A primer on shipping materials.

A primer on shipping materials.

A primer on shipping materials.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 14 2001 3:42 PM

Packin' It In

Picking the best packing for your holiday shipping.

9_neubecker_packinshopper

On the day I shipped all my belongings across the country to go back to school, I had an eerie feeling things were going a little too smoothly. Of the 30-odd boxes I was shipping via UPS Ground, the woman taking my packages needed only to glance at the first few before the other shoe dropped. When she asked me what was in the first few boxes (lots of glass and picture frames) and how I wrapped them (in newspaper), I learned that shipping isn't as easy as flirting with the UPS guy in the cute brown shorts. I spent the next four hours camped out at a table in the UPS station, with rolls and rolls of bubble wrap purchased at an extreme markup, repacking at least half of my life's possessions so that they were up to snuff for the exacting shipping requirements of UPS.

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With hazy memories of this, and with lines growing ever longer at the post office as the holidays approach (do you really want to stand in those lines twice?), I thought the question merited revisiting: What exactly is the best way to ship breakables so they'll arrive intact?

To find out, I sought some of the more shipping-challenged items you might send to a pal for the holidays or to a friend who's about to gallop down the aisle. (Engagements are on the rise after Sept. 11.) I went to Crate & Barrel and purchased the cheapest hand-blown wine glasses I could find. (Hand-blown, it was explained to me, are much more fragile than those made by machine.) I picked up some tiny fragile glass Christmas tree ornaments, too. Then, to round out the breakable ensemble, I went home and hard-boiled a dozen eggs.

I chose the most common and accessible packing accoutrements: peanuts, aka loose fill, those annoying little Styrofoam puffs that inevitably end up all over your floor; bubble wrap, everyone's favorite popping pastime; newspaper (I wanted to prove UPS wrong); and, at the recommendation of the U.S. Postal Service, popped popcorn ("it's inexpensive and environmentally friendly").

I decided to ship two boxes for each packing material. Each box got an egg, a wine glass, and an ornament. In one box I put the items free-floating in the packing itself. The other box, while filled with the same packing, had the extra protection of individually wrapped items (some in newspaper, some in bubble wrap) per the FedEx Web site, which recommends wrapping items separately if you're shipping several in one box.

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Because most of us are used to doing these sorts of things at the last minute, I shipped them all overnight to see how they'd fare with a little extra knocking around via airmail. No one at any of the shipping counters—Mail Boxes Etc. for the UPS packages and FedEx—seemed to notice that I was overnighting things to myself, and at exorbitant rates. (But then, maybe lots of people ship themselves hard-boiled eggs for Christmas.) The prices were indeed painful (approximately $22 per box for UPS Next Day Air Saver service, and $15 per box for FedEx's Standard Overnight delivery, both guaranteed for the next business afternoon), but I got what I paid for: I had all my packages the next day before noon. (To compare prices for shipping methods, check out the chart at the bottom of the page.)

Findings
The results were fairly straightforward: If you want breakable things to arrive whole, wrap them individually before putting them in any packing materials. Not one of my items that were wrapped up and protected with packing broke. As for the glasses and ornaments thrown naked into the packing material, all of those survived, too. The eggs were a different story.

As industry experts will attest, the items in bubble wrap had the least amount of damage—the egg floating free in bubble wrap had just a hairline crack. Though not dirt-cheap ($4.25 for a roll of large-bubbled wrap that filled two boxes, 12 by 10 by 8 inches each), the bubble wrap was worth the investment. Plus it provided hours of bubble-popping entertainment.

Styrofoam peanuts, surprisingly, were not infallible either. The egg that had traveled rakishly in loose fill was pretty well cracked. At $6 for a bag (enough to fill two boxes with a little left over), and considering how tedious they are to clean up, peanuts didn't seem to pull their weight in protecting valuables.

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The worst protection, though, came from the newspaper. The fantasy of this being the perfect packing material because it happens to be conveniently lying around your house is just that: a fantasy. The egg packaged with newspaper was completely smashed in on one side and not in great shape around the others. So, while newsprint is extremely cheap to use, shipping is not the best way to recycle your daily paper.

The surprise winner in this horse race was the packing material least used (or least thought of for packing)—popped popcorn. At an economical $1.15 per bag (we're talking the raw kernels here, not microwavable), which filled two boxes, popcorn was the only medium that provided such good insulation that the egg it carried didn't even have a crack. Moreover, it provided me with a tasty treat while I made out all those address slips.

Dum Dum Da Dum
But could I really rely on just eggs? That felt a little too easy, so I decided to ask some package-receiving experts: recent newlyweds.

The brides I talked to confirmed my findings, generally: Tissue paper and newspaper were not so good, and if they had anything that arrived broken, it had been packed in one or the other. As one of these ladies put it, "newspaper-wrapped items could well have been sent via wood chipper."

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Peanuts, while they work, seemed to be universally loathed because of the mess they make. One bride suggested registering first for a vacuum cleaner to clean up after all the gifts you've received packed with peanuts since they fly everywhere and splinter and split when you try to catch them.

The two favorite wrappings among brides were foam wrap (just regular sheets of white foam, usually stuck between plates or dishes) and the air pillow, which was described by the newlyweds I polled as "the best filler out there." You've probably seen this inflatable air cushion—which looks something like a plastic sandwich bag inflated with air—if you've ordered books recently from Amazon.com. While not in as high a circulation as peanuts or bubble wrap yet (a spokeswoman at UPS told me they'd just received their first massive shipment of them), their popularity lies in their easy cleanup—just pop the air bags and throw them away.

So if you're worried about how much time you have left to ship for the holidays—and UPS says its deadline to ship something cross-country via ground service, which is much cheaper than air, and get it there before Christmas is Monday, Dec. 17—or if you're running up against that one-year-after deadline by which you need to send a wedding gift, just remember this: If you want your packages to arrive alive, keep the newspaper for reading or lighting your fire, and pack with something that goes snap (bubble wrap), crackle (peanuts), or pop (corn).

Overnight/Next-Day Delivery

Price
U.S. Postal Service$24.85*
UPS$66.24 by 8 a.m.; $38.54 by 10:30 a.m.; $36.02 by 3 p.m.
FedEx$62.22 by 8 a.m.; $36.72 by 10:30 a.m.; $31.62 by 3 p.m.
DHL$35.29 by 12 p.m.
Airborne$29.70 by 10:30 a.m.; $26.10 by 3 p.m.

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Two- and Three-Day Delivery

Price
U.S. Postal Service$7.70 two-day
UPS$19.34 two-day; $15.52 three-day
FedEx$17.09 two-day; $15.71 three-day
DHLservice not offered 
Airborne$13.77 two-day

Ground Delivery

Price
U.S. Postal Service$7.25 (seven-day delivery)
UPS$8.97 (five-day delivery)
FedEx$6.73 (four-day delivery)
DHLservice not offered 
Airborneonly offered to preapproved customers with accounts

Prices based on a 5-pound, 12-by-10-by-8-inch package shipped from New York to Los Angeles. [Clarification: Different zip codes within the New York and Los Angeles areas may yield different prices. The zip codes used to obtain these prices were 10036 and 90210.]

*The U.S. Postal Service adds the caveat "to most areas."