A lot of our customers choose to ship their prints themselves, especially if they are taking advantage of built in volume discounts on prints. It is not uncommon for them when they are first getting started to ask for advice or tips relating to best practices when package unframed prints.
Determining how to sufficiently protect your prints is the primary goal. Prints by their nature create an interesting dimensional dilemma when it comes to suitable packaging so finding the ideal packaging solution may be difficult in some cases, especially with prints of various aspect ratios. Just go to your nearest office supply store and look at the shipping supplies they have on the shelf for you to purchase. You will notice is most of the parcel packaging options are boxes for 3 dimensional objects. Your typical small print order is going to be very 2 dimensional. This means your ideal options are going to be to use a rigid flat mailer or a shipping tube. Let us take a look at both in detail and perhaps you will decide which is ideal for you.
Using Rigid Flat Mailers
Let us look at flat rigid mailers. Generally, they are going to be constructed from rigid card-like stock. Their purpose is to allow you to ship photos and other documents that you want to arrive flat and not bent. In my opinion, they do not provide the best protection without some help. Unless your prints are a few small photos, you should reinforce them, so they are more rigid.
To decrease the chance the package will get damaged, we have had great success at FinerWorks by sandwiching prints between two sheets of corrugated cardboard and placing that in the rigid mailer. This has worked out well with flat mailers up to 17x21”.
Self-sealed mailers are going to cost a little more but will look a lot nicer which is important as we will discuss below when talking about customer perception.
If you have trouble finding flat mailers you like, you can easily construct your own. Buy some large manilla envelopes and use a 3 sheets of corrugation for rigidity. I know of some people that will use up to 4 sheets of cardboard total for an incredibly sturdy mailer.
Using Shipping Tubes
If you are not comfortable with using flat mailer or are shipping larger prints, consider using a shipping tube. Packaging may seem relatively simple. Just roll it up and place it in a tube, Right? DO NOT package it that way. Instead center it face down on a sheet of Kraft paper at least 2 or more inches larger than the print on all sides. THEN you roll it up.
The 2 or more inches is especially important since it will act as cushioning, so the edges of the print are less likely to be damaged or crimped when the tube gets dropped on one end. Instead, the Kraft paper takes the brunt of the force. You can also consider stuffing the ends with bubble wrap or more Kraft paper if you have room and feel it is necessary.
I recommend the tubes with a diameter of at least 3 inches. Any smaller and tit becomes difficult flatten out the print since it had to be rolled very tightly. Also, try not to roll too many prints together in one tube. That too may require you to roll it relatively tighter. It is hard to describe without seeing, but you want the print rolled just tight enough to keep it in place in the Kraft paper but not too tight that it is hard to flatten out. Most shipping tube options you find will have caps so make sure you tape these well unless you are placing the tube in another outer package.
How Price is Affected
Choosing a flat mailer or a tube will affect your cost. Take for instance an 12×18 print. To safely ship it flat, we contain it in the 17×21 flat mailer I mentioned above. Alternatively, you could ship it in a shipping tube that is only 16 inches long. Did you know that the flat shipment would only qualify for parcel post or priority mail? If you go that route you could easily pay $10 plus to ship it anywhere in the U.S. If shipped in a tube, that same print could first class mail for have the cost.
Package & Customer Perception
Do not forget customer perception. This you cannot fully control but you can improve the odds it will be in your favor. One of the things easily overlooked is the appearance of the packaging, and the condition in which it arrives. How it looks contributes to the perception of the print’s quality. You can ship the highest end most expensive print imaginable but it you package it with duct tape and left-over packaging material from your recent Amazon order, there is a good change the customer will subconsciously assign their initial perception of package quality to the print which diminishes its value in their mind.
I usually recommend shipping a print flat if customer perception is more important to you than the cost. Usually, the default paper curl the print had when it was still on a roll of paper will have flattened out by the time the customer gets it, and it is easier to handle.
As for the condition it arrives it, this you will not have as much control. Obviously a well packaged print usually means it is less likely to become damaged, but the package will experience it’s fair share of dings and scratches. Usually this means a dirty mailer or shipping tube. To offset the customer’s potential for having a negative perception, consider packaging the package. This not only keeps your initial package pristine but also enhances the perceived value of the print. With flat mailers it is relatively easy. Simply place it in a slightly larger manilla envelope. Both USPS, UPS and FEDEX have triangular boxes made specifically for shipping items like prints. They don’t do a good job of protecting rolled prints by themselves, but they will protect a regular shipping tube quite well.
The only downside to packaging your package is it will increase the shipping cost. But if your profit on the print supports it, you may consider it since it will improve the customer experience which in turn increases the chance that customer orders from you again.
For some additional tips, consider using fragile or do not bend stickers. Statistically they will not help prevent damage, but it will show your customer that you are taking precautions to protect the print. Again, customer perception is important.
Be ready to expect some criticism from your customer no matter how you ship it. There will always be those that complain you should have shipped it flat and those that will say you should have shipped it in a tube. One way to help offset the cost and prevent these types of complaints, is to offer a default tube-based shipping option and an upgraded flat rigid mailer option.
Going to the local office supply store every few days will quickly add up and you could easily find yourself spending twice as much in packaging supplies. Instead, invest in packaging materials, mailers, or tubes in bulk. A good place to do this is at Uline.com. They sell to everyone from small home based businesses to large corporations. With online suppliers like them you will find a lot more options and at a lower cost.