Tag Archives: shipping

Mailing & Shipping 101: Label Printers

These are a bit of a luxury but well worth the expense if you ship more than one or two packages or flats a week. You just click “Print” and out comes a professional-looking label ready to use.

Types of Thermal Label Printers

A bit of terminology clarification is needed: there are two kinds of thermal label printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Direct thermal is what you want — the labels fade, but that’s not a problem for short-lived shipping labels, and importantly, direct thermal printers don’t require a ribbon. Thermal transfer printers are more versatile and produce longer-lasting labels, but require a ribbon, and are not needed for our purposes.

Label Sizes

There are many sizes of labels that label printers can print. You’ll want to stick with standard 4″ x 6″ labels. These are 4″ wide, and you need to make sure you get a label printer that will handle these labels. Most of the cheaper ones won’t print on labels that wide, and you’ll be asking for trouble if you try to get by with one.

Buying a Thermal Printer

The standard for these printers is the line of Zebra/Eltron printers. They are expensive but you can get deals on used ones on eBay. I bought three of them a couple of years ago for $40 and two of them were good. There are a bunch of models that all function pretty much the same — I go by the appearance of the printer. If it looks like what I want it probably will do.

There are people (including me — see below) who are selling these printers on eBay.  Most are junk, often sold in lots.  A few are tested and include the necessary adapter cables, power supply, and blank labels, and are ready to plug in and use.  Expect to spend $75 – $150.

Many of the used ones only have a parallel (printer) port interface. You probably don’t have one of these on your computer. But you can buy a USB-to-parallel adapter on Amazon or eBay for a few bucks.  I’ve written an article about these adapters to help you understand them, select the right kind, and get it working.  You can find it here: USB Parallel Port Adapters.

If you don’t want to turn this into a science project but are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a new printer, here are some options:

Prices of course are constantly changing. If I had to choose one I think I’d try the $110 one, but mostly because I’m cheap, and have a high tolerance for having to fuss with things. If you want one that is likely to be trouble-free, go with one of the Zebra ones, or with a reputable seller on eBay.

The above links, and others scattered around, go to Amazon and earn me a small commission. There are also many other suppliers; Google the printer you’re interested in (or “Zebra LP2844”, the standard workhorse). But be careful; many label printers will work with Stamps.com but many won’t.

Sometimes I have label printers for sale on eBay.  If so they will be shown at the bottom of this post.

Buying Thermal Printer Labels

You’ll need a roll of labels. Unless you’re doing a lot of printing, just buy one or two rolls at a time. They typically hold 250 labels which will last you pretty much forever. The labels go bad if they sit around too long, more than a few months.

Here are links to labels on Amazon, both single rolls and multiple rolls (which are a bit cheaper per roll):


Note that there are several sizes of 4″ x 6″ roll labels. You want the rolls of 250 with a 1″ core. Bigger rolls might fit your printer, but I haven’t tried them, and anyways 250 labels is a lot.

Note the price per label: you have to figure it out, but using today’s prices, the most expensive labels cost 2.6 cents each. Compare that with sheet labels (or Stamps.com labels), and you’ll pay for your label printer from just the savings, before too long.

Drivers for Thermal Printers

You’ll also need a driver. There are a bunch of them floating around, and some work better than others. There are drivers by UPS, Zebra, Seagull Scientific, and others. Google “Zebra Eltron 2844 driver” and pick one. I keep switching from one to another to try to solve minor problems, and there isn’t really much difference.

There are a lot of different printer models, and you may not be able to match your exact printer to an available driver.  Don’t worry too much about this.  If your printer isn’t listed, start with “LP2844”, and then try others if that one doesn’t work.  For me it always does.

Look through the driver properties and set ones that seem like they might be useful, like “Intensity” and “Speed”. Check submenus too — these drivers have a lot of settings.

If labels are printing but aren’t positioned right, go into the driver properties and fuss with the label’s size, orientation, and margins. With some drivers these settings are located on submenus accessed from buttons on the main properties menu.

There are very often ways to define sizes for the various labels you use and give them names. Even if you only use one size of label (like 4″ x 6″) it sometimes helps to define that as a named label size.

If you’re getting the feeling that it may not be super easy to find settings that work, you’re right. But the good news is that once you get it set right it will stay that way. And sometimes you get lucky and it just works the first time.

If all else fails and you can’t find settings that work, try a different driver. There are several of them out there, and while they’re all similar, each differs in some ways.

Zebra/Eltron Test Print

If you have an Eltron (Zebra) label printer, you can get it to print a test page by powering it on while holding down the paper feed button.  It will start blinking red; when that happens release the button.  A test print cycle will begin.

The test print cycle skips a few labels at first, so don’t think it is running away and stop the test.  Eventually it will print a label with some details about the printer firmware.  When that completes the printer will be in dump mode.  In that mode it will print the raw data it is sent.  Press the paper feed button to end dump mode.

The most useful thing on the test print, aside from verifying that the printer isn’t dead, is the gray bar near the top of the test label.  It prints every dot over the width of the printer, in a stair-step pattern.  If it is a nice even gray with very few gaps, the printer is working well.  If there are visible gaps, the printhead is dirty or worn.

You can clean the printhead with an alcohol wipe.  Spend a minute or two on it; some deposits don’t come off right away.

Other Uses for Thermal Printers

By the way, these label printers are good for other things as well. You can print to them just like to any printer, and if you create a 4″ x 6″ page it will come out the way you want. I use this method to print labels for file boxes, for instance.

Also, if you are trying to print labels from a website or program other than Stamps.com you may get labels formatted for printing on regular letter-sized sheets. First see if there is a setting for printing to label printers, and if not use the following technique.

Print the label sheet to a pdf file (or scan a printed page), use a pdf-to-jpg converter to make a jpg file (Google it), and finally use an image-editing program like paint.net to make the part you want to print be 4″ x 6″. You can then simply print the image on your label printer. It sounds complicated but it’s faster than cutting out a plain paper label and taping it to the box.

Label Printers I Have for Sale

Here are any label printers I’m selling on eBay.  They come with everything you need: the printer, a roll of labels, a USB interface, a power supply, all cables, an installation manual, and drivers.  This article can also help you get it working.

 

Installation Instructions

I have prepared a package consisting of drivers and a manual that I supply with label printers that I sell.  You can download it here.

Mailing & Shipping 101: Stamps.com

I sell a lot of stuff on eBay and have a pretty good system for shipping and mailing stuff.  I thought I’d share how I handle postage…

Internet Postage Suppliers

The first thing you need is an account with an internet postage supplier.  These services are the greatest thing since, well, stamps.   I use www.stamps.com but there are others, such as www.endicia.com.  I’ve only ever used Stamps.com but I like it and it meets my needs well.

The remainder of this post refers to the Stamps.com service, but other services are similar; please post a comment if you have suggestions for use of other services, if you have suggestions or corrections, or if you just find this useful.

These services all have a monthly fee.  For Stamps.com it is $15.99 a month for the basic service, which will have all of the features you need.  If you’re now using a postage meter, this fee will seem like a bargain.  If not, you’ll have to justify it by the time and money you’ll save, and by the value of the convenience it gives you.  I find it very much worth the cost.

Overview of the Stamps.com Service

There are basically two ways to use the Stamps.com service:  to print NetStamps, which are just like stamps but you get to specify the value; and to print postage directly on mailpieces or letters.   There are also two versions of the Stamps.com software you can use, an online web-based version, and a version that you install on your computer.

If you use NetStamps you lose much of the value of the service.  You don’t get any discounts on postage, you can’t easily allocate postage expense to categories,  your mail is processed more slowly, and you don’t get free tracking on packages that qualify for it.

In addition, the Stamps.com software has a pretty good address book, so it is easy to specify an address to be printed when you’ve sent mail there before (which for me at least) is almost always the case.  When sending packages to strangers, as is typical with eBay, it is very easy to cut-and-paste an address all at once (not one line at a time), and there is also an automated way to ship out eBay packages where the details are filled in directly from eBay.

Further, for packages you can enter an email address for the recipient, and Stamps.com will send an email with tracking information.

I rarely use NetStamps, and also do not use automation such as links to eBay.  It is easy enough to cut-and-paste the address for the few eBay packages I send out a day, and I like the opportunity to look things over that it gives me.

I prefer to use the Stamps.com software rather than the web-based version.  Maybe it has gotten better, but when I’ve tried to use it in the past I’ve run into too many limitations, especially with printing.  On the other hand, the locally-installed software does everything, and I recommend using it for everything.

What You’ll Need

Most important is a good scale, preferably one that interfaces with the Stamps.com software.  I use an oddball brand (Elane) that has software available (for a small fee) to connect it to the Stamps.com software.  However most new Stamps.com accounts get a free scale, which I presume will connect to the software automatically, so that problem is solved.

Secondly you’ll need a way to print labels.  There are basically two options, though each has variations.  The easiest way to print labels is with a thermal printer, which prints those 4″ x 6″ labels that you see on packages from most any business.  The alternative is to print on letter- or legal-sized sheets, either plain paper or labels.

For NetStamps, you need to print on special (and expensive) label sheets sold by Stamps.com.  For everything else you can use plain labels, although Stamps.com has their expensive labels available for most things, if you want to get fancy.  Ten years into my use of Stamps.com, I’m still using the two NetStamps sheets that I got when I signed up.

Printing on plain paper is cheapest, but you’ll have to cut out the label and then use tape to stick the label to the package.  It’s OK in a pinch but not fun if you have to do it a lot.

There are a wide variety of laser/inkjet labels suitable for use with Stamps.com.  They will give you a professional appearance, and are only slightly more difficult to use than thermal labels.  Here are some options:

Label Printers

These print those 4″ x 6″ labels you see on most packages from “real” companies.

They are a bit pricey bit in my opinion well worth the cost.

I’ve written a separate post about them because there is a lot to say:  Mailing & Shipping 101: Label Printers

Customizing Stamps.com

After you’ve learned the basics, you’ll probably want to customize the way Stamps.com prints envelopes and labels.  You can choose your own font for addresses and return addresses, and can include a logo in some layouts.

Custom Accounts

You can also set up custom accounts to charge postage to, and then get reports telling how much you’ve spent for each account.  This is good if you’re using Stamps.com for business and personal mail, or if you want to be able to bill postage expenses to clients.  Getting reimbursed for some of your postage expenses can easily pay for your Stamps.com subscription.

Hidden Postage

On many types of shipping labels, you can choose to not print the postage amount on the label (it’s still hidden in the bar code so the Post Office knows that you’re paying what you should).  If you sell things on eBay you’ll find this feature useful, especially if you charge for shipping and mark it up.

Printing on Envelopes

You don’t want to use NetStamps for mailing envelopes, except in very unusual circumstances.  Print your envelopes with postage, the recipient’s address, and your return address, all at once.

For office use, this is what you will do most often.  Get a cheap box of 500 #10 business envelopes. and use them for everything, except when you need to use letterhead.  Much of what you will be mailing will be bill payments and such that come with pre-addressed or window return envelopes.  Always toss them.  The only ones to keep are business reply envelopes, since you don’t need to print postage on them.  Remember, you’ll only have to type the address once; in future mailings it will get filled in from the address book.

Using Your Printer to Print Envelopes

The Stamps.com software has calibration steps for setting up the printer for each type of envelope or label to be printed.  Just follow the instructions.  You’ll only have to do it once per envelope/printer combination.

I have had poor luck printing envelopes on inkjet printers, but if that’s all you have, give it a try — you might have better luck than I did.  Laser printers are easier to use, since they typically have a manual-feed slot that can be used for envelopes.  The downside of laser printers is that they will often crinkle the envelopes, but I just live with it.  The recipient will think the Post Office did it.

Whatever printer you use, check out the printer’s help file or manual for specific instructions for printing envelopes.  You are likely to find out that there are special steps, or driver settings, that will make printing envelopes easier or more reliable.  It often makes sense to create a separate driver instance specifically for printing envelopes.

Raised-Print Envelopes

If you need to print on preprinted letterhead-style envelopes, you need to be careful not to use raised-print envelopes in a laser printer – the raised printing will melt and mess things up.  I just put a post-it note over the raised printing (sticky-side entering the printer first).   You can also simply select to not print the return address when printing on an inkjet, or if your preprinted envelopes don’t have raised print.

Special Services

I’ll be discussing special services like Registered and Certified Mail later on.  For now, just know you can add such services when printing envelopes with postage.  What you can’t do is use tracking with letter mail.  In such cases, it’s easiest to just use a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope.

Use your scale to determine the correct postage if you’re mailing more than a couple of sheets.

Using Labels With Envelopes

You can also print postage and addresses on labels to affix to your envelope.  This solves the feeding-envelopes problem but adds complexity to the process and doesn’t look as professional.  Many sizes and types of labels can be used.

Discounted Postage

You get a small discount on postage when using Stamps.com to print the envelope, since there is a barcode printed with the address, and the postage itself doesn’t need a printed postmark.  These things also get your letter on its way more quickly.

Printing on Flats

“Flats” are what the Post Office calls flat things like big manila envelopes.  They are more expensive to mail, and require that postage be printed on a label.  If you have a thermal label printer, that’s the easiest way to print the label.  If not, you can use any of a variety of laser/inkjet labels.

Flats are often more than one ounce because of the weight of the envelope.  Be sure to use your scale.

If You Need Tracking

Flats are priced between envelopes and First Class packages and do not have tracking.  They also must be fairly thin (the stamps.com software shows you the rules).  If you want tracking, you can again use a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope.  Or a trick I use is that if you can make the envelope thick enough it will go as a First Class Package, which costs more but has tracking.  Stick a couple of sheets of corrugated cardboard in the package and you’ll pass the threshold for the package rate.  I’ve found that the Post Office isn’t too strict about this, so if you make an effort it will probably be good enough.

Shipping Packages

Shipping is one area where Stamps.com shines.  You can do the whole job in well under a minute.  You’ll also save money: rates are discounted, sometimes quite a bit, and you’ll be able to easily compare and choose the best service for your needs.

The process is straightforward enough that little guidance is needed.  I can only emphasize that the use of a label printer will cut the time spent in at least half.

Supplies for Shipping

The USPS has a wide variety of boxes, labels, tapes, and forms for use primarily with Priority Mail, and mostly available for free.  Look over the list of supplies on the USPS website (also available within the Stamps.com software), and order everything you think might be useful.  Especially look over the wide range of regular-rate Priority Mail boxes and see if any would be good for things you ship often.

Flat Rate Packaging

The USPS has a variety of Flat Rate Priority Mail packaging available for free.  This can be a great money-saver.  I suggest ordering some of each size, if you do more than a very little shipping.  Don’t forget Priority Mail Padded Flat Rate bags — these are a money-saver for many kinds of shipping.

Regional Rate Packaging

Regional Rate boxes are a series of Priority Mail packaging types that are only available online, and only for use with services like Stamps.com.  Your Post Office won’t have them, and can’t accept them unless they already have postage.

They are like Flat Rate boxes in that they can be any (reasonable) weight, but the rate depends on distance.  There are two sizes each of Regional Rate A and Regional Rate B boxes.  The “A” boxes cost about what two pounds of standard Priority Mail would cost, and the “B” boxes roughly three pounds.  I use these more by far than any other type of packaging.  They are great money-savers and are only available for use with on-line postage services like Stamps.com.

By all means order some of each size of Regional Rate boxes.  Do it today — it’s free.  You can order them from the USPS website, or directly from the Stamps.com software.

Big and Heavy Things

USPS pricing greatly favors small things.  Anything more than about four pounds (and that won’t fit in a Flat Rate box) will be cheaper to ship (domestically at least) by FedEx Ground or UPS Ground.  Unfortunately Stamps.com won’t help you with this.  Set yourself up an account with one or both services and use their websites to ship.  I use FedEx mostly, because it’s a bit cheaper and faster, and they deliver on Saturday.

If you’re used to using free Priority Mail packaging, you’ll be disappointed to find that you need to provide your own boxes for UPS and FedEx.  More about boxes in another post (someday).

You’ll also find that shipping using the FedEx and UPS websites is quite a bit more difficult that using Stamps.com, mostly because you have to enter the name and address into separate fields rather than all at once.

If you’re shipping eBay items, be aware that buying FedEx and UPS labels through eBay is considerably cheaper than by going directly to the UPS or FedEx websites, as well as being much easier.  Ebay has negotiated substantial discounts for its customers.

You have several choices regarding the printing of labels for UPS or FedEx, both of which will give you a letter-size PDF file containing the label.  First, you can print on plain paper and then use a plastic stick-on pouch to affix the label.  Second, you can print on half-page stick-on labels.  Lastly, you can use the method described above to fit the label onto a 4″ x 6″ area and print it on your label printer.  Many of the supplies you need to do these things are available for free from the shipping companies’ websites.

Small and Light Things

I sell a lot of computer parts on eBay, and lots of them are small and light.  Other similar things are CDs, small paperback books, and pretty much anything under a pound.  These things are best shipped at the First Class Package rate.  This even goes for many things that would otherwise qualify for Media Mail.

For First Class Packages, you need your own packaging.  For the most part, I like to use white poly bubble bags, which are strong and cheap.  You can buy these on Amazon or eBay for 10 to 25 cents or so each, in quantity.  I find that three sizes cover almost all of my needs:

If you do much shipping of this type, order 25 of each.  If you have the space and the demand, order more.  They get much cheaper in larger quantities.

Note that, as usual, my links go to Amazon and I collect a small commission on everything you buy — but you don’t pay more.  Note also that these items change price and availability frequently, so these links may not work and you may have to search to find a comparable deal.  [Please leave a comment if you find a link that doesn’t do what it should.]

Carrier Pickup

A great feature of Priority Mail shipping is something called Carrier Pickup.  You can request a pickup up to 2 am of the day of the pickup.  Leave your packages on the front porch (or somewhere safe) and the Post Office will send someone to pick them up.

You can request a pickup from the USPS website, or more simply, from the Stamps.com software.  You must be sending at least one Priority Mail or International item.  They’ll pick up First Class packages too, if they are accompanied by one required item.

I’ve been known to send a dummy Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope to myself to get the Post Office to pick up a pile of First Class packages when I can’t make it to the Post Office myself.

Be aware that Carrier Pickup isn’t always reliable.  It will depend on how your local Post Office is run, but you may find the pickups do not always occur as promised.  I keep an eye on things if possible, and give the Post Office a call if it gets past 4 pm and they haven’t picked up what they were asked to.

International Shipping

Here is another place where Stamps.com shines.  If you’ve been hesitant to ship things out of the country, don’t be.  I find I make a considerable percentage of my eBay sales to other countries, sometimes even big and heavy things (I just sold a $130 computer monitor to someone in Switzerland; postage was also $130!).

There are a number of tricks to preparing international shipping labels, but you’ll find they don’t take much more time to prepare than a domestic shipment once you get used to it.  This is primarily because Stamps.com will print the customs data right on the shipping label; no filling out (or figuring out) customs declarations.

International Shipping Services

For packages under 4 lbs, you’ll probably want to use First Class Mail International.  It’s by far the cheapest way to ship, although it supposedly doesn’t include tracking (USPS uses the customs ID number for tracking, FCMI packages have them, and often you’ll see tracking for them, but it’s not guaranteed and doesn’t work in any less-advanced country.)

For shipping of heavier items you’ll need to use Priority Mail International.  It’s expensive but does include tracking.

If you’re in a hurry and cost is no object, there are Priority Mail Express International, and Global Express Guaranteed (GXG).  GXG goes by FedEx I think, and has to be done at the Post Office — it’s not supported by Stamps.com.  And it’s very expensive.

International Address Entry

You initially enter the address the usual Stamps.com way — pasting it free-form into the address box.  Then when you try to do most anything, such as selecting the mail class, up pops a form with the address you entered broken into parts.

Stamps.com doesn’t do a very good job of this, and further, many foreign addresses don’t readily fit into the boxes they give you.  I usually just cut-and-paste things to get them as close to right as possible.  I’ve also seen cases where information gets left out.  Carefully compare the Stamps.com version of the address with the original and make sure everything’s there.

The Recipient’s Phone Number

International shipments require that you supply the recipient’s phone number and email address.  You can often get these from eBay or PayPal records, but sometimes you won’t have them.  In such cases I just enter my own email address and/or phone number.  At least if there is a problem with delivery it will give me a chance to straighten things out.

Customs Forms

Click on the button Complete Customs Forms and you’ll be taken to a new form where you need to enter information about what you’re shipping.  Fill out the top items, then fill out the line describing what you’re sending and pick the Add Item target to add what you’ve entered to the list.  Repeat if you’re sending more than one thing.  Make sure the “Agree” box is checked, pick OK, and you’re done!

For small things with little value, all the customs data will appear on the postage label you print.  You don’t have to do anything else.

Sometimes you’ll get three copies of the label.  Put the first one on the package as usual, and put the other two in a document pouch (leave the backing on the labels) and affix it to the package near the address label.  I usually put a couple of copies of the invoice for the shipment in the pouch too.  [The pouches are available free from the USPS website.]

International Letter Mail

For some reason I can’t understand, you can’t print regular First Class International letter postage on envelopes (or labels for that matter).  It is quite frustrating.  You’ll need to figure out the appropriate postage and print a NetStamp for this.

Special Services

If you use special services like Registered Mail, you’ll appreciate the fact that you can do most such things directly from the Stamps.com software.  Sometimes you’ll have to fill out or attach additional forms, and sometimes you’ll still have to take a mailpiece to the Post Office, but overall it’s all quite easy.  I’ll go over the most common special services in the following sections.

To access the Special Services menu, pick the Add’l Options: Select button.

Registered Mail

Registered Mail is used to send valuable things that need to be watched over for the entire journey, and signed for on delivery.  It is quite expensive and can include insurance for additional cost.  I’m including it here only because it frequently gets confused with Certified Mail.

You can include Registered Mail fees when you print postage, but you’ll have to use a special Registered Mail sticker, and bring your mailpiece to the Post Office and physically hand it to a clerk.

There are a lot of other rules and restrictions.  Look them up if you need to use this service.

Certified Mail

Certified Mail is used when you need proof of delivery.  This is used for mailing tax returns, legal documents, and the like.  If you’re not sure whether you need Registered or Certified Mail, you probably want Certified.

You can include Certified Mail fees when printing postage, and if you use Certified Mail a lot, you can even print everything, including the return receipt, all at once using special forms available from Stamps.com.  If you only do occasional Certified Mail, just get some Certified Mail stickers (and green postcards as described in the next section) and affix them manually.

If you don’t need proof of mailing, you can put Certified Mail in with your regular outgoing mail.  Otherwise, take it to the Post Office and get a receipt with a postmark from the clerk.

Return Receipt

If you use Registered or Certified, you’re likely to want a record of the receipt of the mailpiece at its destination.  This is the familiar green postcard.  There is also something called an Electronic Return Receipt which is cheaper and which also constitutes legal proof of delivery.  I prefer the good old green postcard.

If you use an Electronic Return Receipt, your mailpiece must be taken to the Post Office.  If you are using the green postcard, you can put the mailpiece in with your regular outgoing mail.

Insurance

You can buy USPS insurance along with your postage, but Stamps.com has its own insurance which is cheaper and is easier to file claims under.  USPS insurance is purchased at the time of mailing under the Special Services menu.  You also need to affix a special label to your package, and hand it to a clerk at the Post Office.

Some USPS mail classes have additional insurance included with the cost of the postage.  Priority Mail is insured for $50 or $100, and Priority Mail International for $100 or $200.  Look it up if you want the details.

Stamps.com insurance is purchased on the main postage screen and is billed with your Stamps.com monthly fee.  You can also purchase the insurance for a time after mailing; go to Tools->Buy Insurance to do so.

Note that USPS insurance will refund the value of the item plus the cost of postage if an item is lost or destroyed; Stamps.com will only refund the value of the item.  This can be a significant issue if what you are shipping isn’t much more valuable than the postage, as is often the case with international shipments.