How to Pack & Ship Fragile Items

Ask any eBay seller to name their biggest business headaches and “shipping” will be near the top of the list. Online selling is easier (and more lucrative) than traditional face-to-face methods like garage sales and classified ads, but getting the merchandise to the buyer is far more complicated. Countless parcels are lost in the mail every day, and those that do reach their destination don’t always arrive in one piece.

You can’t do much about lost packages (other than buy insurance), but you can do a lot to reduce the likelihood of an item being damaged in shipping. Here are some tips to help you pack and ship delicate goods like glass ornaments and ceramic figurines.

1. Prepare the Fragile Item for Packing

You never know what conditions a package will be exposed to once it leaves your hands; it may be left outside on a rain-soaked porch or dropped into a snow bank. When that happens, a sturdy cardboard box can turn to mush in a matter of hours. Protect your items against harsh winter weather by using at least one layer of waterproof material. One of the easiest and most effective options is to pack the item inside a clear plastic bag with a secure zipper closure. These bags come in a wide range of sizes and are sold on eBay and in shipping supply catalogs (search for “poly bags”). You can also use the ziploc bags in your kitchen pantry, just make sure to use the heavy-duty freezer kind, which are thicker and more durable.

2. Apply the Proper Padding

Clothing can go into a poly bag without any additional wrapping, but fragile items often can’t. To protect delicate painted surfaces, first wrap the item in a soft cloth (clean t-shirts are good for this, but trim them neatly and make sure they don’t have any stains or printing that could scratch the surface). Cotton batting (the kind used to line jewelry gift boxes) is also good. Don’t use paper towels or tissue paper, since these can be surprisingly abrasive.

Next, wrap the item in bubble wrap. You may want to use several layers, depending on the item and size of the box. Wrap each piece separately (including lids), provide extra cushioning around delicate parts like handles, and make sure any sharp edges (corners, metal hangers, etc.) are securely covered with small pieces of foam rubber or other materials that can’t easily be pierced or torn.

The bubble wrap should fit securely but not be too tight. Secure it with an easily removable tape (try using blue painter’s tape, available at hardware stores) so that it doesn’t move around in shipping.

Here’s a trick used by antique glass dealers: instead of using tape, hold bubble wrap in place with rubber bands so that the buyer can’t accidentally scratch the item when they cut open the package. This works well for heavier pieces of glass (like bottles) but is not recommended for thin, delicate items like ornaments, since the pressure from the rubber band could cause the item to break.

If the original packaging is still in good condition, use it instead of bubble wrap. Manufacturers of high-end crystal and china package their products in dense foam blocks that have been cut specifically to the size and shape of the item, ensuring a perfect fit. If the packaging is worn out, compressed or torn use bubble wrap instead.

3. Find the Right Box

The shipping box should have enough room for additional padding but not be too big; ideally, there should be several inches (2-4”, usually) of space on each side between the wrapped, padded item and the box walls. 

If you’re reusing an old box, make sure it’s sturdy. Inspect carefully for rips, holes, & weak or crumpled areas and water damage. You may need to reinforce the bottom with additional packing tape.

Line the bottom of the box with a layer of packing peanuts (available at office supply stores). Next, place the wrapped item inside, centered evenly. Fill the remaining spaces with peanuts. Close the flaps but before sealing them, give the box a gentle shake. If you can hear anything moving around inside, add more peanuts. You don’t want to stuff too many peanuts into the box, but there should be enough to prevent the item from moving.

If you’re shipping several items in the same box, make sure that each one has enough padding and that none of them can bump into each other. Don’t cram everything into one box just to cut down on the cost of shipping; the lighter and better cushioned each package is, the less likely its contents will be damaged.

Don’t substitute wadded up newspapers, tissue paper or plastic bags for peanuts. These don’t provide adequate protection (they can easily compress during shipping) and furthermore, they look unprofessional. When your buyer opens their package, they should be impressed by the quality of the packaging.

4. Buy Insurance

Insurance is always a good idea when shipping delicate items. Whether you require your buyers to purchase it or not is up to you, but mandatory insurance makes good business sense. It’s simply too easy for packages to get lost or damaged, even those that are properly packed. Many sellers insist on insurance for any item that sells for more than $50, but make it optional for less expensive purchases. Whatever you decide, remember that insurance is there to protect you and your reputation — if a package is lost and the buyer files a claim with eBay, you may be found at fault if you didn’t offer insurance. Delivery confirmation is equally important and should be used on all items regardless of their value.

Tips

  • Good packing materials can be expensive, so consider adding a handling charge to the shipping total to offset the cost. Most buyers don’t mind paying an extra dollar or two but will balk at paying more than $5 or $10. Exceptionally high handling charges may be viewed as a form of fee avoidance, which, if reported, can get you in trouble with eBay.
  • If your item requires special packaging materials (e.g., a custom-built wooden crate) or needs to be shipped in multiple or oversized boxes, determine the cost before listing the item so that you can tell potential bidders about the additional charges up front.

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