Shipping costs are one of the biggest expenses for many small businesses, but resourceful entrepreneurs are finding ways to reduce the sting.
Fred DuBois, for example, had been trying to cut the shipping costs at his Laptop Battery Express in Cleveland since he founded it in 2007. Free delivery service for about 50 battery orders a day was costing him as much as $500. He had been relying almost exclusively on FedEx Ground, but this summer, he realized that varying his carriers and using the U.S. Postal Service would cut shipping costs in half. Today, he says, he ships about half his orders with FedEx and the other half with the post office, saving about $250 a day.
To achieve such savings, consider these 10 ways to trim shipping costs:
1. Negotiate with multiple carriers. All shipping companies have pricing schedules based on volume: The more you ship, the lower your rate. But small businesses often don't realize they also may have negotiating power, says Jack Mitchell, president of PANCGroup, a Boston-based parcel appraisal and negotiations consulting firm. If you ship large numbers of packages, compare prices and try to persuade carriers to offer lower rates. "If Fed Ex knows UPS is vying for your business, you've got something to negotiate," Mitchell says.
2. Get suppliers to use your shipping account number. DuBois receives inventory from 12 suppliers, including eight in China and four in the U.S. While he originally had suppliers shipping products to him and invoicing for the transport costs, he managed to persuade his domestic suppliers to ship products on his company's FedEx account number. This not only increases his business's shipping volume, which can lead to cheaper rates, but it also helps prevent suppliers from padding their shipping costs. Kevin Lathrop, president of Unishippers, a Salt Lake City-based company that buys and resells transportation services, recommends including this shipping requirement in your purchase order.
3. Use packaging provided by your carrier. If you use your own packaging, you could face additional "dimensional fees" if your box exceeds the size regulations set by UPS and FedEx. To avoid those extra charges, consider using the packaging provided by your carrier, which doesn't have dimensional fees. By putting a one-pound box into a FedEx envelope, for example, DuBois cut his shipping cost by 15 percent.
4. Consider a regional carrier. Such carriers often provide the same services as FedEx or UPS at a reduced cost, Mitchell says. Regional carriers include Spee-Dee Delivery Service in the Midwest, OnTrac in the West and LoneStar Delivery & Process in Texas. But keep in mind their delivery networks are limited. You also might reduce your bargaining power if you spread your business among too many carriers.
5. Use online shipping. One way to save on U.S. Postal Service costs is to pay for your shipping online. You can save up to 16 percent on priority mail orders and up to 60 percent on express mail, says Beth Fluto, manager of digital media for USPS. You also get free pick-up service, priority mail delivery confirmation and shipping supplies when you pay online with the post office.
6. Invest in prepaid shipping. To help cut FedEx and UPS costs, consider prepaid shipping, which offers a discount rate of up to 20 percent. This means you buy a quantity of shipping labels upfront and affix them to packages as needed rather than pay for each package when you send it out. Prepaid shipping works best when you know you'll be sending out the same weight packages repeatedly and can determine the shipping cost in advance.
7. Buy insurance from a third party. While carriers charge about 80 cents for every $100 of insurance, third-party companies like Parcel Insurance Plan and U-PIC Shipping Insurance charge about 45 cents. The savings can add up, Mitchell notes, if you frequently ship expensive items.
8. Factor in all shipping fees before billing customers. Carriers have more than 75 special charges, including fuel surcharges, fees when requiring a signature from the recipient, or Saturday delivery fees, Mitchell says. If your customers pay for shipping, be sure to include all these extra costs in their bills so you don't end up absorbing them yourself.
9. Consider hybrid services. While they have certain volume, weight and size restrictions, hybrid services like SurePost by UPS and SmartPost by FedEx can cost half as much as standard UPS and FedEx delivery options, Mitchell says. These services pick up packages at your business and ship them by UPS or FedEx to the post office closest to the destination. The local mailman then makes the final delivery. While the cost is less, this extra step can slow delivery time.
10. Ask about association discounts. Find out if your industry's professional association has a partnership with a carrier that offers member discounts. Depending on the size of the association, you could be eligible for discounted rates of up to 50 percent on certain services with carriers like FedEx and UPS.