Vital Signs: Smart Shipping: Don't Let Packages Weigh You Down

Smart Shipping: Don't Let Packages Weigh You Down 

When you're a photographer, transportation is always a bit tricky—whether it's getting you and all your equipment to a wedding in one piece, or simply getting a product out to your client quickly and without catastrophe. Directly handing orders to clients may be the best way to ensure they receive exactly what they purchased, but it's not always an option. So, do you know the best options when it comes to shipping for your business?

Watch the Shipping Rates
All three major mail carriers (FedEx, UPS and U.S. Postal Service) increased their 2012 shipping rates for small packages, making the task of finding the best service for the most cost-effective price more important than ever. Overall, rates only increased a couple of percentage points. However, when you determine your actual cost of shipping, that bump can create quite a dent in your profit margin…if you don't account for it appropriately.

Just how much more expensive it will be, though, depends upon a lot of factors. For example, your shipment volumes, sizes, weights, modes of delivery and locations will always be the true determinants of cost. Still, you need to find a resourceful way to ship your products without losing too much money or sacrificing customer service.

Luckily, PPA makes the opportunity to save a bit easier with a great FedEx discount. To save on shipping costs both domestically and internationally, all you need to do is enroll in the FedEx Advantage Program and create an account. You'll be able to save up to:

  • 26% on select FedEx Express® U.S. services
  • 20% on select FedEx Express international services
  • 12% on select FedEx Ground® services
  • 10% on select FedEx Home Delivery® services

George Hawkins, Cr.Photog., of Hawkins Photography & Framing has had his PPA discounted FedEx account for years, which has helped him save on his shipment costs over time. He also receives additional savings by printing shipping labels from home and then dropping shipments off at the nearest FedEx-staffed location or shipping center. It can be a great timesaver, as he can avoid long lines. In addition, he often saves by packing shipments in recycled boxes or free FedEx packing and shipping supplies. (Click here to order yours online, too.)

 "Dropping off my shipping is much more cost effective than scheduling a FedEx pickup," adds Hawkins. His studio is in close proximity to his local FedEx location, so it's quite convenient for him. Depending on your location, though, you may need to consider the additional time/transportation it would require.

Consider Drop Shipping
Drop shipping, or shipping merchandise from a supplier (like a processing lab) directly to your client, may be an attractive shipping alternative for photographers. Several companies offer this service—like Miller's Professional Imaging, Mpix, Zenfolio, SmugMug and Collages.net—but don't forget to weigh the pros and cons:

Pros

  • Quicker Delivery—By eliminating yourself from receiving the shipment first and then shipping it a second time to your client, you are able to lessen the total shipping time.  
  • Reduced Shipping Cost—You will have one shipping charge, instead of two.

Con

  • Less Quality Control—You will not be able to physically see the final piece before your client does, resulting in less control over what is sent out.  

Perhaps a mix of traditional and drop shipping would work best for you—the best of both worlds, as Ron Kolias of Ron Kolias Photography in New Hampshire says. With respect to shipping, he explains that the "main considerations you're holding in balance are cost and client experience."   So, while Kolias sees the cost benefit in drop shipping, he also understands the risk of not seeing his product firsthand (the possibility of an unsatisfied client).  As a result, he drop ships lower priced items and directly ships or schedules a pickup of his more expensive work to minimize risk.

Protect Against Delivery Dilemmas
There's always the chance that something could go wrong when you ship or mail anything. That's why you should plan for the worst-case scenario—just in case your delivery is lost or damaged in transit. Although the possibility of this happening is comparatively low (sources estimate less than 1% for FedEx and UPS), a backup plan is always smart! Here are some ways you can be proactive:

  • Address Liability in Your Contract – A shipping disclaimer is one of a few "limit of liability" clauses that can be found in a contract. It's a good way for you to plan for the unexpected and also clearly state your responsibility (or lack thereof) for certain "unknowns" that can occur during the shipping process. Use this section of the contract to explain any contingency plans (like providing replacement prints or products) and how the client might be compensated (if at all) for any mishaps. Check out a sample contract here.  
  • Track ALL of Your Items— When using a service like FedEx or UPS to ship, your items will always be traceable. However, the U.S. Postal Service doesn't offer this as a standard service, so it might be smart to pay the additional cost for a tracking number if you choose to ship that way. Tracking your shipments can help you know where your items are at a certain time, determine more accurate delivery times, and simply give you more peace of mind. And with PPA's Indemnification Trust, you're protected in the event film (or original media cards) containing an assignment is lost in transit…provided you shipped using a traceable method and carrier. (On the other hand, the Trust doesn't cover loss of or damage to any other property in the custody of any transportation company like a mail or delivery service, including delivery by employees or agents of the PPA member.)  For more information on Trust Coverage, click here.
  • Buy Insurance—It might be an additional expense and seem unnecessary for packages going a short distance, but make sure that your high-dollar shipments (i.e., albums, wall hangings, large print orders) are well protected. Most delivery services only cover $100 per shipment, but they will allow you to declare a value of up to $1,000. This additional coverage can be purchased in increments of $100 for as little as $0.80 (note:  a minimum declared value may apply).
  • Submit the Right Documentation for International Shipping—If you have to ship internationally, you need to follow additional procedures, and accurate documentation is one of the most important. Properly completing this documentation will help your shipment reach its international destination on time and reduce the risk of it being delayed at customs. To better understand the duties, taxes and other requirements for shipping to your destination country, check out the Country Profiles feature on FedEx Global Trade Manager. This feature provides an overview of essential, country-specific shipping information and regulatory requirements. By complying with import/export regulations and restrictions and determining what documents (i.e., commercial invoice, certificate of origin, health certificate, license, authorization) are required, you will reduce the chances of any delays. 

As with the rest of your business practices, the shipping process you ultimately choose is up to you, and different methods work for different businesses. Just remember to research the possibilities (and their pros and cons) to find the best fit for your studio shipping needs.

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