Small Parcel Packaging for e-Commerce Fulfillment and Shipping: Everything You Need to Know

As the owner of an e-commerce company, your livelihood hinges on your ability to deliver customer's orders safely and swiftly. The key to ensuring that you achieve this goal is to develop an efficient packaging strategy that reflects the types of products that you sell. Below is a detailed look at the packaging process and the single best way to ensure that you choose the best type of packaging for your small parcels. Be sure that you engage your e-commerce fulfillment company if you outsource so that they can partner with you in the planning process as well!

e-commerce fulfillment packaging

What Exactly Is Packaging?

The packaging is the final phase of the e-commerce order preparation process. The purpose of packaging is to ensure that the products a customer purchases arrive safe and intact upon receipt. Further, the packaging is an all-encompassing process that involves three basic elements:

  • Shipping containers such as boxes, padded envelopes, mailing tubes, and flat chipboard mailers
  • Internal packing materials such as bubble wrap, styrofoam sheets, poly bags, and biodegradable cornstarch peanuts
  • Embellishments such as printed inserts, tie-on tags, stickers featuring a logo, and customized tissue wrap 

By selecting the proper container, packing material, and embellishments for your shipments, you will help safeguard against shipping damage while illustrating your commitment to quality. More importantly, you will increase customer satisfaction and grow your repeat business.

Why Is It Important to Have a Strategic Packaging Plan?

With the packaging process being the final touchpoint of the order preparation process, it is your final opportunity to make a positive impression on the customer before the parcel is shipped. It also represents your last chance to ensure that the merchandise is properly protected and professionally packed. Again, the best fulfillment companies will be able to assist you in developing this plan. Here are three key reasons why you should think strategically about packaging:

  • Maximize Safety: Protecting merchandise should be your top priority. Ideally, you want your merchandise to be packaged snugly.
  • Decrease Shipping Costs: Your carriers will base their prices on the size and weight of your parcels, so efficient packaging is a must to drive down your overall fulfillment costs and pricing.
  • Minimize Shifting During Transit: When packing products, you should select filling that protects product surfaces while absorbing shock.
  • Brand Differentiation: When you add special touches, you separate your overall brand experience from that of your customers and help build lifetime customers and obtain great reviews.

In addition to the three reasons above, you also need to consider the dimensional weight of some of your packages. Also known as "DIM Weight" or "Volumetric Weight", dimensional weight is an estimated weight that is calculated by considering the length, width, and height of your package. Commercial carriers often use the dimensional weight to provide their freight rates, so it is important not to use a carton that is excessively large.

What Are the Most Common e-Commerce Shipment Categories?

If you are relatively new to the fulfillment and shipping industries, you may wonder where your e-commerce products will fall on the packaging spectrum. There are a number of different types of products for fulfillment. In general, e-commerce shipments fall into one of the following four categories:

  • Small or foldable items: Examples include socks, underwear (and other clothing and apparel fulfillment products), mousepads, and other items that are not prone to damage and require little fill.
  • Flat or thin items that are easily damaged: Compact discs, commemorative photos, and posters would fall into this category.
  • Larger products or collections of items: An order for ten binders or one for a knife set and cutting board are examples in this category.
  • Items that are large, heavy, bulky, and fragile: Examples include large fragile vases, large glass items, and lamps.

What Are the Most Popular Types of Outer Packaging Used for Shipments?

Packaging manufacturers are continually adapting their product lines to reflect purchasing trends and carrier capabilities. E-commerce specialists are now able to choose from more packaging solutions than ever when developing their packaging strategies. Here is a summary of the main types of outer packaging used with e-commerce shipments:

  • Envelopes: Apparel and flexible products that cannot crack or break can ship easily and affordably in an envelope. Depending upon the carrier, envelopes range in size from 6 1/8" x 11 1/2" to 12" x 15". They are typically no more than 3/4" thick. 
  • Bubble Mailers: Bubble mailers look like a regular large envelope on the outside but feature a protective layer of bubble wrap on the inside. They are often used to ship CDs, books, jewelry, and other small items that do not break easily.
  • Flat Chipboard Mailers: Flat products such as art prints that require sturdier packaging than an envelope or bubble mailer are often shipped in flat chipboard mailers. They often feature a self-seal closure for easy shipment.
  • Fold-Up Mailers: Fold up mailers look like small, flat boxes. They are able to accommodate thicker books, frames, and items up to 4 inches thick. They can often be purchased in completely flat condition for quick assembly at the time of shipment.
  • Standard Boxes: The majority of larger merchandise ships in standard boxes. Common box sizes include 12 x 12 x 12 inches, 16 x 16 x 16 inches, and 24 x 24 x 24 inches. Many companies order custom-sized boxes to accommodate their specific mix of products.
  • Multi-depth Boxes: Companies that ship items of varying sizes are increasingly turning to multi-depth boxes. These boxes feature visible creased intervals on their exterior that enable them to easily be trimmed and folded down at a crease to yield a smaller box size.
  • Double Wall Boxes: The hallmark of a double wall box is two layers of fluting instead of just one. The result is a box that is sturdier and able to house heavier and more fragile items. Items that require more protection than a standard box can offer are ideal for double wall boxes. 
  • Long Boxes and Mailing Tubes: Long corrugated boxes or tubes are a great option if you regularly ship longer merchandise such as golf clubs, fishing poles, rugs, or floor lamps. Typical lengths range from 49" to 90" with widths ranging from 4" to 12". 
  • Cargo Boxes: Cargo boxes are the safest option for larger or heavier items such as cabinets, trade show displays, and machinery components. They usually feature a padded or insulated interior and a durable, rugged exterior that is highly resistant to impacts and moisture.  

One important thing to keep in mind is the difference between standard cartons versus corrugated cartons. Corrugated boxes are made up of corrugated paperboard that contains rows of air columns. The columns make the paper stronger than average cardboard with the air acting as a cushion for any items inside of them. The ridges inside offer strength and flexibility, as usually intended in packaging. Standard cardboard boxes, by contrast, are made of heavy paper pulp. Therefore, corrugated cartons are stronger and will be much more durable in shipping your e-commerce orders. 

What Are the Main Types of Inner Packaging?

The type of inner packaging you choose is just as important as the outer packaging you select. And, as in the case of the outer packaging, there are many options available for consideration. In general, the type of inner packaging you select will depend on your product's potential for damage and your commitment to an eco-friendly shipping process. Some of the most popular types of inner packaging are as follows:

  • Blank newspaper void fill: This is a cost-effective way to pack items that are highly resistant to damage.
  • Polybags: Polybags are another choice for merchandise with low risk of damage. They are bags used to hold inner items, such as a poly bag used for a t-shirt. 
  • Bubble wrap: Bubble wrap became popular in the 1960s and is a popular choice to help protect breakables from sustaining damage.
  • Peanuts (Styrofoam or Biodegradable): Peanuts are often used to fill empty space in a box that houses one or more wrapped items.
  • Foam sheets and wrap: Glass items such as mirrors or pictures are frequently protected with styrofoam sheets and wrap.
  • Expanding foam conforms: Foam can effectively keep fragile items from shifting but it is not eco-friendly. 
  • DIY bubble wrap and air pillows: For some companies that wish to add great fill to cartons and need additional support for the contents, DIY bubble wrap and air pillows could be an option. With these two types of fill, you will have to purchase an air filling machine, which makes the upfront costs higher. However, over the long run, if stability is needed in shipping, the upfront costs smooth out over high volumes of orders (as a result, many fulfillment services companies use this option)

When choosing inner packaging for an order, remember that you may need to use more than one type of packing to keep items protected. For example, if you are shipping four items, it may be best to wrap each item with bubble wrap and then place all four items in a box filled with peanuts. Or, you may need to take extra precautions to prevent damage by covering sharp edges with cardboard before wrapping them and placing them inside a box. 

What Are Some Additional Touches to Help Boost Your Brand Image?

Sometimes it is the extra touches that really impress customers. In the case of packaging, there are several steps you can take to set your company apart from your competitors. While you can expect to pay a bit more for these extra touches, you will give your brand image a boost and keep your customers coming back to you in the future.

It is important to note that some time should likely be spent on your overall branding before jumping into custom branded packaging options. Some modifications may need to be made to your color scheme or logos/images to make them appear best on packaging. Furthermore, more time must be spent on the set up process, obtaining samples, proofs and approving production. Printing companies will usually offer volume discounts, so be sure to check to see the best price points for your business. In terms of printing, options range from flexographic printing (printing plate stamps the design on the carton, and up front costs include the purchase of the plate), to digital printing (the designs are digitally printed on the carton similar to the use of an office printer), to litho label printing (similar to wall paper, the printing is on a sheet which is adhered to the box, and high volume print runs can be competitively priced). 

Below are some of the most popular forms of embellishments: 

  • Consider custom printed boxes that feature your logo
  • Include fitted box dividers and inserts to organize shipments of multiple items
  • Use custom tissue paper that features your logo to wrap merchandise
  • Include a printed or handwritten note to the customer with each order
  • Seal stock boxes with stickers that feature your logo
  • Include a promotional insert that features a discount on future purchases
  • Use decorative ribbon or gift tags to elevate the appearance of the merchandise   

What Is Eco-Friendly Packaging and What Benefits Does It Offer?

small parcel packaged for an e-commerce company

Eco-friendly packaging involves the use of recycled or renewable packing materials that are sustainable for people and our environment. As more e-commerce companies adopt eco-friendly packaging strategies, packaging manufacturers have responded by producing a greater variety of cutting-edge packing solutions made from corn starch and biodegradable materials. There are many benefits of eco-friendly packaging, including the following:

  • A reduced carbon footprint
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Reduced costs due to reuse of materials
  • An improved industry reputation

How Can You Implement an Eco-Friendly Approach With Your Shipments?

Learning about eco-friendly packaging is a great first step for your e-commerce company. But in order to actually have a positive impact on our environment, you need to take action as a business owner and build an eco-friendly culture. Here are some simple environmentally-friendly measures you can adopt with your packaging:

  • Use recycled materials: Materials such as corrugated cartons are usually over 80% recyclable and can be quick and easy solutions to help the environment.  
  • Use starch packing peanuts: Replacing your styrofoam peanuts with biodegradable starch ones will prevent landfill overflow.
  • Invest in convertible shipping containers: Consider ordering some containers that can double as long-term storage for products.
  • Space-efficient packaging: Refrain from using boxes that are overly large to ship packages.
  • Avoid wasting filling: Educate shipping staff on the proper usage of filling and tips to avoid filling spillage.
  • Reuse boxes: Train warehouse staff to recycle boxes and to reuse boxes that are in good condition.  
  • Use as little packaging as possible: Be sure that you are "minimalist" in your choices, including no-fuss packaging such as fiber-based or bamboo trays that are sustainable and easier to use.
  • Challenge with your warehouse to help: Sometimes, asking your fulfillment center to get creative can help in the process, such as using boxes that they are recycling and would otherwise go to waste. 

What Is the Single Best Way to Ensure You Choose the Proper Packaging?  

As outlined above, there are many factors to consider when packaging small parcel e-commerce orders for shipment. From choosing minimizing costs to championing our environment, to personalizing your orders, the small parcel packaging process is full of big decisions.   

The single best way to ensure that your parcels are properly packaged is to seek the guidance of a trusted fulfillment company. An experienced fulfillment specialist will assess your product offerings and recommend cost-effective packaging solutions that are durable, space-efficient, and environmentally-friendly. 

For over 15 years, the specialists with Fulfillment Companies have helped businesses across the globe find fulfillment specialists they can trust. Our strength is our ability to help you select the fulfillment provider that offers the best location and mix of services for your business. In addition to our expert guidance, we offer a wide array of resources to assist you in the decision-making process.

We invite you to contact us to discover why companies turn to us for guidance in selecting the best fulfillment solution for their needs. We look forward to helping you streamline your e-commerce packaging!  

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