From Here to There

An overview of domestic shipping options for the seller

by staff writer
- Mar 13, 2008

The act of shipping your product might come late in the overall sales cycle, but it shouldn't be handled as an afterthought. Smart sellers consider all the shipping options before they even set up their auctions. They also include a clear explanation of shipping methods and fees in the item's description.

It's simply not good practice to leave buyers in the dark. Shipping costs can be pretty steep, depending on the size, weight, shape and destination of the package. No one likes to get hit with charges they weren't expecting after they've entered a bid. In fact, savvy buyers will take a pass on auction listings that don't provide an upfront estimate of shipping costs, to avoid getting burned. (Buyers can sort search results by Price+Shipping. Items without shipping estimates will rank lower in the sort order).

Do your best to provide a reasonable estimate of all shipping costs, or insert a shipping calculator in your auction page and let buyers see for themselves what it will cost (eBay provides a free calculator).

Shipping costs may include:

  • Postage, or actual shipping charges
  • Handling
  • Insurance
  • Tax, where applicable

When determining shipping costs, be sure to include the estimated weight of all packaging, including the box, bubble wrap, wrapping paper or any other fillers—then round up an ounce or two to give yourself a little margin for error. It's an easy thing to overlook, but even something as trivial packing tape can add weight—and cost—and bump your package into the next weight class.

If you plan to run more than just the occasional auction, it's a good idea to invest in a shipping scale to make sure your shipping estimates are on the mark. There are plenty of shipping scales for sale on eBay, and decent new or used models can be had for $25 or so. In a pinch, a kitchen scale would do fine. But don't use a bathroom scale. They are notoriously inaccurate, and you can easily underestimate your shipping charges and wind up eating the cost.

State the method of delivery (i.e., Priority Mail, UPS 2nd Day Air, etc.), and indicate whether your shipping fee includes delivery confirmation, handling charges, insurance or tax. The best policy is to itemize all this information, so buyers know exactly what they're being charged for. Too-high shipping fees might scare off potential bidders or result in low-ball bids.

Handle with care

"Handling" is a somewhat nebulous term, and even eBay considers this one a judgment call. Generally speaking, handling covers any expenses you incur in the act of packaging and shipping the item, such as packing materials, time/wages to pack and ship, and storage cost. It can be difficult to accurately estimate these factors, so give yourself a little leeway. Just don't go overboard. It may be tempting to inflate this fee and set a low starting price to avoid paying higher listing fees, or to use higher handling charges to pad your profit margin. Beware: eBay is cracking down on sellers who try this tactic. Violators risk having their listings cancelled or being suspended from eBay altogether.

There are better ways to keep your costs down anyway. For instance, free shipping materials are available from the three major carriers, FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service (when Priority service is used). Or you can get discounted shipping through PayPal, which will also conveniently prepare your printable shipping labels for you.

Additionally, if you live far away from the nearest package drop-off site, you may be able to schedule free carrier pick-up. No more long lines at the post office.

For guaranteed delivery within two to three business days, USPS Priority is a darn good value

Shipping insurance is generally recommended, but it's nice to give buyers the option to have it or not—and spell out the cost. You can buy insurance online or at the point of shipment. If you purchase insurance online through Auctiva, you'll pay less than you would for the same amount of coverage through the post office—and you can pocket the difference, or pass the savings on to your buyer, if you choose. Be sure to provide as much insurance as the item is actually worth, regardless of what you sold it for. Insurance providers typically only cover retail replacement cost.

Know the carriers

It's a good idea to use a shipping method that is traceable. USPS shipments do not have a tracking number unless you buy the delivery confirmation option. UPS, FedEx and DHL automatically provide tracking numbers for all packages. PayPal's shipping service also provides this by default.

Shipping costs and services can vary widely. For large, heavy items, you'll almost always be better off using one of the large, independent parcel companies. But for low-cost delivery, it's tough to beat the good ol' postal service.

One of the nice things about the U.S. Mail is consistency of pricing, regardless of the destination. And as long as you provide a legitimate address, you can be pretty much assured the package will get there. "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night," and all that. FedEx and UPS, on the other hand, won't deliver to a P.O. box, and certain services may not be available for shipments destined for Alaska and Hawaii.

But there is a reason the postal service is called "snail mail." It can take up to two weeks for a package to complete a cross-country trek using standard postal rates. If it has to get there overnight, FedEx is likely your best option—though it's also among the most expensive. First Class mail is probably the least pricey shipping method for the majority of packages that weigh less than 2 lbs. For guaranteed delivery within two to three business days, USPS Priority (up to 70 lbs.) is a darn good value.

Say you wanted to ship a 5 lb. package measuring 11 in. x 8.5 in. x 5.5 in. from Chico, CA, to Largo, FL. Using FedEx Express Saver delivery would cost around $26. If you sent the same package by USPS Priority using the Priority Flat Rate box of the same size, shipping would be $8.95—cutting your cost and delivery time.

Shipping Dos and Don'ts


  • Provide a reasonable estimate of shipping/handling charges, or
  • Embed a shipping calculator in your auction.
  • Consider using PayPal to save on shipping costs.
  • Order free USPS shipping containers through eBay.
  • Ship promptly and follow-up with buyer.


  • Leave shipping details blank.
  • Inflate shipping/handling fees to offset a low starting price.
  • Ship items in recycled liquor or hazardous materials boxes.

Freight is a different story. When shipping freight—generally defined as items weighing 150 lbs. or more—the major carriers can be prohibitively expensive. One option is to arrange freight shipping through a local trucking company. More than people realize, those two- and three-trailer rigs you see screaming down the highway are carrying less than a full load, known in the business as LTL. Trucking companies will often offer cut-price shipping to fill those trailers and optimize their transportation costs.

The thing to be aware of, however, is that shipments by this method are typically uninsured and unprotected.

It's worth your time to look into the services of freight shipment brokers. These companies, such as,,, and work with the leading shippers to fill their LTLs, and might be able to find you better rates—probably with better quality of service than you would get from the local trucking outfit.

It's a good idea to state in your shipping policy that you will ship orders within two to five business days after payment clears. When your auction closes, have the package ready to go, and send it promptly. Email the buyer to confirm shipment, and follow up a day or two after the expected delivery date. Just to make sure they got the package and are satisfied.

Good customer service can earn you big points when it's time for buyers to leave you feedback. Make it a positive experience from start to finish and you're likely to encourage repeat buyers-and continue to attract new ones.

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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