The package moving business is relatively simple. The idea is to move as many packages with as few people as possible in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money. This alone places any package you ship at great risk. During its travels your package will be handled by several people, run through many machines, pass through miles of conveyors, come in contact with many other boxes, and be loaded into and then out of many trucks and trailers. At any given time, your package is one among thousands, if not tens of thousands. It is not special, it is not unique. It is but one box among many.
As you might suspect, my job was not the best paying job in the world. Don't get me wrong, I made good money doing it, with a few perks, but the pay does not inspire the kind of concern for our customer's packages as many of those customers would seem to think. It is, after all, hard work. Boxes are heavy, and moving, stacking, and sorting them en masse, can wear a guy down.
I worked as a package handler for roughly ten months, and in that time I handled many packages. I couldn't even hazard a guess at the number, as I moved several thousand some nights. The point being: I've seen a lot of packages. From this I've learned something: Most people have no idea how to pack cargo. Not only do they not know, they don't even try. In fact, I believe most of them to be under the delusion that I, the Package Handler who was paid but a pittance for hours of physical labor, was in some way concerned with the welfare of their package(s).
My apathy towards their cargo was not because I considered myself to be above the job of Package Handler. It is not because I am inherently malicious or negligent. It is not because I derive joy from needless destruction. It is simply this: If you don't care about your package, why should I?
I don't doubt there are many unhappy customers who find boxes on their doorstep looking as if they have been in transit for years. And I certainly feel bad for the drivers who have to smilingly deliver said packages, should they actually have to face the recipient.
In an effort to better the life of boxes everywhere I have compiled a list of tips and guidelines one should use when shipping a package. Read and follow to increase the chance of your package arriving in one (recognizable) piece.
Lesson 1: Selecting an Appropriate Box
If you have the occasion to employ the services of a shipping company it is because A) someone bought something from you, B) you bought something from somebody else, or C) you need to move something of yours to someplace else. In any of these cases we can make the assumption that whatever is being shipped is of enough value to warrant having it moved from one place to another. In cases A and B it is because there is a customer involved as well as an exchange of money. In case C you have something which is of enough value to prevent you from simply throwing it away.
Since we can safely assume that the item(s) being shipped are worth something (after all you are paying to have them shipped) is it really wise to be cheap with the packaging? The box is the only thing protecting your junk from the likes of me and my associates, the miles of conveyor belts, mechanical sorting machines, and the dirty bellies of overnight transport trucks. Not to mention the sweat, spit (occasionally blood) and broken (sometimes liquid) contents of other packages that have taken one for the team.
With this in mind, the selection of a box must be taken seriously. There are several factors to consider: size, shape, and rigidity. During its travels, your box will be subject to a number of compression, impact and sheer forces. A sturdy box is your best, and really only, defense.
The box should preferably be new; though a sturdy used box will also suffice (I don't want to encourage a flippant attitude towards our forests). Each face of the box should be solid. There should be no rips, bends, large perforations, or holes. All of the flaps should be present and complete. The box should be able to maintain its shape independent of its cargo. You may think these seem like obvious, common sense, suggestions, but I assure you that some folks out there need reminding.
If you're shipping a liquid, use a bucket (which you may then put in a box, if you so choose) or other container designed for transporting liquid. Do not put the liquid in a sack, and then proceed to place that sack in a box. An unfortunate incident with Italian salad dressing comes to my mind. Liquids are not appropriate for boxes for a number of reasons. For starters, they puncture easily and spill their contents. Two, they compromise the box's structural integrity. Three, they make it awkward to move the boxes because the weight shifts and the box bends. Four, it's just plain stupid.
In regards to size, the box should be big enough to contain your cargo without bulging, yet small enough so as to prevent wild and uncontrollable shifts to the center of gravity. If there is a dramatic shift in weight, I'm liable to drop the box rather than hazard a blow to the head or a twist in the back. Whatever is inside should fit snugly. There should be no rattling or sliding. When the box is full, it should be the same size and shape as it is when empty. Bulging boxes are hard to move, hard to stack, and frequently bust at the seams. And sometimes, if your box isn't square, I'll make it square. There is always something heavier.
If your box is too big, and the contents are loose, it will be crushed. The seams will implode, and all your precious cargo will come spilling out. This might happen when it slams into other boxes in the conveyor system or it might happen when some poor kid, stuck in a trailer, is fighting for his life against an avalanche of boxes he's trying to load as fast as he can. Either way, it will happen. When your box reaches its final destination, it will resemble an accordion. "Light" boxes are not set aside and loaded last, or on top. Heavy boxes are not always on the bottom. Boxes are loaded as they come. Oh, that reminds me: marking your box as "Fragile" means nothing. There is no separate "Fragile" sorter. Fragile boxes are not loaded last or on top. Don't delude yourself. At best, they avoid the conveyor system, but still end up with everything else the truck. In most cases, marking your box as fragile will not subject it to extra abuse. We're not jerks; we're just short on time.
Also, do not tape additional pieces of freight to the outside of your box. For example, if you are shipping a broom, don't put the head in a box, and then tape the handle to the outside of that box. It doesn't trick anybody into thinking the box is small. Do not tape an envelope to the side of your box. It will get ripped off. The solution: throw whatever doesn't fit into another box or just ship it separately.
Also to note: Do not attempt to join a number of differently sized and weighted boxes together with plastic straps. The boxes twist around, the straps slide off or break, and the thing is impossible to stack. When the straps break they often leave behind orphaned, labelless boxes that have been separated from there traveling buddies.
It is important to note that one should not, however, go overboard. The occasional painting, artifact, or precision milled fitting warrants the use of a wooden box, however, most packages do not. Anything encased in wood is not only a chore to move, but also requires special handling. And frankly, it's a splinter hazard.
It is indeed a tricky decision to find the right box, and some folks do have trouble with it. I once found a sheet of plate glass packaged only in a wooden frame which was held on by plastic straps. Clearly the person in charge of packing this piece of glass was not exceptionally bright. Really now, how did they expect me to move that? I was afraid to even touch it. Let alone load it onto a cart a haul it over to a load door. I've moved boxes with so much broken glass in them they sounded like rain sticks.
Lesson 2: Tape
Tape is cheap, it is your friend. A box is nothing without tape. Flap folding, however intricate or well-meaning is not an ample substitute for tape. Fold your flaps down and tape them. Use tape, please. Straps - tight straps mind you - are to be used in conjunction with tape, not instead of.
Tape each seam thoroughly, and make a reasonable effort to at least get the tape over the seam. If the majority of the tape rests on one side of the flap, with just a sliver reaching over to the other the other side, you've done something wrong. Ask a friend for help.
Tape all sides of the box that have flaps. Some folks seem to feel that taping just the bottom is enough, because they seem to believe that their box will always travel in the same orientation. This is not the case. Your bottom just may be my top while I'm playing a game of 3D Cargo Tetris.
Many problems result from under-taping. There is no such thing as "too much tape." Make sure the tape is fully attached. A dangling loose end is easily ripped off. I can't tell you the number of times I've picked up a box and tossed it on the belt, only to have the tape stick to my hands and tear away from the box. Loose ends can also get stuck to other boxes leading to similar results.
Lession 3: Labeling
Labeling your box is also important. After all, it is the label that lets us know where your junk is headed. There are many types of labels, and many choices to make when printing out, writing, and attaching the label. I'll try to cover the basics here.
To begin with, whatever your method of production, the label must be clear and easy to read. Labels that are difficult to read are subject to misinterpretation. If your four looks like a nine, your box may end up in the wrong state. And guess who cares? Not me and not the guy loading the truck. There is not time to hem and haw over details, or go ask another thrower for assistance in deciphering your hand-writing.
Of all the pieces of information contained on a label, the zip code and state/province are the most important (next to any machine readable barcodes); this is your package's primary router. If possible the zip code and state should be prominent, and in larger print than the rest of the address. Even after machines sort things, throwers often need to sort or check by zip code and state. In some smaller terminals all sorting is done by hand.
Label placement is also very important. Your label should be placed on the top of your package or opposite the package's heaviest side. That is, as your box is being shuffled along, the label should tend to naturally rise to the top.
Do not fold labels around corners. It makes them hard to find, hard to scan, and generally hard to deal with. You're not being clever or innovative.
If your label is of the adhesive variety, take extra care in attaching it. A wrinkled label ruins any machine readable signs. A barcode missing bars is a bad barcode.
Taping your label down is a good idea, even if it is of the adhesive variety. Remember that talk earlier about dangling ends of tape catching on things? Well, that's just the sort of thing that will rip a label right off.
Unless your box is making some sort of bizarre around the world trip, it usually needs only one label. If your reusing a box, take off the old labels, or make sure they are covered up. Handlers look for labels because that's how boxes are scanned and sorted. If your box is covered in old, useless labels, finding the right one becomes more difficult, resulting in more jostling, spinning, and general rough-handling. It might also be thrown aside and saved for last.
Two final notes about labels: First, labels are not tape. Do not use the label to join flaps or in any other way seal the box. Second, if you're shipping something UPS, us a UPS label. If you're shipping something FedEx, use a FedEx label. Yes, it does make a difference. You'd be surprised how many people get this wrong.
So there you have it, some frontline advice on how to properly package your packages. Follow these guidelines, and you not only increase the chance of your package arriving safely, but you also make the throwers, er, I mean Package Handlers, a whole lot happier.