Shipping Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing
Phase 1: Collecting orders
Phase 2: Sorting
Phase 3: Inventory preparation
Phase 4: Printing Postage
Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing
All of the prior phases have been organization for this phase. We plan our big packing and mailing day as a "shipping party." We rely heavily on volunteer workers who only get paid with free food and free merchandise. Volunteer workers are notorious for being unreliable. I always plan for no shows and for people who need things simplified, but that is not what I get. We have been very fortunate. We always have lots of smart people show up. In fact many of the people who arrived at this shipping party had come to a shipping party before. This meant they already knew how things worked. I could just hand them assignments and let them run with it. For several days prior to the shipping day, we hauled inventory and supplies down to Dragon's Keep. Among those supplies were 1000 sketched books, 300 unsketched books, 50 t-shirts, 150 sets of magnets, 50 mouse pads, 80 pins, 8 strapping tape dispensers, 12 spare rolls of tape, 2 rolls of newsprint for packing material, 5 box cutters, over 1000 cardboard boxes of various types, about 70 USPS mailing tubs acquired from the post office, and two dozen bagels purchased the morning of the party.
We do our packaging and mailing at Dragon's Keep because they have a large space and several large tables that we can use. For this event we had four tables in use for packing and a fifth laid out with food for breaks. Each table was set up as a station. The different shipping methods sometimes require different packaging. (For example to qualify for the priority mail flat rate, the package must be inside one of the USPS Flat Rate boxes.) Each table was set up for a different kind of packaging. The flat rate boxes tended to be the large/complicated orders, so I set those up on the tables closest to where we stacked all the inventory. The other tables were set up for orders that required smaller boxes. We had to change things around as we went to meet the different requirements of the various lists. All the inventory was set out so it could be accessed easily. All the boxes with the different sketched characters were set out in rows so that the volunteers could pull the exact books they needed.
I started by setting up the volunteers in teams. One person would collect the items for an order. The other person would pack the order into a box and put the address label and the stamp label on the exterior. Later we learned that we needed an additional person who could do the strapping tape for two teams. The group doing the single book orders set themselves up in a more assembly line fashion. There were six guys, two were collecting orders, two were packaging, two were taping. Another single book per order table had each person doing their own collection, packing, labeling and taping. We frequently had a floating worker who would carry loads of packages up the stairs to await the arrival of the postman. This person also had the assignment of grabbing empty boxes and flattening them. We amassed an impressive pile of cardboard before we were done.
My job was to supervise and make sure everything ran smoothly. If there was a question about an invoice or packaging type, I was the one who answered. Questions were frequent because sometimes I write notes on invoices as people make special requests. I was the only one who touched the file boxes with the invoices and address labels. When a team finished the list they were working on, they would come to me for the next list. I tried to anticipate and have the next list ready, but sometimes it got hectic. This was particularly true at the beginning because I started with the small-but-complex lists. In hindsight, it would have helped me a lot if I had taken the time to re-organize the file boxes after printing the postage. They were organized for ease of postage printing. I needed to be able to glance at the lists and see which table a given list should go to.
The postal pick-ups were scheduled several days before the event. Scheduling a pick up is easily done using usps.com. I made sure to indicate the size of the pick-up, but I'm not sure the assigned postman believed it because early in the morning he came by to look at what we were doing. He glanced around and said "I'm going to need the big truck." He came back with the big truck at 1 pm and then again at 3:30. We filled it up both times. When the postman comes for a pick up, all the packing work stops and everyone helps load things into the truck. This earns many good feelings from the postman. Apparently some people expect him to do all the heavy lifting.
I always schedule two days to do the shipping, but it seems that every shipping runs more efficiently than the one before. Part of that is because we know what we're doing. A huge part of it is because many of the volunteers know what they're doing because they've helped us before. This time we got it all done in one day. I will continue to schedule two days because there is always the chance that we'll have a low volunteer turn out or that we'll have more or more complex orders.
Once everything is packaged and ready for the post office pick-up, all the remaining supplies must be loaded back into my van for transport home. I did pretty well estimating the necessary supplies. We didn't run out of anything and there wasn't much to haul home. When I get back home it all has to be unloaded and set back up in my basement shipping center. And then we collapse into a heap because we are tired.
(Well, except for the fact that I will spend the next 2-4 weeks helping people with order problems. There are always things damaged in shipping, mis-packed, wrong addresses that get sent back, misprinted books, etc. So far fewer than 25 orders have needed further attention from me. That is pretty good for mailing out over 1000 packages.)