7 tips to cut the cost of shipping furniture
By Jake Rheude
December 8, 2020 | 10:16 am CST
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For companies that sell furniture, especially bulky or custom pieces, shipping furniture to customers across the U.S. can be a significant expense. You're often stuck between shipping slowly but affordably or faster shipping that cuts deep into margins on any piece. Charging customers for the actual cost of shipping outright can solve the margin issue but may send some running for the hills.

Learning more about the shipping process and options available to you, plus what the experts do with delicate and large items, can help companies tackle these costs without burdening revenue or customers.

It's possible to control and significantly reduce overall shipping costs. Below are seven tips designed to help you do just that.

1.  Start with the right price calculators
When shipped individually, many furniture pieces are priced not by their total weight but by the amount of space they take up in a truck. This dimensional weight (DIM weight) is a specific calculation that carriers do with every package to determine its volume and create a price. This price is compared to the price based on package weight, and the carrier charges whichever is greater.

Many furniture shippers know this, but some are surprised because only a few of their pieces are light enough to use the DIM weight method. The best way for your business to prepare is to use a DIM weight calculator that provides the billable weight by zone for the carriers you use. You'll start to learn costs for your goods, and tracking can help you determine which of the other tips on this list to follow.

If you're paying the DIM weight price, look for opportunities to streamline box size or diversify packaging materials and infill to see if you can slim things down.

Perform your DIM weight calculations based on final packaging after you've fully secured the piece. It can be tempting to use the furniture's physical weight before boxed, but that can throw off some of your comparisons.

2. Pack it flat when possible
When facing high shipping charges due to DIM weight calculations, look for options to minimize the size of the packages you ship.

Some furniture pieces can be shipped unassembled and flat packed. This allows you to package products, such as bed frames and bookcases, more compactly. You can stack elements and layer your foam or other cushioning material inside the box to protect without a significant increase in bulk.

Flat-pack furniture tends to be popular for end-customers because it reduces their expenses, too. Modular designers, small goods, and kitchen staples all work well with a flat-pack design. If your audience is working from home more now, you might be able to standardize some elements across product lines specifically to support flat pack.

When you do go this route, take extra precautions for heavier materials and corners of your furniture. In many cases, you'll benefit more from a denser filler material and heavy-duty cardboard box than from air-filled packaging materials.

3. Split orders across boxes
If furniture can't be flat packed, you potentially can tackle DIM weight charges by splitting up orders among multiple packages for each shipment. This works for individual and freight shipments.

Align parts to minimize at least one dimension of the box and group similarly sized or shaped elements. Shipping rods and frame materials separate from cushions, for example, can reduce the dimensions of a package enough to drop overall expenses.

Test multiple configurations. You can try to split weight evenly between two packages. Split components based on weight or size. Or you can even try to maximize items when something, such as a bulky frame, takes up a lot of volume.  In that case, including all legs, brackets, hardware, or other ornamentation may allow you to utilize empty space in the box while still paying the same DIM weight price.

4.  Think about your freight options
When shipping to businesses — whether they be customers, partners, or your brick-and-mortar locations — consider freight shipping. It's generally more convenient and cheaper, plus it'll allow you to minimize labor ahead of final assembly.

One option here that we've noticed many smaller businesses don't think about are small freight shipments, called less-than-truckload (LTL). An LTL freight shipment handles your products on pallets or in boxes generally too large for a standard shipping service. You can generally get LTL services for smaller shipments, such as a single oversized sofa or recliner, or things like a dining set that includes chairs.

Full truckload shipments (FTL) are when you move enough goods to take up an entire truck from a carrier partner. These shipments open you up to many additional carriers beyond the big names like FedEx and UPS, which can sometimes yield cheaper options.

The tradeoff is that freight is generally slower than regular shipping services, and often your goods transfer from one truck to another during transit. Pricing here is partially based on freight class (a density calculation), but most carriers offer online calculators to give a proper estimate.

5.  Control bulk and assembly locations
Shipping via freight is worth considering because it gives your team a few long-tail ways to minimize your costs. Moving goods in bulk to your warehouses allows you to control the assembly locations and get goods close to customers.

Final assembly can make a difference in multiple ways. First, you may be able to have a manufacturer ship your furniture to you unassembled and flat-packed in more instances. This helps you and the manufacturer save money on those inbound shipments to your locations.

From there, you can keep items unassembled and ship them to those bulk assembly locations, such as your warehouses, brick-and-mortar stores, or third-party logistics partner locations. These locations can receive the freight inventory and then do any final assembly or quality checks, plus repackaging for customer orders, at one location.

When you delay final assembly until this moment, goods can affordably be staged across multiple warehouses to minimize costs based on shipping zones (distance between destination and origin). If you're moving inventory to multiple locations before it goes to a customer, keeping things flat and moving assembly locations as close to the customer as possible minimize shipping costs for every interim step. It also helps if you find yourself moving inventory from one warehouse to another due to order demand.

You'll minimize how much the goods are handled without full packaging protection, which may limit damage to your inventory.

6. Customize boxes and infill
Packaging is not a static art. There is continual innovation as companies try to achieve various goals, from increased safety and security in transit to meeting eco-friendly organizational or supply chain benchmarks. The packaging material you use one year might not remain the best option in the next.

Look for ways to customize your boxes and infill based on these alternatives.

Many warehouses use machinery to cut a custom-size box for every order. 3D printed materials can create molded infill to protect specific areas or create a custom foam design for your custom furniture. If your company handles large volumes of standardized furniture parts, robotics may help you pick and pack faster with less damage to goods.

We're seeing many improvements in lightweight packaging that is also dense, giving better protection against impacts while helping companies keep overall bulk low. New materials can help keep out moisture or protect against temperatures for furniture sensitive to the elements.

Find what works both for the individual product as well as overall company and organizational needs.

7. Don't neglect returns
The cost of shipping furniture doubles when you need to send a replacement or accept a return. Reducing returns related to damage or incorrect orders can significantly save your business, especially if you currently have high levels of either.

Rethink your packaging if you're facing significant damage-related returns. Look at materials to see what isn't protected or if you've pushed too far into removing materials and slimming boxes. Not cushioning edges or layering materials can lead to issues.

Some damage will happen in the hands of the carrier. Businesses shouldn't expect them to always properly stabilize loads and know that vibration and compression will happen. Heavy-duty boxes and materials are your best protection here. If you're having trouble with damage and think it is carrier related, switch some orders to others and see there's a damage reduction.

Start by tackling any potential faulty or thin packaging materials. If strengthening your approach doesn't work, split-test carriers or seek out third-party services to see if they can improve your packaging.

Ask the experts for help
Shipping furniture can be challenging, especially when product lines change or customers start demanding personalized products. You may have opportunities to standardize packaging and materials, or you could face a growing demand for unique items that always require a specific box and infill.

When product changes happen, or if you identify a process change such as final assembly services that will shift your supply chain, look for partners who specialize in shipping furniture and related materials that are dense, oversized, or delicate. Third-party logistics companies will generally be willing to discuss your needs and make suggestions or share knowledge on the latest best practices without requiring an engagement.

When in doubt, ask for help. And when you have the opportunity, share your knowledge with others. It keeps the community healthy and ensures more customers are satisfied with buying furniture online or shipped to them, improving all sellers' prospects.

Author: Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.

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