For small businesses, shipping can be tough to manage. Too-slow delivery speeds can hurt customer relationships, and no one wants to receive a package that's been damaged in transit. At the same time, speedy delivery and unique packaging are both opportunities to seriously improve customer experience.

Fortunately, small businesses have many choices regarding who they ship with and how they package goods.

Finding the Right Shipping Method
In the United States, there are three main shipping companies small businesses generally use:
  • USPS (United States Postal Service): USPS is often the go-to service for small business shipping. For packages under five pounds, USPS will almost always offer the best rate.
  • UPS: This service generally offers better rates for larger packages. UPS's overnight delivery service is also time-critical, meaning you can schedule deliveries for the beginning of the next business day. This makes UPS a better option than USPS for time-sensitive overnight shipments, as USPS only guarantees that most packages will arrive by 12 p.m. or 3 p.m.
  • FedEx: FedEx is typically the fastest of all three services. FedEx offers same-day shipping. This service will cost you extra, but it is the best option if a customer needs a package fast.
Businesses that frequently need international delivery services sometimes also ship with DHL. Shipping costs will typically be calculated based on what service you use, how fast you want it delivered and how far away the destination is from the package origin. The dimension and weight of the items you're shipping also matter. Generally, you'll pay more depending on how bulky the package is, how fast you need it shipped and how great the distance is between the origin and destination.

Cutting Shipping Costs

Once you've selected a carrier, you should research the special programs and discounts that these services offer. For example, USPS, UPS and FedEx each have small business shipping services and perks that may help you cut costs.

You can also cut costs with the right packaging. Packaging choices vary hugely between small businesses. Some opt for trendy packaging options — like digitally printed packaging, which allows you to show off a logo or design and personalize every order. Others use the most economical option and take advantage of carrier-provided packaging, like flat rate boxes and envelopes. The cost of these packages are often more predictable, and shipping with them can also sometimes net you cheaper shipping costs.

Many small businesses have also started to use recycled packaging materials, which can make a business' shipping practices a little more sustainable.

If you're shipping with UPS or FedEx, you should also consider hybrid shipping services — FedEx's SmartPost and UPS's SurePost. These shipping services will deliver your package to the USPS distribution center closest to your customer. USPS will then handle last-mile delivery. Shipping time can sometimes be less predictable with these hybrid services. However, you'll typically pay less than you would with your carrier's normal ground service.

If you're shipping a large number of packages and have struggled to stay organized, shipping software can be valuable. Shipping platforms — like Shippo, ShippingEasy and ShipStation — can handle much of the busy-work of shipping for your business. These platforms can integrate directly with e-commerce software solutions, allowing you to generate shipping labels, update customers on tracking information and easily handle orders.

Most shipping platforms also come with calculators that let you quickly compare shipping rates across carriers for each package. This ability allows you to optimize shipping costs every time you send orders.

These solutions, however, will cost you. Payment models vary from service to service — some will charge a monthly fee, while others will charge per label printed. In general, you should expect to pay some money for the convenience these platforms offer.

If you want to compare shipping costs between two or more carriers, but don't want to commit to a shipping platform, there are also many free calculators available on the internet.

How Small Businesses Can Manage Their Shipping

You have a few different options to choose from when deciding how to ship your small business's packages. Most small companies use one of three primary carriers — UPS, USPS or FedEx — that each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Packaging presents an opportunity to decrease costs or provide a little extra personalization or flair that can boost the customer experience.

When shipping, it's worth shopping around to find the cheapest rate for your package. Online shipping platforms, which can help you keep your small business shipping organized, often provide calculators that help you compare costs.

Megan R. Nichols is a STEM writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. She enjoys writing about the latest news and trends in manufacturing, the supply chain, and science. To keep up with the latest news, follow her on Twitter.