Starting your ecommerce company: Shipping within Canada
Though I've been doing IT consulting for big and small ecommerce companies for the past 5 years, the idea of starting Cambio Market, my own online store for ethical products was still very daunting. One of my first concerns was shipping. It's one thing to find products and get customers, but how will we actually ship our products to them? Should we ship all our inventory to a warehouse and let them handle it? Or should we package it all in-house and ship it ourselves? With our modest beginnings (we just launched at end of September) and because we currently do all the packaging by hand (including handwritten notes), it made more sense to handle fulfillment and shipping ourselves. But how?
We do all our packaging in-house by hand, and go the extra mile to include a handwritten note to each of our customers.
At first it looked easy. Show up to the post office. Get an envelope or a box that fits and tell them where you want to ship it. Pay, and you're good to go.
But after the third time when I had to stand in line for 15min, I quickly realized this process needed to be quicker. To be competitive, we also need to keep shipping costs as low as possible (and buying envelopes at Canada Post just wasn't cutting it). Unfortunately, shipping is much more expensive in Canada than in the US (which may explain the sorry state of ecommerce on this side of the border).
So, I had two main objectives right off the bat: (1) reduce shipping costs and (2) speed up the process (this means doing as much as possible on our own without having to stand in line). This seems straightforward enough but it took me quite a lot of research to get there. That's why I created this guide: to save entrepreneurs like you from having to go through what I did.
So, where do you start?
Don’t underestimate the power of good packaging - the package is the first experience your customers will have with your brand offline. For us, it’s important that our packaging is eco-friendly and offered a more personalized experience for our customer. There are tons of personalizations that you can do, consult this article from A Better Lemonade Stand to read more on that. While this is important and you should keep it in mind as you develop your strategy, do not over-optimize on this step alone. There will always be time to improve.
Once you have an idea of what kind of experience you want to deliver, you will need your own shipping supplies. ULINE.ca is great to buy envelopes and boxes in bulk at a decent cost, but can also be frustrating when you realize you just ordered 500 envelopes that are too small for what you have to ship. I recommend being careful and trying a few things at Staples first before you commit to a big order. You also need stamps. A lot of stamps.
We also bought this postal scale from Amazon, which works well enough. There are more precise ones out there if you plan to only do small packages, but we wanted one we could use for larger parcels in the future (up to 75lbs). I think it's worth it to invest in a scale, but if you want to save some money in the short term, you could use a kitchen scale. Be wary of the precision, however, because if you get it wrong and underpay for a shipment, Canada Post will return your packages back to you, which means your customer will be stuck waiting.
Here are your various options for shipping in Canada
Regular mail (lettermail)
The golden rule of shipping in Canada is that if you can get away with using regular mail, do it. You will save a lot. Regular mail across the country is quick enough (up to 4 business days) and costs the same coast to coast. You won't get tracking or insurance but again, this is about optimizing for cost. Regular mail is done using envelopes. The type of envelope is important and depends on the type of items you ship and how fragile they are. You can use a normal Manila envelope (if it's not fragile), a padded envelope, a stay flat envelope (which we use to ship our fair trade greeting cards), or any kind of envelope, it doesn't matter.
Whats really important are the dimensions: 380 mm x 270 mm x 20 mm
If your product fits those dimensions, you can keep your shipping costs very low and stick to regular mail.
From our experience, the hardest part is staying within the thickness limit of 20 mm since we sell a number of accessories such as toques, headwraps, scarves, and jewelry.
Length and width are easy enough to measure but it's not always the case for thickness. To help, we purchased this mail slot from eBay that allows you to test how thick the envelope is once you are done with the packaging.
Our tool we purchased to help us measure thickness. If you underpay for an order, Canada Post will refuse to send it and you'll end up with an unhappy customer.
Of course dimensions are not the only factor. How much you pay depends on the weight.
Once you have measured the weight on your scale, put the right amount of stamps on the envelope and drop your envelope in one of the Canada Post red mailboxes in your neighbourhood. The box indicates at what time mail is collected so take note to ensure your orders are sent before the collection time. We spent an afternoon scouting all the mailboxes within walking distance of our neighbourhood and noted down all the collection times. This way, if we miss a 2:30PM pick-up at one mailbox for example, we know we can make it for a 5PM pick-up at another box nearby.
Canada Post pickup times are indicated on the mailbox. Make sure to scout out multiple mailboxes so you have more options.
Us mailing in our very first order!
If you failed at meeting the maximum dimensions for lettermail, you will have to look for alternatives. If you're after the cheapest, regular parcel is your best choice. There is tracking included, but no insurance. It's also quite slower. From 2 days (local), to 3-5 days for the same region of the country (Quebec-Ontario for example) or up to 4-9 days to the rest of the country. It's hard to predict the cost on this one because it depends on weight and distance.
Canada Post lets you do everything through their online service Ship-in-a-click. Type the destination address, pay for it, print a sticker and put in on your oversized envelope or parcel (no need for stamps) and you can just drop it in a red mailbox as well.
XpressPost or Priority
These are the 2 Canada Post services where you can get insurance, tracking and very quick delivery. Check out the Canada post website for more details on both services and the differences. Logistics are the same as Regular Parcel using the Ship-in-a-click website.
This one, though convenient, can get expensive pretty fast. I was unpleasantly surprised to see my 150g item costing $15 to ship to Alberta. That's when you realize that using regular lettermail can save you a lot, which makes the biggest difference for a startup like ours.
Once you get to the point of wanting insurance and tracking, it might be worth to look at alternatives to Canada Post. There is a service called SecureShip. This website allows you to get shipping estimates for all the various services offered by UPS, FedEx & Canada Post and allows you to easily buy the cheapest option. On top of that, because you buy shipping from them and not directly from those shipping companies, you get access to large discounts which can sometimes cut the shipping cost down by almost half. They also allow you to schedule a pickup and the shipping company will come to your door to get your package (we tried this once and it worked really well!).
So there you have it – all the key resources for you to get started with shipping in Canada. Cambio Market also ships to the United States, so stay tuned for a future post when I share what I learned about shipping to the United States.
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