For most retailers, the quality of both their products and their reputation hinges on the abilities of their vendors. In the perfect business world, catalog and Internet retailers would be able to manufacture, sell and ship their products from one location. However, thats rarely the case, particularly for companies whose growth is outpacing their infrastructures.

 Vendors bridge the gap between whats promised in the catalog or online and whats delivered to the customers doorstep. Without quality suppliers, it is not possible to meet customer demand and provide quality service. For any growing enterprise, the influx of new business and subsequent demand means seeking new suppliers, and fast.

Although your company might not technically produce the products or ship them to customers, your name, and ultimately your reputation, is on the box. So, an item might be of the highest quality and craftsmanship, but it means little when it arrives in pieces or is damaged due to improper packaging.

Here at the UPS Package Design and Test Lab, weve encountered several catalog and Internet retailers facing this very challenge. The problem is not a suppliers product, but oftentimes, its their packaging. So how do we at the UPS Testing Lab recommend addressing this problem? Try getting your suppliers on the same page or in this instance, in the same box.

The Challenge

Suppliers are not often used to packing their products for a small parcel environment. With a large volume of orders, catalogers rely heavily on small package carriers to deliver their goods. For suppliers, however, their packaging is designed for a palletized environment meaning items are stacked and shipped by LTL and air without ever being touched by workers during transport.

Palletized items often lack the needed cushion and packaging required for a small package environment. For instance, palletized settings require greater strength on box tops for stacking, whereas a small package setting needs strength on the sides of the boxes.

Plow & Hearth, a large retail company, was struggling with this very issue when it came to our lab for assistance. The company was experiencing fast growth and had contracted several new vendors to provide a variety of housewares and other items.

The vendors, through no fault of their own, were shipping items to Plow & Hearth customers using their palletized packing technique. No standardized shipping requirements were in place, so these suppliers did what was normal in their daily operations.

When the items arrived, many were damaged as a result. Plow & Hearth was incurring additional shipping costs by both paying for customers to send the items back and to send out replacement items. Additionally, its customer service centers were dealing with unhappy customer calls and complaints.

Ultimately, Plow & Hearth had to pull several items from its catalog, since the price tag and return shipping costs for damaged goods were outweighing the benefits received by the company for carrying these items.

The Solution

In addition to cutting costs, Plow & Hearth came to us looking for a way to reduce the amount of damaged items being delivered to its customers and reassure these customers of the companys dedication to the highest quality products and exceptional customer service.

To begin, we asked Plow & Hearth to send us over 55 different items for testing to determine what damages were most common. Everything from glass mirrors to ceramic garden gnomes came through our lab.

In the end, we discovered that the suppliers packaging was great for pallets but poor for small parcel shipping. It was easy to see why these vendors were shipping this way usually they were only responsible for sending bulk packages to distribution centers and not directly to the consumer.

After testing was complete, we helped Plow & Hearth develop a single, standardized method of packaging for all of their vendors. After implementing the new specifications across suppliers, the company reported a significant reduction in the amount of damaged items received by customers. The customer service calls declined, transportation costs lowered and customers had a renewed confidence in the company and its products.

The business was also able to reintroduce many of the items they had previously pulled from the catalog due to the damages. In fact, the new standardized shipping requirements allowed the company to increase the selection of products it is able to offer its customers.

Now, we recognize that a majority of businesses out there might not have the resources a retail giant like Plow & Hearth might have. That doesnt mean, however, that you should forsake quality and customer satisfaction. The most beneficial tip we can give small businesses is to work with your vendors upstream in the delivery process.

That means that when packages arrive at your business, you or your staff make the needed reinforcements to a package to assure it arrives undamaged. It might mean adding another box, more tape or even more packaging. But what you receive in return is far greater than the costs involved with shipping supplies.

Over time, and as your business grows, you can also explore using a standardized shipping policy. For those on a small business budget, making the needed changes to in-house is a sound investment.

Dennis R. Estep is Senior Director of Engineering Services for UPS Professional Services. For additional information on The UPS Package Design and Test Lab, call toll free 877-877-7229 or log on to