Expert advice

This holiday shipping season, don't make these 5 common packing mistakes

Shipping manager overwhelmed by boxes

Even seasoned pros sometimes need reminders. Here, a UPS expert and a UPS customer provide key packaging takeaways.

One UPS customer was shipping perishables in styrene coolers that tended to "breathe" and allow moisture to seep out. The shipping labels fell off in transit. It turned out that the label adhesive being used by the company wasn't strong enough. Painful lesson learned.

We asked UPS customers and experts to share some of the packaging mistakes they've seen in their careers, so that you don't make them, too.

And it's just one of many that shippers have experienced over the years. We asked UPS customers and experts to share some of the packaging mistakes they've seen in their careers, so that you don't make them, too. Here are some of the most common – and how to avoid them:

1. Wrong-size box.

Unless trained, packers may grab what's close at hand – especially during the peak holiday season, says Quint Marini, UPS package engineering manager. "You need to train people to put product in boxes that are the right size," Marini says. Otherwise they are likely to choose a box that is too big, and that will affect both your packaging and transportation costs.

Takeaway: Stage the right mix of boxes and packing materials in advance, so that you don't run out – or run short – of standard sizes. "Follow up after initial training, and consider using spot audits," Marini says. "Another option is to print the box size on the pick ticket to add a level of control and make training easier."

2. Weak box.

The larger the package, the stronger the box needs to be, not only to protect what's inside but also to allow for bearing weight. "Larger boxes will travel lower in the truck or container, and there will be boxes stacked on top of it, so your box needs to be able to handle that load," Marini says. "That applies to single parcels and palletized freight, as well as warehouse environments that involve double or triple stacking."

Takeaway: Choose a box strength that is suitable for the contents you are shipping. Here's a handy chart.

3. Compromised box.

Sustainability is a good thing, unless it goes too far (by using boxes too many times), resulting in damaged contents. "The strength of a box is compromised each time it travels through a transport lane," Marini says. "It's not uncommon for a box to lose 50 percent of its strength."

Another drawback to recycled boxes in the shipping room is that it reduces consistency for the packers, who then waste time hunting around for boxes that are the right size for the product being shipped.

Takeaway: If you use recycled boxes, make sure they are nearly new, with strong corners, but consider using new, standardized boxes matched to each of your products. To learn more about eco-friendly packaging, watch "Best Practices for Sustainable Packaging." 

4. Wrong packing material.

When shipping heavy items, it's best to fill any voids using airbags, bubble wrap or peanuts; don't use newsprint or wadded paper. "If there is weight involved, newsprint or wadded paper compresses, and does not bounce back, creating a void," Marini says. Lightweight or nonbreakable contents can survive a trip from point A to point B with fewer problems. "The more rugged the product, the more you want to depend on the strength of the box itself."

Using recycled packing material isn't a problem, Marini says. In fact, you can now get soy- or starch-based peanuts that are biodegradable. "You need to be careful about humidity because that will shrink biodegradable peanuts."

Takeaway: Use airbags, bubble wraps, peanuts or other recycled packing material to fill empty space inside boxes.

5. Poor taping job.

Marini recommends using 3-inch tape on the top and bottom seams of the box, or even better, using an "H" pattern that covers the end seams as well. "We've found that 2-inch tape, which is more common, does not hold as well, and when a box is compressed, the first thing that goes is the tape," he says.

Bill Sloss, owner of The Sloss Company, a legal services firm in Oakley, Calif., would second that. He goes a step further: "When you use tape on your packages, use really good tape. 3M makes the strongest tape available. I never have boxes come undone."

Finally, "always put the label on the top of the box," Marini says. "That will make it a lot easier for UPS to sort and save processing time in the long run."

Takeaway: Tape in an "H" pattern with 3-inch or wider tape, and put the label on top.




Reader Comments

Add Your Comment

That guy
I work for a contract decorator and we ship thousands of packages each month. One tip I offer, If you must use a recycled box alway cover or remove any old shipping labels even if they are from another carrier.
Ed the FedEx Guy
Labels on the side are better. Auto scanners read from the side like drivers. Also keep labels off seams to keep labels intact and scanable.
Also, run another copy of your label and put inside the box! If outside label is compromised, there is another inside to identify destination.
Bill T.
Be aware of what the employees in your packaging department are doing. They are the last ones to directly handle your product and their work is rarely scrutinized enough. I bought large quantities of structural moulding from a company for nearly a decade, without much shipping damage. Then one day some genius in the shipping department started doing stylistic things with the way individual sticks of moulding were packed together. That resulted in severe scraping between the dozen long sticks in each package from the vibrations of transport. Since the supply chain was several months long, I simply cancelled my long-standing order rather than endure months of very low yields.
Two observations - it is not always an option to place a label other than on a seam and NEVER, EVER place FRAGILE stickers on your box. I bought hundreds of fragile stickers for breakables that I sell and had damaged items. Stopped using the labels, no damage.
John K
If you do reuse boxes make sure that you check all six sides for labels. You do not want these coming back because you forgot the routing labels.
Always place label on clean, no-seam area of box AND generously tape over the label to avoid any wearing or rubbing off of label data. ALSO, always put something, an invoice copy or packing slip that identifies shipper AND customer INSIDE with contents, just in case outside label is lost.
Once the package is picked up and in transit also affects the end result of your packaging. Careless handling by the carrier is quite often the case on delivered packages to our business.
David Rudy
Consider your package may fall 10 feet from a conveyor belt to a concrete floor and pack accordingly.
Rick Paul
Isn't the strength of box stacking them up right? If the label is on top that would seem more difficult and harder to identify/track. I agree with J Hefty.
Far too many things come to me in oversized boxes for what is inside or use only wadded brown paper for packing material. It adds to the shipping cost that I end up having to pay for merchandise. I like non-static peanuts, airbags and bubble wrap ever so much more. They are lighter and more protective too. It really gripes me when I order merchandise and end up paying for oversized shipping when it could have been otherwise. It is often cheaper to send items in two packages than deal with one oversized box that is often mashed and poorly packed.
Jack Crawford
At one time we used bio-degradable peanuts at our The UPS Store. A couple of years ago we were instructed to discontinue their use because they are not compliant with UPS packaging standards. Why are they even mentioned as an alternative?
J Hefty
I thought UPS preferred labels to be on the side of the box so they can be read easily when on the shelves in the truck.
Always use an H pattern on the taping, both top & bottom, plus bubble wrap and foam packing peanuts, and if needed, cardboard separators. Never use the biodegradable peanuts, especially if shipping heavy. The bio's compress too much and will leave a void. If we get them as salvage, we do not reuse.
Alma Ramsey
Great additional tip from Nancy. Thanks!
Nancy Long
Another handy tip: Never put your label over a seam in the box. If the box is compromised, the first place it will open will be at a seam and if the label is damaged it will be harder to identify the recipient.
Download UPS Holiday Calendar

Stay up to date

Subscribe to get updates delivered right in your Inbox.

Sign Up