble mailers. Since the USPS provides outer shipping cartons for free (if they are used for their intended service), it brings down the shipping cost which customers will definitely appreciate. However, be aware that all of the boxes and mailers from USPS need a lot of cushion to protect the items inside the mailing container as they can be relatively flimsy in comparison to other shipping containers.
Inside the mailing container, you should add a level of protection using bubble-wrap or carton fillers (like peanuts, shredded paper, tissue paper, etc.) This is a perfect opportunity to bring in the brand love by choosing options that align with your brand's values (recycled or not?) as well as your brand's aesthetics (colored tissue paper, paper shreds, etc.) In addition, a smart shipper will always include the recipient’s contact info (at the minimum an address) inside the package in case the outer label is torn off. (Thanks for including that tip in the comments, Marley K.!)
If your product is sold naked (no retail packaging), pretty please consider adding ways to differentiate and identify products or make the items suitable for gift-giving, even if that's offering it as an additional option during the checkout experience. Last holiday season, half of the handmade products I ordered to give as gifts came without packaging or identifying materials. Unfortunately, I ended up keeping them for myself because I couldn't give something so unprofessional to my friends and family. Ugh.
Below, you can see a few examples from other soapmakers in biz and how they package up their products for safe mailing and beautiful brand presentation.
Make your shipment of handmade soap feel like a gift to every customer.
Even though an order is definitely a business transaction, making it feel like a gift will keep your customers coming back for more and provide a memorable experience. At the very minimum, consider including a handwritten thank you note, postcard, or notecard to bring a personal touch to your order shipments.
Consider how the package will look while it is being opened, unwrapped, and accepted by the customer. Even though I don't sell retail products anymore, I still ensure that every package that goes out the Modern Soapmaking doors carries a whole lotta love in the form of a handwritten note, branded swag like stickers and/or pens, and of course, tissue paper or package filler that matches up with my brand values and aesthetic.
Follow the shipping rules, no matter what.
When shipping handmade soap, bath and body creations, home goods, and the like, you need to pay attention to shipping regulations and guidelines.
If you choose to use USPS's flat rate and regional rate options, please be aware that each box does have a max weight rating that you need to follow. Handmade soap can get heavy really quickly, and it's entirely possible to pack more soap in these boxes than the max weight. As of Sept. 2015, here are the guidelines:
- International Flat Rate Envelopes & Small Flat Rate Boxes: 4 pounds
- International Medium & Large Flat Rate Boxes: 20 pounds
- Domestic Priority Mail Express, Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelopes, and Boxes: 70 pounds
- Regional Rate Box A: 15 pounds
- Regional Rate Box B: 20 pounds
- Regional Rate Box C: 25 pounds
Oftentimes, regional rate boxes are more cost-effective in comparison to flat rate options as the price is determined by how far the box is traveling. If you are looking at a Large Flat Rate Box, the Regional Rate Box B is likely going to be cheaper is almost the same size.
You also need to be aware of regulations that prevent you from using specific shipping services or needing additional declarations, such as shipping perfumes, nail polish, and flammable/combustible materials (like fragrance and essential oils.)
Other shipping services around the world have similar regulations on their own preprinted mailing parcels and services, so make sure to double-check the regulations for the service you plan on using for shipping handmade soap and cosmetics.
Cover your costs & make your customers happy.
Depending on your customer base and target market, you can handle shipping a multitude of ways:
- Offer free shipping & account for shipping costs in your product costs
- Offer free shipping at a set transaction amount
- Offer flat rate shipping that averages out to cover shipping costs
- Offer exact shipping charges in addition to the product cost
Whichever way you choose, you want to be sure to keep a close eye on how your shipping costs are being covered. The most common mistake newer soap companies make is not charging enough for shipping, which eats into profit - ouch!
If your customer base is price-conscious, it may be better to offer exact shipping charges so that your product prices are lower and the customer has a visual representation of the actual charges incurred through shipping. On the other hand, offering free shipping may entice a customer to order a larger dollar amount at one time to take advantage of the offer. Flat rate shipping makes it easier for you as a business owner to find an eCommerce platform without as many bells and whistles, but you may find that you are losing out on shipping costs that affect your bottom line.
If you've been in business a while, you can evaluate your current shipping practices and costs to see exactly where you stand. If you are interested in offering a free shipping incentive, find your average order dollar amount and shipping amount combined and then pad it to reach a set transaction amount for free shipping. I have found that, on average, the actual shipping amount tends to be around 15% to 20% the purchase price on handmade soap orders if the average order is around four items (if you are priced for profit!)
If you decide to go the route for offering flat rate shipping, a good starting point is to calculate the average order (let's say, three bars of soap and a lip balm) and then calculate that shipping rate for various points from your location. I was based in the midwest, so I calculated the cost of shipping to either coast and based flat rate shipping on that cost.
Go global, baby!
Shipping handmade soap internationally is really not as scary as it sounds!
The very first thing I want to address is that it's absolutely important for you to understand shipping and import regulations before you offer international shipping.
For instance, in the USA, it's common for a customer to request that you mark "gift" on a customs form when shipping outside of the country so that they can avoid any customs fees, taxes, and/or duties. Not only is this fraud (as you are sending a commercial parcel and lying about it!), but it can carry heavy consequences. If this happens to you, politely explain that you are required to follow shipping regulations!
If a customer is ordering from another country, you should note in your policies that customs fees, taxes, and/or duties are the responsibility of the receiving party. Frequent international customers know and understand that these additional costs are part of the cost of importing items they want, and they won't be too upset by it!
When shipping retail orders, you also need to be aware of import restrictions as you cannot send some common botanical and cosmetic ingredients to certain countries. You can find a list of restricted and prohibited goods (usually listed by the country you are shipping to) via your shipping service's website, such as:
- USPS’s Country Conditions
- Search restrictions by country on the Canadian Post here and here.
- UK Restricted and Prohibited Goods
- Prohibited goods list on the Australian Post website
If you are interested in shipping non-retail orders internationally, different regulations can apply. Generally, if you are wholesaling, you are responsible for following any regulations set forth by the country. If you are selling private label, contract manufacturing, or another arrangement where the responsible party lives in another country, they are responsible for complying to their own regulations.
You also want to be aware of the possibility of fraudulent order scams that come from international senders. A number of scammers prey on small businesses with fake bulk orders, hoping to land product while paying for it using a fraudulent credit card. You can read up on how to avoid these scams in a previous blog post here on Modern Soapmaking.
Streamline shipping with software and integrations.
When you first start off, you might pop over to the Post Office to ship your orders, but you'll be losing out on creating a streamlined shipping process. USPS offers a free tool to print postage directly online, as well as carrier pickup options where you don't even have to take your packages anywhere.
If you accept orders with Paypal payment, Paypal also offers a free shipping tool for your orders that makes it easy to print postage online. If you sell via Etsy, you have the option of printing postage directly within Etsy and paying for the postage from the order itself (if you use Etsy's payments system.)
Once you start shipping 20+ packages a week, I recommend moving to shipping software or eCommerce integration that will streamline shipping even further for you. Some services allow you to batch print shipping labels for many orders at one time. Others integrate with various services and venues so you can import orders from your website, Etsy, Shopify, etc., and print them all at once!
You may want to consider choosing an eCommerce platform now that will integrate with a shipping solution, later on, that way it'll be an easy transition.
Here's just a handful of those services and integrations to make shipping handmade soap & cosmetics easier:
Watch for holidays!
All shipping services observe particular national holidays, so make sure to mark your calendar with the observed postal holidays that your service uses. I can't count how many times I rushed to the Post Office to ship orders to be greeted with locked doors. ;)
Common U.S. Postal Holidays
- New Year’s Day
- Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday (observed)
- Presidents Day (observed)
- Memorial Day
- Independence Day
- Labor Day
- Columbus Day
- Veterans’ Day (observed)
- Thanksgiving Day
- Christmas Day
UPS and FedEx tend to run service on many of these holidays, so check up to see what the specific service you use has listed!
The holiday season is the biggest time where shipping handmade soap on deadlines can get a little scary. I recommend adding one or two days to any services claimed shipping time to pad your promised shipping times to customers. That way you can always over-deliver instead of under-deliver. ;)
The USPS usually releases holiday shipping deadlines via a press release in October. For reference, here are the suggested deadlines from a previous year:
- Dec. 2 – First-Class Mail International & Priority Mail International
- Dec. 10 – Priority Mail Express International
- Dec. 15 – Standard Post
- Dec. 17 – Global Express Guaranteed
- Dec. 20 – First-Class Mail & Priority Mail
- Dec. 23 – Priority Mail Express
As a business owner, I recommend adding a few days on these dates to give you time to pack and ship any remaining orders. Make sure to let your customers know the "last ship" dates for the holidays. For instance, if you always ship Priority Mail, I would cut off your domestic "holiday delivery" as December 15th to 18th (depending on your turnaround time) based on the final deadline of December 20th and your international "holiday delivery" as of November 28th.
When you are shipping handmade soap & other skin-loving goodies, you will want to stay stocked up on packaging and shipping supplies. Here are some fabulous suppliers you might want to check out to bring in the brand love, lower the chances of damages, and pretty up the presentation:
- Associated Bag - a huge variety of shipping and packaging supplies, including boxes, mailers, tape, etc.
- Bags & Bows - a large selection of retail bags, packaging, tissue paper, ribbons, bows, and gift basket supplies
- *Bayley's Boxes - boxes (and more boxes): gift boxes, soap boxes, recycled boxes, favor boxes
- *ButtonHead - custom button pins, magnets, pocket mirrors, stickers, and temporary tattoos
- City Paper Company - retail bags, gift boxes, tissue, gift wrap, ribbons, bows, tags, labels, efficiency accessories
- Creative Bag - various bags, boxes, ribbon, bakery-style packaging, tissue paper, labels, and tags
- Direct Floral - baskets and ribbons
- Eco Bags - a variety of bags (totes, shopping, string, produce, lunch, spa & travel woven, wine)
- *EcoEnclose - eco-friendly mailers, boxes, paper, cushioning, void fill, carton sealing tape, shipping labels
- Evermine - labels & stickers
- Firefly Store Solutions - bags, boxes, ribbons, tissue paper, among a ton of store displays, fixtures, and other handy items
- *For Craft's Sake - soapboxes, wood crates, shrink sleeves for soap
- GBE Packaging - shipping boxes, mailers, peanuts, padding, fillers, shipping labels, etc.
- *Got Print - custom printed marketing collateral (business cards, postcards, flyers, etc.)
- Jam Paper & Envelope - envelopes, mailers, paper, labels, gift bags, tissue paper, ribbon, shred tissue, elastic ties, colorful packing tape, gift boxes
- JC Danczak - a variety of bags, corrugated cartons, envelopes, chipboard cartons, stretch film, shrink wrap, gift packaging, retail packaging, loose-fill, papers & wraps
- Leapin' Lizard Labels - custom labels & stickers
- Lightning Labels - custom labels & stickers
- *Moo - premium custom business cards, postcards, stickers, greeting cards, etc.
- *MuslinBag - blank muslin bags with options of American made
- *Nashville Wraps - a huge array of retail shopping bags, boxes, cello bags, gift basket supplies, gift wrap, ribbon, shred & basket filler, shrink wrap, and tissue paper
- *National Shrinkwrap - shrink wrap systems & supplies, gift basket supplies.
- *Online Labels - do-it-yourself label and sticker stock for printing at home
- *Paper Mart - a huge array of retail shopping bags, boxes, cello bags, gift basket supplies, gift wrap, ribbon, shred & basket filler, shrink wrap, and tissue paper
- *PS Print - custom printed marketing collateral (business cards, postcards, flyers, stickers, etc.)
- Pure Buttons - custom pinback buttons, magnets, clips, zipper pulls, coasters, keychains
- Reasonable Ribbon - a huge variety of ribbon, bows, twine, etc.
- Ribbon Shop - a huge variety of ribbon, bows, etc. as well as custom printed ribbon
- Rubber Stamps - custom rubber stamps
- Shipping Supply - large variety of shipping essentials: boxes, mailers, padding, tape, strapping, fillers, pallet shipping supplies, etc.
- Simon's Stamps - custom rubber stamps
- Six Cent Press - custom pinback buttons, magnets, and mirrors
- Sticker Mule - custom stickers & skins
- Sticker Robot - a huge variety of custom stickers
- *Sunshine Candle & Soap Boxes - soap and candles boxes for a variety of applications
- *Sustainable Packaging Industries - eco-friendly molded pulp packaging options
- The Boxery - corrugated cardboard boxes, tape, mailers, and stretch wrap
- The Twinery - bakery twine galore
- US Box - bags & pouches, gift boxes, jewelry boxes, tissue paper, shred, labels, tags & tape, ribbon, gift basket supplies, wooden crates, mailers & shippers, shipping supplies
- Unique Expressions - custom printed pencils
- *Your Box Solution - custom and stock options of outer packaging cartons, boxes, and labels
I've personally used the suppliers notated with an asterisk (*), the rest have been recommended to me in the past. I hope that helps!
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