Once an item is sold, that's not the end of a successful business transaction! The sale is only half the equation, with safe delivery being the other half. For that reason, shipping your art with care and polish is your obligated follow–through. Indeed, a collector–base is cultivated with quality work—yes—but quality shipping methods also inspire customer satisfaction and confidence.
Quality shipping applies to everything that ships from your studio. Packages entering a carrier’s shipping system will be bumped, dropped, or beaten up by machines and circumstance. The weather will play its part, too. So even the toughest art works can be damaged if not packed adequately and securely. A “fragile” sticker on the box isn't enough! With this in mind, and some knowledge and planning in your shipping methods, you can minimize potential disaster with an unhappy customer.
That said, quality shipping isn’t just packing something safely and popping it into the mail. There are serious considerations to factor into one’s business model, such as cultivating one’s reputation, choosing an appropriate carrier, buying appropriate materials that fit a budget, and figuring out efficient time management.
To that end, this post will address those issues, and more, to help you achieve not only safer shipping, but also shipping that heightens your professional image. However, only art works of under 50 lb. will be discussed since heavier pieces usually require crating and freight, which are different subjects altogether.
Perception is Everything
The single most powerful influence on generating and maintaining sales is the perception of you and your work. If you present yourself professionally, you’ll be treated as such. If people don’t perceive your standards as investment–worthy, sales will simply dry up. Professionalism then is about follow–through, and so it must also permeate your shipping methods for each piece that leaves your studio, not just for the special ones. Quality shipping says, “I care about my art and my customer.” Remember, "A happy client is a client for life” (Rubz, 2007).
From the moment a customer purchases a piece from you to when the courier delivers it, to the instant she opens the box and unwraps her purchase, all those moments add up to a first impression she will remember. Therefore, quality shipping should be considered part of a long–term business and marketing plan because, like with all other aspects of professional life, there’s no second chance for a first impression.
Put Your Cards on the Table
It’s important to be clear about your shipping terms before a sale so that you’re organized and ready to do business properly. Subsequently, your shipping options are important because if you can utilize more than one carrier, or more than one choice of service, the more likely you’ll find a successful and cost–effective solution for each of your shipping situations.
With any sale, the customer should be informed up front of who the carrier is, what the carrier service will be, and perhaps if tracking and insurance are included or not. As for the rates of different shipping options, you should provide the customer with either fixed rates or a firm quote before the sale. For example, if you offer Express® or Overnight® service, let the customer know if this is included or if it’s an extra charge. If the latter, provide her with a quote and determine how that balance will be paid before finalizing the sale. International shipments need to be addressed similarly. If you wish to offer a discount for multiple purchases in one shipment, alert the customer about this as well.
On the other hand, making multiple adjustments for all these different situations becomes unwieldy if you have volume shipments. In this case, it’s often a better idea to distill everything into a “postage paid” price. You even can bundle these costs into two postage–paid options, domestic and international, or add a third for Express. Also consider informing customers of what’s included in the postage–paid price such as tracking, insurance, a required signature, etc. so they understand the value. Postage–paid prices also project a cleaner flow to customer relations and sales materials such as your website, taxes, brochures, receipts, or announcements. The easier and more pleasant you make the purchasing experience for the customer, the more likely she’ll become a repeat one.
Developing your shipping terms takes research and thought in order to factor in the variables and to decide what’s feasible and fair to both yourself and your buyer if those terms are tested. It’s a good idea to study the shipping terms of other artists and to talk to experienced professionals in the business for advice and guidance when formulating your own terms.
Remember that establishing your shipping charges and budget aren’t just about the postage associated with shipment. It’s about everything that went into shipping that piece from the time invested to the packing supplies to the gas involved in procuring them, or dropping the package off at a carrier’s branch. Other important factors besides rates are insurance, tracking, express options, combined shipping, etc. Be sure to research these costs and estimate them correctly so you don’t shortchange yourself or over–charge the customer. However, don’t inflate these costs, either. Remember, there are costs for doing business, and you are expected to spend money running your business, so pass savings onto the customer whenever you can. Generally speaking then, the less expensive the item, the more likely a customer will consider or debate shipping costs. High–end work usually doesn’t attract those who do, especially when those costs ensure the safest transport of their investment. Keep this dynamic in mind if you sell various items that represent different price–points.
Having all these elements in place ahead of time is more important than many artists often recognize. It allows a customer to judge for herself if doing business with you fits her expectations. It also presents a professional image for your business by reinforcing the impression that you’re organized and on top of things, which tells the customer that she’ll be cared for properly. Above all, be fair and stick to your policies and your word, even if that means additional money unexpectedly out of your own pocket. No customer appreciates “bait and switch” tactics, particularly regarding money. When you provide the customer with a quote for the shipping costs—those are the shipping costs.
An artist also should practice timely shipping. Sold items languishing for days or weeks is a problem, unless some unforeseen hardship has occurred, especially since we're the only one at the helm. Even so, a good rule of thumb is that it should be no more than four days between payment and shipment, with 24–48 hours being the ideal timeframe. In fact, most merchant accounts expect goods to be shipped immediately after a credit card has been charged, as a condition of the account contract. Fortunately, an artist can coordinate payment methods to rapid shipment by using online shipping, particularly through Paypal®. Satisfying a customer’s need to enjoy her purchase as soon as possible reinforces her positive experience with you.
Likewise, an artist is smart to adopt the philosophy of, “If it’s not ready to ship, it’s not ready to sell,” as coined by Lynn Fraley. Selling items that aren’t finished or in–hand is inviting trouble. Never set yourself up to disappoint your customer! Remember to project your time management realistically then.
Quality shipping is a commitment and an investment that speaks directly to an artist’s dedication to her work. You’ll get no second chance to get it right and there are no shortcuts—do it properly the first time.
The foundation of professional shipping is quality packing methods with quality materials. Remember—your art must reach its buyer in perfect condition to complete a successful transaction. There’s no surer way to burn a negative experience into a customer’s mind than having her much–anticipated parcel contain a marred or broken piece! After that experience, you’ll always be associated with negative memories on some level, and as they accumulate in your customer–base, the less likely those people will remain as buyers. Likewise, being presented with a sloppy, sub–par box or packing methods and materials instills an equally negative reaction in a customer's mind because you're telling them that their investment didn't warrant enough care.
So because quality packaging is crucial, it shouldn't be done with a stingy pocketbook. Cutting corners endangers art work and, by extension, endangers your reputation. There must be a willingness to make the necessary investment to do the job properly rather than on the cheap. Remember—quality shipping is a service to the customer and is part of a long–term business plan. Ultimately, it's also the most cost effective by sparing you from expensive replacements, repairs, or refunds, which is particularly important if the work is original.
Quality shipping also takes experience and careful planning; otherwise steps can be forgotten or done too hastily which will compromise safe transit. It also considers the medium being shipped since different media require different packaging and shipping strategies. For instance, shipping resins involves different tactics than shipping ceramics.
Generally speaking, your boxed sculpture should survive a drop of three feet without damage, which is coincidentally a common “drop test” some carriers use to test your packing job. Being so, quality packaging protects your art from the ten forces that conspire to destroy it during transit:
- Impact: Even in the best of circumstances, your parcel will endure varying degrees of collision. Therefore, your packing strategy must mediate these energies to avoid transmitting them onto your sculpture, and be able to withstand continued impact until it reaches its destination.
- Vibration: Especially pronounced during ground transportation, vibration will rattle a box’s contents, causing progressive structural fatigue to unprotected areas of your sculpture, rubbing and grinding of its finish, or sifting of inadequate cushioning materials which will cause the piece to become unstable within the box.
- Crushing: All carriers stack boxes, and automated systems and hurried human actions will compress your parcel, so the materials you employ must resist repeated compression so your sculpture arrives undamaged.
- Tearing: Most carriers sort packages with machines, which are unable to exercise caution with the imperfections in your packaging, causing hang–ups and torn boxes if caught in the works. So your package should be tidy and devoid of extraneous material that could get caught in automatic processes.
- Tension: The tightness of wrapping materials such as roll foam, packing plastic, tissue paper, or bubblewrap can cause damage, especially to delicate legs, ears or tendrils. Wrappings need to be snug but not tight, and they need to cushion but not pull on any part of your sculpture. The same applies to foam that's too firm and lacks the necessary give necessary for buffering impact. On the other hand, if it’s too soft it won’t offer enough protection, either.
- Temperature: Conditions that are too hot or too cold can damage certain kinds of sculpture or finishes. You can mediate this by choosing shipping services that ensure your work will be in these conditions for as little time as possible, such as same day, express, or overnight delivery. Lining the box with insulation paper can be useful by creating a thermal barrier, or using an extra large box with extra cushioning and wrapping can help create insulation.
- Temperature fluctuation: Sudden temperature changes can damage several kinds of sculpture and finishes, particularly those made from fired media or glass. Selecting ground transportation can help by permitting a slower and more moderate range of temperature change, opposed to air cargo or Air Mail, which is common with Express® or Overnight® delivery. This is because airplane transport puts your package in a cold air cargo hold, which can be particularly dangerous in summer when the ground temperatures are highest, but the package spends hours chilled at high altitude. However, some carriers have special transit conditions for temperature–sensitive art such as temperature–controlled holds and person–to–person transport, so ask the carrier about these options if your sculpture requires these conditions. Also, increasing the size of the box and the amount of cushioning material around your sculpture can help to insulate it. Note: It’s a good idea to alert your customer that a fired or glass item should sit in its box, unopened, for at least 24 hours in the customer’s home so it can come up to temperature before being immediately exposed to a new environment.
- Outgassing: Sometimes your artwork is still oxidizing or outgassing when it’s being shipped. For instance, oils take about six months to a year to dry completely. This means being hermetically sealed in unbreathable materials for extended periods, such as with shipment, particularly through conditions with temperature fluctuations, moisture or heat, can cause serious and permanent damage to your piece. In turn, packaging such works in ways that allow it to “breath,” such as using non–plastic materials touching the sculpture itself (which aren’t prone to leaving fuzz and fluff behind on the surface, or if they do, it’s easily washed off without damaging the finish) are a good idea. For example, wrapping such a piece in archival tissue paper, soft toilet paper, or new, clean, white cotton cloth before loosely bubblewrapping can create a suitable protective layer. Also, any plastic bags or bubblewrap used to encase the sculpture should have holes or vents to allow circulation so that the sculpture isn’t sealed in a chemical sauna. On that note, the bubbles on bubblewrap should face outwards so they don't leave circular impressions on the work.
- “Asterioding”: When several items in the same box aren’t stabilized properly, they can shift and bang into each other during transit. This is especially true if certain items are larger or heavier than others. Packing must be designed to eliminate this effect with proper cushioning, wedging, and even internal boxing techniques that protect all the items from each other during transit.
- Moisture: Often overlooked, moisture can compromise every aspect of your packaging from the box to the sculpture itself. Exposure can come in the form of rain, puddles, sprinklers, snow, frost, spilled drinks, and even humidity. Practically speaking, your package should withstand at least thirty minutes of moderate moisture, with your sculpture being protected even if the box begins to fail. If the media warrants, consider placing your sculpture in a new, clean plastic bag, or taped up well enough in plastic bubblewrap to waterproof it. Insulation paper also is a good idea because it helps to create a moisture barrier. Unfortunately, the moisture problem renders biodegradable packing peanuts useless because they dissolve when wet, which is why this material cannot be recommended for shipping irreplaceable art.
Now that we’ve identified the potentially destructive elements your sculpture must endure, how does a quality packing job protect it? Well, it does so in four primary ways:
- Intent: Shipping materials are designed specifically for the job. They’ve undergone testing to perform under the rigors of shipment and are the only materials suitable to ship your art. Don't substitute.
- Strength: Shipping materials are of adequate strength to resist or mediate forces it encounters, forming a protective shell around your sculpture.
- Give: When shipping materials are used properly, their design allows them “to give and take” when necessary, providing a dampening effect and the gentle cradling required for snug security. In this way, tension or pulling forces that would create cracks, warping, or other damage are minimized.
- Buffer Zone: Shipping materials are designed around the concept of a “buffer zone,” a perimeter of filled space that envelopes all sides of your sculpture. Consequently, the box should be large enough to provide ample space for well–packed cushioning material around the sculpture so there’s space to “crush into” without crushing into your sculpture. This buffer zone should be at least three inches around the entire piece (all sides, top and bottom) with more space required for fragile, large, or heavy sculptures.
A well–equipped shipping operation has some basic tools to expedite the process, particularly for printing online shipping labels.
- Shipping scale: This handy gadget allows you to take advantage of online shipping rather than having to wait in line at the shipper's outlet. It also allows you to establish more accurate cost estimates for shipping by being able to punch correct numbers into an online courtesy quote system. Depending on the expected weights you intend to ship, this item can cost you about $40-$250 (the heavier the weights, the more expensive the scale). All carriers calculate shipping costs by partly incorporating the weight of your package (in addition to size), and some carriers may even have weight limitations for certain services.
- Printer: Online shipping requires a printer to print out prepaid shipping labels. A fast printer is a good idea, since waiting for a cheap printer is inefficient. Ink jet printers are perfectly suitable for printing all the carriers’ online shipping labels. Sometimes a carrier will provide a special printer for the job such as UPS®.
- Postage labels: It's smart to invest in postage label stickers so you can simply print them then peel them off to apply to the box. They aren't expensive and can be bought from Label Universe. They really save time and create a professional polish. Get the Priority mailing ones since they can apply to Express mail, too.
- International Customs Pouches: For those boxes going overseas through the USPS, you'll have to fill out a series of customs forms on plain computer paper, cut them apart, sign them, then put them in a plastic pouch, which then goes onto the box. Having what you need on hand saves you a trip to the PO.
- Tape measure: Carriers often have size restrictions or surcharges for larger or odd–sized boxes. For example, Priority® shipping applies only to packages under 108 inches (height + width + length) and under 70 lb., but shipping with this service becomes dramatically more expensive beyond these parameters.
- Tape gun: This useful device makes tape application much easier and speeds up the chore of taping boxes, which is important for volume shipments. Its cutting blade also creates a clean edge, producing a more professional result.
The materials you choose are crucial. Each component is equally important and cannot compensate for the deficiencies of another. Once you get into the habit of choosing quality shipping supplies, the ability to rationalize lesser materials becomes increasingly difficult, a hallmark of a true professional.
Quality packaging entails the following materials, which are designed for shipping and of the best quality one can afford (and which should be factored into the sale price):
Box: The box must be up to the job, being sturdy enough to withstand the various forces for the duration of the trip. Corrugated cardboard boxes designed for shipping are adequate in most cases, and should be new and pristine. Its pressure weight, or “burst strength,” is indicated on the bottom of the box, and the contents must not exceed this limit. Single–walled boxes will do in most cases, but double–walled boxes may be necessary for fragile, large, or heavy pieces. The box should be big enough to provide ample buffering around the entire bubblewrapped sculpture, at least 3” around all sides, though a large, heavy, or delicate sculpture will require a bigger box, or double–boxing. New boxes come in two colors: white and natural brown. Either will do, but the box should be plain, with no other printing other than the technical specs on the bottom flaps.
Double–boxing is always a good idea with particularly fragile sculptures. It’s far better to have “expensive” overkill than an unhappy customer! The inner carton must be large enough to offer at least 3” of cushioning around the entire bubblewrapped sculpture and its seal must be secure. The outer box should offer at least 1” of cushioning around the entire inner box, and it also must be carefully sealed.
Cushioning material: Vibrations, impact, and compression need to be dampened, and cushioning material plays a key role while also preventing your sculpture from shifting inside the box. It can also act as an insulating layer if thick enough. The goal is snug, gentle security, so it’s important the cushioning material be neither too loosely nor too tightly packed.
Depending on your situation, you can use foam or “packing peanuts,” also called “packing popcorn.” Foam is terrific for fired media and glass by providing dependable, firm, snug support while also being useful for other kinds of sculptures. It provides a stabilized snug hold that doesn’t “sift” like improperly packed peanuts, and it’s also nice for the customer to unpack because there’s no popcorn mess. However, foam can’t be too soft or too firm—it has to be “just right” to avoid failure under the stresses of transit. Foam can be custom die–cut by a company (which is especially useful for volume items), or in the studio with an electric carving knife. However, in the case of the latter, this can cause messy tuffs that need to be picked off or trimmed, which can leave quite a mess to clean up afterwards (but it's worth it). Cutting your own foam takes a lot of time, usually making it impractical for volume shipments unless you commission custom die–cut foam. It also can be expensive, especially if custom die–cut, unless you’re able to obtain significant discounts with a volume purchase. Yet it’s usually the question of storage that’s the biggest challenge for most artists because this bulky material should be kept pristine and flat.
A viable alternative for most pieces are packing peanuts, which can be used quickly in an assembly–line fashion and are comparatively cheap and readily available. The peanuts should be new, clean, and not be intermixed with other packing substances (like shredded paper, wadded newspaper, raffia, foam chunks, etc.). Peanuts also shouldn’t be the dissolving biodegradable kind when it can be avoided. Peanuts often come in different shapes and different colors: white, green, blue or pink. However, stick with only one type and one color per box; mixing different kinds of peanuts doesn’t create a professional look to your packaging. Enough peanuts should fill all the empty spaces and be packed dense enough so that vibrations won’t cause them to “sift” and open up unwanted space inside the box, but they cannot be so densely packed as to cause tension or pressure on the sculpture when the box is sealed. A good way to tell is:
- Overfill the box with peanuts, to just beyond the top rim of the box (where the top flaps hinge with the body of the box).
- Grab the top flaps of the box and gently tap it on the table surface to “sift” loosely packed peanuts down to be level with the top rim. Add additional peanuts to achieve this, if necessary.
- Gently close the first layer of box flaps. If they close squarely and level with no need to “crunch” and you gently can shake the box with no sound of rattling or shifting, you have the proper amount and pack density of peanuts. However, if the flaps cannot be closed without having to apply pressure, scoop out some peanuts and try again. On the other hand, if the flaps cave into the box, dipping below the top rim, add more peanuts. If at any time you can still hear rattling inside the box when you gently shake it, you need to re–tap the box on the table top and make adjustments to the peanut content, or you may need to repack the entire contents in case something is unstable.
Bubblewrap: This customary material is an unsurpassed absorber of vibration, compression and impact. If taped up completely, it also can be made waterproof. Bubblewrap also adds mass around the sculpture, helping to lock it into place if packed snugly with peanuts.
Bubblewrap comes in two basic types based on the height of the bubble: 1/2” bubble (the big bubble type) and 3/16” bubble (the small bubble type). There’s also a medium bubble of 5/16”, but this is more rare. Bubblewrap comes in different sheets: long “runners” or broad panels. You will need to choose which type is best for your particular sculpture. A general rule of thumb is that the 1/2” bubble is best for items larger than 4” x 4” and the 3/16” bubble is best for smaller sculptures. The small bubble version often is offered as bags which can be taped shut (or are self–sealing) to create a waterproof sack. Your sculpture should be packed with at least two layers of 1/2” bubblewrap or three layers of 3/16” bubblewrap, and both types can be used as different layers. All items in the box should be covered in bubblewrap.
Some artists choose to pack their sculptures with the flat side of the bubblewrap facing in, while others choose to have the flat side facing out. While either way works, the bubbles are more prone to pop in transit when facing outwards, which can cause vulnerabilities in what is supposed to be a protective shield. However, some sculptures warrant a bubble that faces out, like those that are still de–gassing. Bubblewrap comes in different colors from clear, red, blue, pink, and even with printed patterns (pink bubble wrap is static–free and is meant for packing electronic equipment). For a professional appearance, avoid patterns and choose one color. Like with peanuts, intermixing bubblewrap looks amateurish.
Additional Cushioning: Some artists use soft tissue paper or toilet paper to wrap delicate ears, legs and tendrils, or to “mummify” the entire sculpture in a snug, protective blanket. The reason is that bubblewrap can sweat a sticky, oily substance when exposed to heat, as reported by Christiane Fischer, chief executive officer for AXA Art Insurance (Preston, 2006), which permanently could damage the finish of your piece if not adequately protected.
Tissue paper should be acid–free (archival) and toilet paper should be new, soft, and without embedded lotions. This step can be beneficial by not only protecting the finish, but also by padding strategic areas that may require a soft cocoon of extra protection. Another useful strategy is to build up the wrapping around sturdy areas like the torso, to create a supportive bulge that can lift the weight of the piece off the surface (when on its side) so that pressure is avoided on vulnerable areas, such as legs or tendrils. This technique is quite helpful with pieces permanently attached to bases, to remove shear pressure between the base and the legs in order to avoid breakage or warping. Wrapping can also be used with foam, or to wrap strategic strips or blocks of foam to specific areas to either stabilize or protect them such as under the tail or the ears.
The important thing to remember with wrapping is to avoid tension. Like a properly wrapped horse’s leg, the wrap on a sculpture should be snug and set, but should never pull or squeeze. Wrapping with tension is the primary reason why ears, legs, and tendrils crack, warp, or snap in transit. A proper wrap can shift up and down with moderate finger pressure, but stay in place nonetheless and not exert a squeeze on the wrapped area, or a pull between connective transitions. It takes practice to get the “feel” for applying a good wrap just right and a handy way to practice is to wrap your own finger: if you can avoid creating a tourniquet, but still moderately bend your finger without the wrapping coming loose or undone, the wrap is correct. Wrapping can be secured by tucking the loose end underneath existing layers, or fixed down with clear cellophane tape. Tip: A useful trick is to attach an inexpensive toilet paper dispenser to a flat surface or wall at your packing station so that inappropriate tension isn’t inadvertently created as you fight an unruly loose roll.
Thin foam sheets also can be used for wrapping, but they tend not to pack as securely as desired, which can tempt you to wrap too tightly. So it’s best to avoid this material, particularly when wrapping delicate areas such as legs, ears, and tendrils. Wrapped foam also has been known to stick to the surface of cold–painted finishes which can cause permanent damage.
Affixing peanuts over the ears or around tendrils with rubber bands can be used, but be careful the bands don’t cause tension or snap into a new position to cause damage. If they sweat, they can also leave a sticky residue on the finish. As a compromise, this technique can be used over toilet paper wrapping.
If you’re shipping something hollow like a vase or bowl, it’s a good idea to pack the hollow area with peanuts, archival tissue, or foam before bubblewrapping in order to dampen vibrations or shock. If you’re packing a good–sized trinket box or similar item, remove the lid and pack it as two separate items in the same box. Gift boxes with hinged lids either can be locked and packed snugly shut, or left unlocked and the two halves separated by a thin sheet of foam or thin, cushiony fabric, then wrapped snugly closed so that vibrations don’t cause damage to the finish or locking mechanism. If there's a key, wrap that in bubble wrap, and secure it outside of the box with tape so it won't bounce around inside the box during shipment. Items that are small and light, however, usually can be wrapped snugly as one unit, since it’s more a factor of shifting weight that causes damage to such items.
Additional Stabilizers: Some sculptures may require additional stabilizers under or around portions that are “free floating” off the body, to create a wedge of support between these areas and the body. For example, disconnected tails with a narrow dock do well with a custom cut chunk of foam inserted into the open space and then wrapped as a whole unit for stabilization.
Sometimes peanuts aren’t enough to stabilize your sculpture inside the box, usually because the sculpture’s size or weight could make it prone to shifting if bumped hard enough. In this case, cutting chunks of foam, or using rolled up bubblewrap to wedge your sculpture into the box is required. These securing wedges need to be placed around the sculpture in a way to secure it when on its side (on all its sides, top and bottom), and placed so that pressure is placed only on those areas sturdy enough to withstand these forces (typically the topline, haunches, belly, and chest). Also, the wedges themselves need to be fixed down so they don’t shift, which would alter their orientations and put pressure on inappropriate areas, or destabilize your sculpture altogether.
A piece with detachable components, like a base, should be removed and bubblewrapped separately. The same should be done to each item in a combined shipment if you’re shipping several different pieces together in one box.
Placement: Your sculpture should be centered inside the box. Multiple pieces should be positioned to form a center mass, with enough cushioning between them to avoid damage. Use wedging foam or bubblewrap to further stabilize the pieces, if necessary.
It’s a good idea to place the largest or heaviest pieces as a bottom layer, with smaller or lighter pieces as a top layer. Be sure to put a layer of cushioning or stabilizing material between each layer. If you’re packing a heavy item with a fragile or smaller item, it’s better to either send them as separate shipments, or pack the vulnerable item in a separate, sturdy box in with the heavier item. This separate box should be packed on top of the heavy item, with the same care and plenty of cushioning and stabilizing material between the layers. Remember, your art should not only be protected from outside forces, but also from effects that can happen inside the box.
Tape: Only use tape designed for shipping such as 2” pressure–sensitive plastic shipping tape, nylon–reinforced paper tape, or nylon-reinforced water–activiated paper tape (a least 3” wide of 60 lb. grade). All seams on the box should be sealed with tape. A flat, neat, strong seal is important not just for looks, but to maximize the adhering surface area, so tape should be applied in a smooth, orderly way, and be centered on the seams. When quality materials have been used properly, there’s no need to create a web of packing tape all over your box. Remember, one overdone aspect cannot compensate for inadequacies elsewhere! Plus, the rampant use of tape looks amateurish and makes opening the box frustrating for the customer.
If the contents are heavy, or if the box is large, the center top and bottom seams should be reinforced with an extra tape layer, or with additional reinforcing parallel straps. Sometimes a reinforcing “girth” or two of tape around the entire box, in one or both directions, may be necessary.
As for bubblewrap, it should be neatly and securely taped with packing tape, cellophane tape or even low–tack painter’s tape (which makes removal by the customer quick and easy). Bubblewrap pouches should be taped closed. You may need to fold the pouch to make the item more snug within the protective sack, which can be done at the same time it's taped closed.
If warranted, separate items can be taped together into one “chunk,” which makes the mass easier to wedge into place, and more secure. Orient the chunk so that the sturdiest or heaviest portions are on the bottom. However, only do this if the pieces are of similar size and weight so they won’t cause uneven shearing between each other.
Receipt: Sometimes it's necessary for the customer to receive a receipt for the purchase inside the box, or attached outside the box in a packing slip self–sticking pouch. The receipt should contain your full name, studio name, address, phone number, email address and website (if applicable), along with the customer’s full name and mailing address, information about the itemized purchases to include quantity, item price, and total, with shipping and/or tax indicated. You also can include a “notes” area to add commentary or payment transaction numbers. However, some cart systems automate the receipt process, which can be printed out by the customer and provide you with an itemized order inventory. If this is the case, you have a choice to include an additional receipt in the box, or omit it and have the customer print out her own from the system.
Having some sort of receipt for the transaction is imperative. It’s not just a professional standard; if you’ve insured the sculpture, a receipt will be necessary to file a claim. While you can use receipt books available in office supply stores, it’s best to use a software program to standardize and “brand” your receipt, and to input the necessary information easily. Many professionals use FileMaker Pro® which is a useful software program for this purpose. However, you also can create your own template in a word processing program, though processing receipts this way is more time–consuming and not recommended. Many shipping services also provide a receipt for you, such as Paypal or USPS, as well.
Shipping label: The shipping label should have not only the designated destination, but also the return address in case delivery fails. The label’s information must be correct, complete, and clearly printed so it’s easy to read. It must contain the customer’s complete name and complete mailing address (street, city, state and zip, including any unit or apartment numbers, correct street designations such as “Ave.,” “Blvd.,” “Court,” “Street,” or “Hwy,” as well as correct directional designations, such as “N,” “E,” or “NW”) as well as your complete address, with similar attention to directional detail. For overseas shipping, the label also must contain the correct province, postal codes, and the country and be consistent to any eccentrics of mailing conventions in certain countries (such as in the UK—one of my favorite lines in an actual address to the UK was, “The white cottage by the creek."). The delivery and return addresses should be the only addresses on the box.
If you can, avoid placing the shipping label over a box seam in case the seal is compromised, or if customs has to open the box. To avoid confusion, the mailing address and bar code on a shipping label should be flat and appear faceside up on the box, after the final sealing, and not bend around corners. To prevent smudging, it’s a good idea to place a a strip of clear packing tape over the delivery and return addresses on the label. Do not place tape over bar codes or other machine–based codes since the tape will interfere with the scanning equipment.
While you can hand–write a shipping label, this is considered unprofessional because it’s prone to misinterpretation through handwriting idiosynchracies. It’s also a waste of your precious time. New technology and services allow you to print a clear shipping label on templated shipping label stickers, so make use of them.
Insurance: For most art shipments, purchasing insurance for your package is a good idea, but be sure to be clear on the terms of insurance for each carrier and with the service you choose since different limitations will apply. You also should be clear with the customer as to whether insurance is optional, mandatory, or already included in the price. However, you might consider carrying your own insurance for shipping your art, especially if you routinely ship high–end works since all three carriers don’t have perfect records for paying out insured compensation or how quickly it was completed. Plus, the liability limitations provided by the carriers may not be suitable for your needs.
It’s important to know that not all carriers, or their services, are created equal for shipping art. Inquire about your specific situation before making a choice for your shipment because different types of pieces often require different carriers or different services. It’s very important to be clear on this subject for your specific shipment; otherwise you will not be reimbursed for the full value of your sculpture even if you paid for additional coverage. For example, FedEx® only will pay out $100 even if you entered a “declared value” of $500 because “declared value” is not the same as “insured value.” Know the differences between carriers and their services, as well as know the meaning of their terminology, too. Call the 800 number and ask specific questions, if needed, to make a sound choice for your situation.
You should insure your sculpture for its actual retail replacement value. In other words, if you had to refund the customer the full amount indicated on the receipt, that’s the amount of insurance you should purchase (keep in mind that insurance will not cover shipping costs). However, sometimes the system won’t allow you to insure for the full value (for example, online overseas shipping has an insured limit of $400), in which case you may want to carry your own insurance to cover the balance if it’s significant enough. On the other hand, insuring the piece for more than its retail value is fraud. The carrier only will reimburse you for the amount indicated on the receipt, even if you purchased more insurance or inflated the value on the insurance forms. Nevertheless, UPS® tends to be “art friendly” and carries rather high–insured liability with certain services, often making it a good choice for such items. Yet if your piece exceeds an insured limitation by a significant amount, it’s best to seek a specialized carrier in transporting high–ticket art altogether and carrying your own insurance.
Shipping quickly also has benefits, including a fixed amount of included insurance. For example, same day or express shipping ensures your sculpture won’t sit in a warehouse or be handled too much by machines, but be on the truck or plane quickly and handled by people through most (if not all) of the shipping process. Generally speaking, the less time your sculpture spends in transit, the safer it is. Also, some carriers are more specialized shipping high–ticket art such as UPS® and FedEx®, so inquire about their special services for such shipments. If their terms aren’t agreeable, your next option would be a carrier service specializing in shipping art work, which will be more expensive, but a better choice if your shipment warrants this treatment.
With insurance you will have to prove you not only performed a competent packing job, but also prove the value of the piece. Consequently, quality shipping for all insured packages is crucial. Any sculpture worth insuring is worth packing correctly! Indeed, when filing a claim, the first thing both the customer and the carrier will analyze is your packing job. Inadequate packaging will cause your claim to be rejected outright, even if you purchased insurance. In other words, you have to prove that liability rests with the carrier due to mishandling or negligence, and the evidence against them should be clear and irrefutable. Therefore, you may want to take a photo of your sculpture all packed up for shipping, to demonstrate a quality packing job prior to shipment. A decent digital camera is a handy tool for that purpose. This is especially important if you’re shipping an original or particularly expensive piece. You will also need to provide a receipt of the purchase, and perhaps an auction printout, as well. Be sure to keep your shipping receipt and all insurance and tracking documentation handy until your customer confirms she has received the item in satisfactory condition.
In addition, policies and required documentation to file a claim vary between carriers and between countries, so be informed of these matters before you ship. Different carriers have different filing periods when claims are accepted or when they expire, too, and sometimes even different filing periods for either damage or a total loss. For example, USPS® has a 60 day limit for filing for damage, but won’t accept claims sooner than 21 days or later than 180 days for a total loss claim.
If the unthinkable happens, take all the purchasing, shipping, packing, and insurance documentation for that package to the carrier’s local branch because it’s often better to work with an actual person than someone over the phone or online. If you sent your box directly through the carrier, you’ll have to file the claim yourself. However, one particularly handy feature of some private “depot” branches, like the UPS Store® or Postal Annex®, is that they’ll file the claim for you if you sent the package from their store. It’s important that communication be good between you and the customer if you need to instruct her on how to proceed from her end, so be professional and friendly. Remain courteous and good–natured with the carrier, too, because you don’t want to poison the situation with bad feelings. That fact is that “Murphy’s Law” is always at work, as inevitably things go wrong even under the best of circumstances. This is a fact of life you must be prepared to deal with professionally and personally.
When filing a claim, there are different ways to tackle the initial steps:
- The artist can make the customer solely responsible for filing the claim, meaning that the artist would provide copies of all the documentation to the buyer and leave the buyer to deal with the issue.
- The artist deals with the problem herself. She would work with the carrier and customer to have the piece taken out of the customer’s care. This means that the customer probably will have to take the damaged item to her local carrier’s branch to place it in their hands, though sometimes the carrier can pick it up upon request (or the carrier may require a different procedure altogether). Be sure to get a receipt or some form of proof that your sculpture is now in the claims system and no longer in the customer’s hands.
- The artist and customer work together to file a claim, mutually deciding on the most agreeable plan of action. This is only suitable for situations in which the artist has a long, good relationship with the customer.
- Sometimes the carrier will make the decision for you, since it may opt to deal only with you, or only with the recipient.
There’s also the issue of the claims payment—who gets it? This is an important question, particularly since carriers can take their time issuing payment. There are two options:
- If the artist chooses to make the customer solely responsible for filing a claim, it also means the customer should receive the claims payment directly from the carrier (essentially a refund from a third party). However, this practice forces the customer to wait for a refund on a damaged purchase in which she had no control. Ensuring safe delivery to the customer is the artist’s responsibility, not the customer’s! It’s also bad for business because this situation will make a customer less prone to do business with you again.
- The artist takes on the responsibility of filing the claim and issues an immediate full refund to the customer (with or without postage, depending on her policies). She then waits to be reimbursed by the carrier’s claim payment. This is the professional approach and the reason why is that it’s important not to consider the customer’s payment “yours” until you have confirmation from her that her purchase arrived safely. Until the art piece is in the buyer’s hands safe and sound, it’s not your money.
There’s also the option of immediately sending a replacement in exchange for the damaged piece if the item is part of an edition. However, if it’ll take more than five days to issue a replacement, it’s probably best to issue a full refund, even if the customer is willing to wait. Remember, you aren’t a bank or a safe deposit box, which is exactly the role you assume when you sit on someone’s money. That’s a dangerous position for an artist, especially if she’s a sole proprietorship. For example, how will that customer’s purchase or money be replaced if something happens to you, or your ability to issue a replacement or refund? The customer has the right to demand a refund at any time, and you are obligated to provide that as soon as possible, if not immediately. Therefore, isn’t it better to simply issue a full refund when you actually have that payment on hand already to return?
An artist also should be aware that some carriers may not accept broken items for a return when filing a claim. For instance, USPS® usually won’t accept “hazardous materials” such as broken glass or sheared metal as a return for a claim. Some carriers also may not return your broken sculpture when you file a claim, but confiscate and destroy it. This has compelled some artists to refrain from purchasing insurance altogether, and opting only for tracking numbers instead. Similarly, other artists insure the sculpture only for projected repair fees, since most customers would rather have a repaired sculpture than none at all, especially if the piece is an original.
Unfortunately, keep in mind that certain carriers can be more problematic when paying insurance claims while others are far more straightforward. For example, the USPS® usually pays out insurance claims within 30 days whereas private carriers can take months or even years! So do your research and solicit personal experiences from other artists while keeping in mind that all situations are a function of individual experience and regional differences. There is no perfect system and shipping your art is inherently risky despite all your precautions.
Tracking Numbers: It’s always a good idea to purchase a tracking code for your shipment, and especially so for an insured package. Fortunately, UPS® and FedEx® provide free tracking codes whether shipped online or from the counter. However, while online USPS® shipping provides a free tracking code (“Delivery Confirmation®”), it must be purchased separately if you ship from the counter. Tracking not only allows you and your customer to keep tabs on the shipment (usually through online conduits), but you’ll also know whether the shipment is truly lost and filing a claim is in order.
Direct Signature: Sometimes requesting a direct signature is necessary, and all major carriers offer this option (sometimes at an additional fee), or it may be included with certain insured amounts on a shipment. If you wish to use this extra level of confirmation, it certainly won’t hurt. However, keep in mind that certain carriers automatically require a direct signature with an insured package such as the USPS®.
With an ever–globalizing market, it’s smart for an artist to offer international shipping, and with today’s improved technology and online services, it’s now simple, fast, and easily done from the studio.
International shipping does cost more, so customers should be informed that extra payment may be required, either through an invoiced balance or with an International postage paid rate. Be aware that most auction site shipping calculators don’t have international shipping rates, or those rates aren’t accurate. Therefore, it’s better to use a carrier’s online “courtesy quote” service to calculate the estimated amount.
You’ll have to fill out customs forms for every international package and be sure to complete them accurately. These customs forms are available at the carriers’ branch offices, or can be printed online at each carriers’ website. You'll also need the customs plastic pouches to put those forms in, which are available from the USPS store for free. Shipping options differ between countries, but most commonly involve a form of air mail, registered air mail, global priority, and express mail. Keep in mind, however, that international shipping usually takes more time than domestic shipping to get to its destination, so be sure to manage your customer’s expectations.
It’s important not to make light of filling out the customs forms accurately because customs allow each country to collect taxes or duties, or enforce trade laws and regulations. Unfortunately, some people may want to avoid paying the associated fees their country imposes, and request that you claim the piece as a “gift” or claim less than its value on the custom form. Acquiescing to this request is unprofessional and dangerous because it’s illegal. Customs agents constantly are opening packages for random checks to inspect receipts and packing slips, and if there’s a discrepancy, who’s the one who’ll get the blame? You! No sale is worth compromising your good name and legal standing, and an artist should reconsider a purchase if this customs “favor” is demanded.
There are other things to consider in your shipping process, as follows:
- If you choose not to use online shipping, then use a software program to design your own shipping label. Common word processing software often has templates for shipping labels, and various sticker templates for shipping labels are available at office supply stores. It's more professional than a handwritten label.
- Double–box your sculpture if the piece demands it, particularly for original works, fragile works, including ceramic and glass pieces.
- Include a card with the delivery and return addresses printed on it if you wish to add another layer of assurance that your sculpture will arrive to the customer. Put it face up on the top of the contents before you seal the box. You may want to include your phone number on this card as well.
- When sealing bubblewrap, you can create “pull tabs” in the tape by doubling it over, to show the customer where the tape can be pulled to remove it. However, only use this method for tape that can be removed easily, such as painter’s or cellophane tape. Otherwise the force needed to pull a tenacious strip of tape could cause pulling on your sculpture, possibly damaging it.
- Sometimes you may need to use corrugated cardboard dividers to stabilize or separate items. Don’t use cut up boxes for this, but buy these dividers separately so they’re up to the job and look professional. When running from the bottom of the box to the top and stabilized against shifting, these dividers also can be useful for resisting downward crushing forces by creating internal supportive “pillars.”
- Some artists ship their originals in metal carrying cases (most often aluminum) outfitted with custom cut foam, which is included in the sales price. The sculpture is placed inside the case, which then is boxed and shipped, providing unsurpassed protection, providing tension and vibration factors have been eliminated. This also gives the customer a permanent means to store or transport her sculpture should the need arise.
- Consider scheduling a routine shipping day to maximize your time management if you need this predictability in your calendar. However, keep in mind the conditions of some merchant services require a credit card purchase to be shipped within a certain timeframe.
The considerations for packing don’t end there! Some extra steps included in the shipment can add a professional and personal touch that tell the customer her individual sale was important. Remember, how you regard your work and your customer are revealed in how you ship your art. To that end, some extra touches that promote a positive image are:
- Pamphlets: Creating a nice pamphlet about the piece is a basic addition. This pamphlet can talk about the inspiration and creative methods that went into the piece, along with any technical information. It should be new, pristine, well–designed in an appropriate software program, and professionally printed. It should contain your contact information, the title of the piece, dimensions and any other pertinent information such as social media contacts and your website. It should reflect your branding, but can be tailored to the unique “feel” of the piece it describes, with paper choice, ink choice, and chosen fonts lending a tailored style. You can even have an image of the piece printed on it.
- Business cards: Popping a couple of your current business cards in the box with the sculpture is a good idea. This keeps your contact information handy for the customer’s future use, and she may even share it with like–minded collectors. Have them professionally printed in color, ideally with a glossy finish. Try to avoid printing them at home on your computer since this tells the customer you work on the cheap.
- Postcards: These make a great format to write a "thank you" note to the customer. It can feature your current or past work, and contact your contact information and branding. Make sure it looks polished and sophisticated, having been designed in a software program and professionally printed. Sometimes customers will collect your postcards, too.
- Brochures: Information about your available work is smart to include in the box so that the customer has it on hand to either keep or share with a friend. Brochures should be current, pristine, professionally–designed and printed, and contain your contact information and website. A nice photo of you is a nice touch.
- “Thank You” note: If not on a postcard, including a handwritten “thank you” note is a wonderful idea. This may be impractical for volume shipments, yet it can add a friendly touch to a specialty or original piece.
- Stickers: Having stickers made up with your studio branding are a cool touch. They can be applied to the box to “brand” your box, or placed on the inner wrappings to add that extra flair.
- Hangtags: For certain items, nice hangtags are a nice touch. These tags can pertain to the inspiration of the piece and should communicate the item’s title and details. Tags should be pristine, well–designed, and professionally printed and be consistent to your branding. For vulnerable finishes, the thread shouldn’t be abrasive (like some metallic threads), but be of soft cotton or other similar material. Often, designing a business card for this purpose works well. Just punch a hole on one end for the thread.
- Custom stamped, or “hot–stamped” box: Getting custom boxes with your branding stamped onto them is an excellent touch for your shipments, and cheaper than you might think. You also can have rubber stamps made with your logo and studio name, and use ink pads to stamp your own boxes (or bags). Stickers can also be used for this purpose, provided they’re big enough.
- Certificate of Authenticity (COA): Some pieces may warrant a COA, which many customers appreciate. It should be pristine, well–designed, and bear your branding, signature, and an image of the piece it authenticates, along with any edition numbers or other details about the piece.
- Redeemable coupon: You may want to include some sort of promotional discount for some items, especially if you depend on volume sales of gift items. A “rewards program” for repeat customers may also be a good strategic move if your volume sales warrant it.
- A questionnaire card: In order to collect direct feedback from a customer’s experience and also to show the customer that her satisfaction matters to you, include a comment card that rates her experience with you. This card should be postage–paid and be easy and quick for the customer to fill out (like a scorecard format) and return to you. Learning how you can improve your service to customers, particularly with first–time buyers, is invaluable towards increasing your selling success.
- Promotionals: Flyers or postcards regarding your upcoming new pieces, exhibitions, sales, or special offers are useful items to include in the box. Perhaps even “teaser” images of new works could pique the customer’s interest and compel her to share it with a friend.
- Presentation box: A decorative touch for a special piece, a presentation box sets off your work by boosting customer perception and providing an additional layer of protection. The box should be designed specifically for presentation—it should be attractive as well as sturdy. Jewelry boxes work well for flat sculpture work, such as medallions, plaques, tiles, ornaments, etc., while hat boxes, fabric, or leather–covered decorative boxes can work for sculptures. The presentation box must be pristine and sized to provide enough cushioning, yet not so big as to be unwieldy. To that end, consider custom–fitted foam that's covered with safe, soft beautiful fabric (velvet, velour, satin) in a complementary color to fit around the piece like a cradle, creating a stunning first impression when the lid is lifted. This is especially nice for original works. A presentation box also provides the buyer with a permanent, safe way to store or transport the piece, too. For shipping, this presentation box can be boxed and shipped, or it can be boxed, then double–boxed, depending on what you believe is necessary. Studying how other artists package their art can provide some inspiring and valuable insights for your own applications.
- Retail packaging: For volume giftware and collectible pieces, retail packaging can be ordered from specialized companies, and include custom plastic insert trays, die–cut foam, and “branded” boxes, even with “peek–a–boo” windows. Self–sealing cellophane baggies are a great choice for giftware and chachkis, too. This option is a good timesaving strategy as well as a great touch by validating the value of that collectible. It also looks attractive, making that person feel good giving it as a gift as well.
Choosing a shipping partner is no small matter. You’re entrusting your work and your good reputation to someone else and need the assurance the service will be handled properly. You also need to be mindful of your budget because shipping costs add up quickly during the year, becoming a significant portion of your yearly budget. According to a 2005 survey by Parcel Shipping and Distribution, the issue of cost was the primary concern when shopping for carriers, with on–time delivery and service standards coming in a distant second and third, respectively speaking (Crane, 2006). Because proper shipping is costly, it must be factored into the budget for your business—and it’s not an item on which to skimp!
There are three major carriers in the U.S. an artist can use: USPS®, UPS® and FedEx®. If your shipment weighs less than 250 lb., one of these three carriers is a good choice. Which you choose, however, depends on the service and rate that fit your shipment best, since each carrier has several options. Research each carrier to familiarize yourself with their cost comparisons, limitations, services, and especially their strong and weak points.
Practically speaking, it’s not a bad idea to set up accounts with all three carriers. There’s no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of all the combined options they offer and have the online ability to use them. All three carriers have ample branches throughout the U.S. and offer very sophisticated and full online shipping services for your convenience. They offer free shipping supplies you can order online and have delivered to your studio, too. All three offer pickup service for your shipments, so you never even have to leave your studio! Fortunately, none of them require a minimum shipment in order to take advantage of their online shipping services or to hold an account, or even to schedule a pickup, each one having a “pay as you go” account option. In other words, anyone can take advantage of their systems, even just for one package!
A self–employed artist must live according to a very simple equation: time = money. Consequently, an artist who doesn’t take full advantage of a carrier’s online shipping system and convenience–based shipping services isn’t operating efficiently, particularly if she has volume sales. Every minute you spend in your car or wait in line is time wasted and money out of your wallet. Added up, all those hours could be used far better in the studio or making business connections. Plus, with the rising price of gasoline, why waste even more money doing something the carrier would do anyway? Additionally, online shipping is often cheaper than shipping from the counter. For example, Delivery Confirmation® is included in all online USPS® shipping, but is an extra charge at the counter. Also, the technology associated with online shipping eliminates errors in delivery addresses because all carriers have automatic address checks before your label is even printed. Even better, online shipping sends email notices to the recipient with all the information she’ll need to track her package, eliminating that step for you, or the “where’s my package?” emails from the customer. The prepaid printed shipping labels also look professional, particularly in comparison to handwritten labels, and advertise that you’re a legitimate business. Undeniably, with all the unparalleled benefits offered by online shipping, the professional artist understands it’s the intelligent answer to cost and time management issues that also speaks of professionalism to her customers.
In order to use these online shipping services, you’ll need:
- A printer to print the labels. Ask the carrier first if it requires its own special printer or if your own will do.
- White paper or special templated stickers, available through the carrier or from label companies.
- For FedEx®, you’ll need “air bill” self–adhesive pouches to insert the printed labels, and for USPS®, special pouches for customs forms. Both are available at no cost from the respective carrier and can be delivered to your studio at no cost.
- Clean, plain boxes since a carrier will not ship boxes printed with a competitor’s branding. Each also tends to disapprove of used boxes, or boxes not designed for shipping. UPS® can be picky with the quality of the boxes in their system, so adopt their standards.
- Plain tape, since none of these carriers will accept preprinted competitor’s tape.
It’s important to check with each carrier about the specifics regarding your particular shipment, because each carrier has its own strengths and weaknesses that may be pertinent to your situation. Each also has different benefits, limitations and surcharges, particularly for odd–shaped, heavy or odd–sized packages. For example, FedEx® and UPS® reserve the right to apply dimensional weight surcharges to packages for air shipment. And once you start using the systems, you'll begin to amass a mental library of their requirements and limitations, making their use even easier.
Here are some basic details on each carrier, to serve as a “starting point” for your own investigations based on your own needs:
- USPS® (United States Postal Service): Previously the least expensive of the three options, but now postal increases have made the private carriers either cheaper or comparable. However, the USPS® is often still the best cost option for small–sized shipments. Delivery is reliable, but not always consistent as promised by the guarantee. Home pickup service can be spotty, since some circumstances require you leave your packages out by the curb, which is inappropriate for shipping art. Always give the box directly to the mail carrier. Customer service sometimes can be slow, especially in heavily–populated areas, and their online system can be counterintuitive (but once your get the hang of it, it’s not bad). Their tracking system isn’t as sophisticated as either FedEx® or UPS®, but their insurance processing generally tends to be faster. Delivery Confirmation® is included with all online shipping, but insurance for most shipping options must be purchased separately at an extra cost. Priority Mail® tends to be the best buy for speedy shipping, but if your package exceeds the size and weight dimension limits for this service, the rates skyrocket, making Express® or other carriers more competitively priced. USPS offers free shipping supplies along with free supplies for Priority Mail® and Express Overnight® mail, which can be found on the website and delivered, or obtained from a USPS branch. It also offers Priority Mail boxes called "Priority Mail Flat Rate" boxes with a flat fee dependent on size, regardless of weight or destination—whatever you can fit into that box will ship for that amount. Another handy aspect is that the USPS® is partnered with eBay® and Paypal®, allowing you to ship with this carrier directly from Paypal®.
- UPS® (United Parcel Service): A private carrier with myriad services, particularly for small business. UPS® also is partnered with Paypal®, which is very handy as an alternative carrier to USPS® in this system. UPS® is generally the best choice for large or heavy shipments, and their tracking and delivery record are superior to the USPS®. Insurance claims can be spotty, however. UPS® also has very clear rules for packaging a shipment, and may open your box to inspect it for adhering to its standards. If your packing job isn’t “up to snuff,” they'll refuse service to you. UPS® is a superior choice for shipping originals and high–priced works, with much better handling practices and insurance coverage, and it even offers special accommodations, such as hitching a trailer at no additional cost to facilitate your large pickups. Customer service is good, and their online system is easy to use. However, keep in mind that UPS® cannot ship to P.O. boxes.
- FedEx® (Federal Express): Seems to be the best tracking, delivery, and pickup service available. The options are plentiful (you won’t find a more reliable or varied menu of Express® options) and the delivery guarantees are trustworthy. They also have the most sophisticated tracking system for your parcel that exceeds both the USPS® and UPS®—every mile of your package is accounted for on its journey. Their Ground® service is comparable to UPS Ground® or USPS Priority Mail®, and is often cheaper than either for packages three pounds or over and of about 14’ x 14" x 14." However, beyond those general parameters, prices significantly increase, plus all Express® options are usually the most costly of all three carriers. Nonetheless, pickups are unsurpassed—they consistently ring the doorbell and can even follow rather complicated directions to pick up a hidden package. FedEx® also is able to correct your shipping mistakes “on the fly,” such as making a new label for your misdirected shipment, picking it up and sending it to its correct address, all over the phone and independently of the customer. Customer service is exceptional and their online system is very easy to use, with a robust personalized address book (up to 3000 addresses) that makes shipping even faster. FedEx® has free shipping supplies, even odd–shaped boxes, which can be obtained from any FedEx® location or ordered online (or over the phone) and delivered to your studio. FedEx® also offers special shipping conditions for art such as its White Glove Services® with special handling and cargo transit. However, insurance through FedEx® is its weak point, so be very clear on their insurance terms before choosing to ship through them. FedEx® is best for volume pieces that can be replaced, but not for shipping originals or high–priced works, generally speaking. FedEx® ships everywhere, except for places prohibited by the U.S. government (such as North Korea and Cuba), and like UPS®, doesn’t ship to P.O. boxes.
- Paypal®: This online “banking” system now can be regarded as a shipper of sorts, since you now can print all UPSP® and UPS® shipping labels through their website, even customs forms. You can use the “print mailing label” directly from the Paypal® sale, or use the “Multi–Order Shipping” option under “Merchant Services” to create brand new labels independent of a Paypal® sale. Your Paypal® account, or connected bank or credit card, is debited and the label is printed out just like with the carrier’s own system. Unfortunately, there are some weak points that don’t always make this a good first choice. First, there’s no personal address book available, which means that in Multi–Order Shipping® each new address must be hand–entered, which is a big time–sink for volume shipments not paid through Paypal®. Also, you cannot create international shipments through Multi–Order Shipping, so you’ll have to visit another carrier’s website to complete that shipment. Plus, the dimensional or weight options for sending a large envelope don’t exist, so you’re forced to create dimensions or weights that are too big, and consequently increase the cost of the postage. Nevertheless, for items paid for in Paypal®, this system can be extremely efficient in terms of time and money.
Note: DHL (Dalsey, Hillblom and Lynn), a company based in Germany, has not been discussed. This is due to insufficient experience the author has with the company and to the poor performance record this carrier appears currently to have in several reports. You are encouraged to do your own research on this carrier before using its services.
Where to Buy Materials
If you choose to take advantage of the free shipping supplies offered by a carrier, the job of procuring shipping supplies is made easier and cheaper because they're usually available online, or can be obtained from a carrier’s local branch. However, the boxes often aren’t suitable for shipping sculpture, being the wrong dimensions or of insufficient construction. Using carrier boxes may also compromise your professional image, particularly when shipping originals or high–end art. It also means you’ll have to store the bulky masses of different carrier boxes, when plain, purchased, perfectly–sized boxes can apply to all three carriers and minimize your storage needs.
Shipping materials can be purchased at office supply stores or even craft stores, but they usually are quite expensive, too weak to be adequate for shipping art, and typically are limited in supply and options. The savvy artist usually finds her best options at industrial shipping supply stores or paper supply stores, which can be found in the phone book or online under “packaging supply” or “shipping” sections. These professional suppliers also usually have accounts you can set up as well as delivery services for your supplies. Plus, unlike office supplies stores, they can produce custom orders, typically have the best prices on general supplies, and even may offer discounts for wholesale bulk orders. As for other shipping materials, they can also be purchased online, particularly specialty items that have been customized for your needs.
Now that you have a general understanding of what it takes to send out a proper shipment, let’s look at some additional considerations that factor into being a professional artist:
- Think of customer relations first, not your short–term interests, especially those related to cost.
- Try not to take forever to ship your work. Being a “slow shipper” is a problem.
- Don’t squabble with a customer. Determine your costs, set your price, establish your policies, stick to your word, and that’s the end of the discussion. The more a customer perceives she can goad you into special treatment, the less likely you’ll maintain a respectful and confident customer base. Buyers need to trust who they’re buying from, and being fair, consistent, and firm promotes a sense of integrity and legitimacy for your business. It’s better to cancel a sale than to make undue exceptions and compromises.
- Your carriers are your business partners! Treat them with courtesy and cheer, no matter what, because they will remember you.
- The best policy in nearly all situations is to ship only to the billing address. In fact, many payment or courier conditions only guarantee transactions when shipped to the billing address.
- Along those lines, be cautious about shipping to third parties on behalf of the buyer. It’s probably best to leave it only for the exception, rather than as a matter of course. It’s unwise to put both yourself and the customer in an uncontrollable situation by placing the completion of your contract into the uncertainty of a third–party recipient. Remember that many payment agencies don’t guarantee coverage with third party shipments, automatically putting you and the customer at a disadvantage. Third party shipping also increases your processing time and record keeping: copies of a receipt or set of materials that you placed in the box will have to be sent separately to the buyer because you cannot guarantee the third party will pass them on. It also involves a third party into your exclusive contract with the customer, and if anything goes wrong, you’ll have two unhappy people and more convoluted logistics. Who’s the most likely person they’ll look to for blame and solutions? You. A third party isn’t bound by the implied conditions of the sale between you and the customer either, and is essentially unaccountable for anything that goes wrong, putting you and the customer in a very difficult situation should that happen. There’s also the “he said, she said” battles that simply mire you in unnecessary nonsense that mars your good name and takes up your precious time and energy. If you decide to engage third party shipping, it should be used with precautions, such as with a tracking number and/or a signature confirmation, without exception. You must have proof that the shipment was received by the third party, independent of the third party’s confirmation. The tracking number also should be sent to the buyer so she can be included in the process. You also should have written or email confirmation sent both to you and to the customer that the piece arrived intact, so your end of the contract can be confirmed as completed. It also means you must be sure the third party has trustworthy and professional business practices; otherwise you’re headed for a big mess and an upset customer.
When designing your shipping strategies, you don’t want to compromise the integrity of your work during transit. Never forget, you are in business, so ship like one. To that end, avoid these common rookie mistakes:
- Don’t ship in used boxes. Every time a box is shipped, it loses strength and gets messier. Always use pristine, new boxes.
- Don’t use shoe boxes or gift boxes because they aren’t designed for shipping and easily can be damaged or destroyed.
- Don’t use discarded or abandoned grocery store boxes. They typically have low burst strengths and usually contain insects or mold. They're also usually compromised in some way from sitting in puddles or being trampled, kicked, or crushed.
- Don’t use marked boxes, boxes with images printed on them, or boxes with identifying print of anything other than your branding or the carrier’s branding. Plain, new boxes are best.
- Don’t use damaged boxes, or boxes that are dirty or otherwise marred.
- Don’t use boxes of inadequate strength or size, having burst–strengths below the weight of the contents or not big enough to provide proper cushioning room.
- While carriers provide free shipping boxes, consider what message you're sending the customer when you ship with free supplies. Is it appropriate to ship an $1800 piece in a free box? Likewise, carrier’s packing tape may be free, but when compounded on a package it looks like one big mess. Instead, design your packaging to reflect the level of professionalism you expect your work to be perceived as.
- Machines will be processing your package, so don’t leave any loose or dangling bits on your box that can become caught in conveyor belts, hinges, or other aspects of the system.
- Don’t wrap boxes in paper or bind them with twine or rope. Since most of the sorting is done by machines and on conveyor belts, these things will cause your box to get jammed or ripped open. UPS® won’t even accept packages wrapped this way.
- Your box may be opened by the carrier or customs, so pack it in a way that can be resealed easily without compromising the integrity of your packing job.
- Refrain from cocooning your box in tape. It looks amateurish and it's wasteful.
- Don’t allow tape to touch the surface of your sculpture since this could permanently damage the finish, especially cold–painted media.
- Since most carriers operate so fast, and usually with machines, the package's identifying bar code really matters. Don't compromise it in any way such as marring it, wrinkling it, and let it rest on the full front face of the box for easy scanning.
- Don’t leave pockets of space in the box even if your sculpture already is adequately packaged with wedging, wrapping, and bubblewrap. Pockets of space will cause the contents to shift in transit, causing damage. Your sculpture should be tucked inside the box like a hand inside a soft, perfectly–fitting glove. Never skimp on cushioning material!
- Don’t use any other filler other than packing peanuts, block foam, or bubblewrap. These materials are designed for the purpose intended whereas other materials have low–crush resilience, a tendency to sift or “pack down,” or lack the proper “give and take.” Therefore, avoid things like shredded paper, crumpled newspaper, plastic bags, chunks of chopped up foam, broken Styrofoam, or other such “debris” materials.
- Clean the foam before using it, “de–burring” it of trailing bits and picking it clean of pieces stuck by static electricity.
- Foam should have clean cuts and not looked “picked out” or hacked–up. Buy an electric steak knife, or have the foam professionally die–cut, instead.
- Presentation boxes must not exhibit sloppiness, i.e. there should be no hot glue blobs, stitches, foam, or foam bits showing.
- Don’t mix your packing peanuts. Stick to one color and type. Try to avoid dissolvable packing peanuts, and especially don't use real popped popcorn!
- Don’t use inappropriate tape to seal your boxes such as masking tape, cellophane tape, electrical tape, or duct tape, to seal your shipping boxes. These tapes weren’t designed for the job and cannot withstand the changing conditions and demands a box requires for safe transit.
- Tape should be free of wrinkling, buckling, misalignments, tags, rips, fingerprints, dirt, hair, or any aesthetic or functional defect that would compromise either its purpose or your image.
- Don’t use bubblewrap with burst bubbles.
- Don’t use previously used bubblewrap. New, clean bubblewrap, torn neatly along the perforation, is best.
- Don’t use handwritten mailing labels, and don’t write directly onto the box. This approach isn't a “personal touch,” but one prone to failure under the various conditions a box could encounter or the handwriting being misinterpreted. Remember to place clear packing tape over the return and delivery addresses for protection.
- Don’t use labeling methods that can be washed away, worn away, or could peel off or tear or otherwise leave your box without a delivery address.
- Don’t use fonts and sizes that make your label hard to read. Choose clear, easy–to–read fonts such as Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, and Geneva, with big and/or bold printing is best.
- Customs pouches must lie flat on the face of the box and must not turn corners. This is because customs agents repeatedly have to pull the sheets out and place them back in the pouch and your package can be refused if the customs pouch doesn’t lie flat. Therefore, choose a suitably–sized box even if you’re shipping a small item. The USPS® customs pouch is about 10” x 7.25”, which means the minimum full face of the box must be at least those dimensions.
- Don’t ship smaller items like "minis" in padded envelopes, no matter how big or padded the envelope. The envelopes don’t offer rigid protection, plus they’re handled alongside bulk mail that undergo more abuse than a normal box.
- Don’t pack items to ship in a dirty work station. Avoid contamination from dirt, dust, oils, animal hair, or other unwanted debris.
Professional artists understand that how you ship is as important as what you ship so shipping methods should reflect the pride the artist has in her work. In contrast, inferior shipping methods can undermine her achievements by not only endangering work, but by sending a problematic message, too.
Shipping with both functionality and style takes careful preparation and a willingness to go the extra mile. Artists are often willing to invest these into the art work itself, but too often neglect to translate them into their shipping practices. Adopting professional standards for your shipping system will not only set you apart from other artists in business, but also guarantee continued success by maintaining a happy and confident customer base.
Professional shipping standards will also streamline your studio, allowing you to spend more time creating your art work and less time dealing with its safe transport. Indeed, for a professional artist, quality shipping is simply part of the equation for success, and attended to with equal temerity.
So until next time...stay ship shape!
"It is always your next move."
HOLIDAY SHIPPING TIPS FOR SMALL BUSINESSES. Mary Crane, 2006. www.forbes.com
FINE ART PACKING AND SHIPPING. Sis Rubz. 2007. http://tradingmarketingonline.blogspot.com
FedEx art shipping: www.fedex.com
Vision Alliance Network: www.visionalliance.com
The Packaging Site: www.the-packaging-site.com/s/packaging
FileMaker Pro®: www.filemaker.com