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What is the best shipping method? A guide to balance cost and speed

May 19, 2023





Ecommerce orders are prepared for various shipping methods in a warehouse.

When it comes to order fulfillment, shipping is a delicate balance between speed and cost. Consumers expect their orders to arrive within days, but expedited shipping can quickly cut into your product margins. So what is the best shipping method to keep customers happy without over-inflating your landed cost

Well, it depends. On a lot, actually: the size and weight of your products, the location of your fulfillment center, and the negotiating power of your 3PL, to name a few variables. In this guide, we’ll break down 9 common shipping terms and shipping methods so you can make a more informed decision about how to ship your products.

These are the questions we’ll answer:

These are some terms we’ll cover as they relate to selecting the best shipping method for your business:

What is the best shipping method for keeping costs low?

Method: Economy shipping and standard shipping

Transit time: 2-7 days

Pricing tier: Lowest

The world of shipping is already so complicated—why not sprinkle in a little more confusion? 

Economy and standard shipping are often used interchangeably. The difference between the two is subtle: basically, there’s no real difference when shipping within the United States, except that depending on the carrier and the specific package and destination, economy shipping might be slightly cheaper and slightly slower—but not enough to make much of a difference. However, when it comes to international shipping, the difference is more pronounced. 

You can read more about the differences between economy shipping vs. standard shipping. For now, just know they refer to your basic, no-frills shipping service.

What is the best shipping method for a wide variety of products? 

Method: Ground shipping

Transit time: 1-5 days

Pricing tier: Low

Ground shipping is pretty straightforward: it’s a shipping method in which packages travel on the ground, whether that be by road or train. That said, many major carriers have a “ground” shipping method that will deliver to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. The bottom line is that ground shipping generally refers to relatively cheap, albeit relatively slow, parcel delivery—your “standard” option. 

Ground shipping is useful for sending a wide variety of goods without breaking the bank. Both UPS and FedEx will carry packages of up to 150 lbs. with this shipping method, while USPS will carry packages up to 70 lbs. Each of these three carriers has comparable size limitations on their packages as well—about 108” long.

On average, ground shipping takes about 1-5 business days, but if the package has a long way to travel, it could take up to a week.

What is the best shipping method to deliver orders as quickly as possible? 

Method: Expedited shipping

Transit time: 1-3 days

Pricing tier: High to Highest

Think of expedited shipping as an umbrella term that covers a ton of shipping methods and shipping speeds. Simply put, expedited shipping just refers to any shipping method that is faster than the carrier’s standard offering. 

In a world of instant gratification, shipping carriers have become impressively fast. If you’re willing to pay for it, that is. 

Expedited shipping can mean overnight delivery, next-day delivery, or delivery within 2 or 3 days. Of course, the faster you need to get anything anywhere, the more it’s going to cost you. Generally speaking, most shoppers don’t expect to wake up the next day to their package at the door (though that’d surely be welcomed). In ecommerce fulfillment, expedited shipping usually refers to 3-day shipping, but even that costs significantly more than ground shipping. 

To offset these costs, many ecommerce brands will provide their customers with options at checkout. That way, if the consumer really needs your product now, they can choose to take on that expense. With carrier-calculated checkout rates, you can map these checkout options to your 3PL’s warehouse management system (WMS) so the preferred shipping speed is communicated to the fulfillment center seamlessly.

Private carriers will typically accept expedited packages of up to 150 lbs., while USPS accepts up to 70 lbs. It’s also worth noting that expedited shipping often comes with some limitations, so packages may not arrive at remote destinations in Alaska or Hawaii in the promised timeframe. 

What is the best shipping method for small and heavy items? 

Method: Flat-rate shipping

Transit time: 1-5 days

Pricing tier: Mid-range

Flat-rate shipping is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of being charged based on your parcel’s weight, dimensions, and destination, packages sent by flat-rate service come with a single price that corresponds to the box you use. As long as your products fit inside that packaging, the price remains the same, regardless of weight or distance traveled.

With flat-rate shipping, you don’t have to consider dimensional weight—a measurement determined by the size of the packaging that can have a huge impact on the cost of shipping. This makes flat-rate shipping an excellent shipping method for a variety of situations:

  • Small but heavy packages: If your product is small but dense, flat-rate shipping may work out to save you money, especially on orders that are traveling a long way. 
  • Orders destined for Alaska, Hawaii, U.S. territories, or remote areas: When your package is crossing multiple shipping zones, standard pricing can add up fast. Flat-rate shipping may be a cost-effective solution for reaching faraway customers. 

One circumstance in which you should not use flat-rate shipping is if your product is very light but will only fit in a very large flat-rate box. This will drive up your dim weight unnecessarily—an oversight known as “shipping air.” 

What is the best shipping method for sending books and educational materials?

Method: Media mail

Transit time: 2-8 days

Pricing tier: Lowest

Media Mail is a unique shipping service from USPS that will ship media items only: books, films, manuscripts, video recordings, etc. The list is fairly restrictive—for example, you can use Media Mail to send “computer readable media” like CDs, but not video games—but it’s a very cost-effective shipping method if your product falls into this category.

Though it’s a unique offering from USPS, Media Mail is unlike Priority and First-Class Mail in that there’s not quite an equivalent offering from most competitors. In that way, Media Mail is both a brand name and its own shipping method. 

Media Mail usually arrives in 2-8 business days, but the cost is significantly lower than any other service offered by USPS (or its competition, for that matter).

Parcel shipping

Parcel shipping is a common term that actually doesn’t refer to a shipping method at all. Parcel shipping simply refers to the transport of any package under 100 lbs.—in other words, packages that your average delivery driver could handle alone. Most of the shipping methods used in order fulfillment fall under the umbrella of parcel shipping.

It’s worth noting that while parcel shipping refers to anything under 100 lbs., many private shipping carriers will accept packages of up to 150 lbs. for basic residential delivery, whether by standard or expedited shipping timelines. Anything over 150 lbs. is generally considered freight, which we’ll get to later.

Priority Mail and First-Class Mail

These shipping terms are used frequently, but they’re not really shipping methods so much as they’re brand names coined by the United States Postal Service. 

Here’s what you need to know: Priority Mail is just USPS’ first tier of expedited shipping. These packages usually arrive in 1-3 business days and may be up to 70 lbs. and 108” in total length and girth combined. 

First-Class Mail is a term that usually only applies to actual mail, not packages. Any time you’ve dropped a letter with a stamp on it into a mailbox, it’s traveled by First-Class Mail. But very small packages can also be sent this way, which offers a cheap solution for lightweight, relatively flat products. Items sent via First-Class Package usually arrive in 2-5 business days, must weigh 13 oz. or less, and must fit in envelopes under 22” long (the envelope can be longer, but it will be subject to surcharges). 

International shipping

Most of the shipping methods listed to this point can be used to send packages internationally, but the cost and travel time are significantly different when shipping across national borders. International packages are subject to customs duties, tariffs, and other taxes that drive up the cost of shipping significantly—not to mention that the packages typically have further to go. 

USPS, UPS, and FedEx all offer multiple-tiered options for shipping around the world. For a steep price, carriers can still deliver packages to some international destinations in as little as 1 day, but more commonly, between 2-5 days for expedited packages and up to 10 or more days for economy or standard shipping. The package restrictions—including what you can send—will vary depending on the destination country. 

International shipping is very expensive, and the cheaper options are incredibly slow by consumers’ standards. If your brand is garnering a lot of interest abroad, you should consider using international fulfillment centers instead of international shipping. By storing inventory in Canada, Europe, Asia, or beyond, you can fulfill those international orders at domestic prices. With cheaper shipping costs and happier customers, it’s a win-win.  

Freight shipping

The last shipping method on the list is the only one that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of parcel shipping. Freight shipping refers to sending any package over 150 lbs. Most of the time, freight refers to moving large quantities of inventory—like sending stock to your warehouse for fulfillment, or fulfilling orders to retail partners in a process also called wholesale shipping.

However, when it comes to DTC order fulfillment, freight shipping can also refer to delivering individual orders to consumers when the product is extra bulky or heavy. 

Freight shipping might be used to deliver appliances or furniture. Most of the time, DTC brands will only be sending wholesale orders via freight, but there are some exceptions. Consider, for example, DTC furniture brands like Floyd. The company sends ready-to-assemble furniture (similar to IKEA) and packages are often well over 100 lbs. Anything that weighs more than 100 lbs. is shipped through a freight partner (anything under 100 lbs. Is shipped through FedEx Ground). 

Freight costs and delivery time will vary depending on your provider, distance traveled, and any negotiated rates you can secure with them. 

Let Airhouse help you determine the best shipping method

When you speak with one of our fulfillment experts, we’ll conduct a free shipping analysis to see if you could be saving money on fulfillment with another shipping method. Schedule a call for your free analysis today.

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