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Modern times have seen an increase in the importance of delivery of goods, and this trend has extended to the food industry as well.
We're not only referring to food delivery services. Even the food and beverage sector has embraced ecommerce business models — so much so that the online food and beverage industry is expected to hit $26 billion by 2022, exceeding the projected $16.5 billion this year.
That’s why if you’re an entrepreneur planning to enter the online F&B space, now is certainly a great time to do it.
That being said, there are a lot of aspects you should consider to create a profitable food business online. The first of these is learning how to properly ship food.
It’s a must package and ship your products in the best condition possible, regardless of what you sell. But when it comes to food, you have to take it more seriously. Your primary concern isn't just providing a great unboxing experience, it's avoiding losses and ensuring food safety.
What food products can you sell online? 🍿
Ecommerce and logistics advancements have made online food shopping a big business. These days, you can sell both non-perishable and perishable items.
Perishable food is defined as those that spoil, decay, or become unfit for consumption because they have a limited shelf life after harvest or production. These include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, produce, and cooked meals.
Non-perishable items tend to last a long time without needing refrigeration. Some examples include canned goods, pasta, rice and nut butter.
However, when it comes to packaging, food is usually split into four categories. These are:
- frozen food
- cold food
- cooked food
- dry food.
Each of these types has its own handling requirements because of their varying shelf-life. Therefore, it’s something to keep in mind to ensure you can handle shipping conditions.
Special factors to consider when shipping food
Food shipping is tricky because the products present storage and logistic challenges. Here are some factors to keep in mind when shipping food:
1. Food safety 🥡
Yes, this goes on the top of the list. One of the major struggles of food shipment is keeping your goods fresh. Shipping involves dealing with varying temperatures and humidity levels. The last thing you want is to deliver stale or spoiled products to your customers.
Proper refrigeration and insulation help keep food shipments fresh by keeping heat and moisture out.
2. Packaging 📦
Food items, particularly perishable products, are challenging to package and ship online. Two things should be considered when designing packaging: appearance and practicality.
With so many options available to shoppers today, it's up to you to show what sets your business and your products apart. And you can do this starting by making your packaging well-designed and distinguishable.
If your shipment contains multiple smaller items that can be individually labeled, try adding custom stickers or labels so you'll be able to showcase your brand. Customizable Foodsafe Paper can also do the trick!
However, the quality of the food should always be your top priority. Whether you’re sending a basket of fresh fruits or a frozen steak, you need to make sure you choose the suitable materials to keep them fresh for your customers to enjoy. Later, we'll discuss different materials you should use to ship food.
3. Shipment schedule 🕐
Due to the short shelf life of perishable items, small business owners need to be proactive when deciding when to ship goods.
For this, you must take into account two critical time-related variables:
- how long it takes for the items to reach the destination
- how long the food will remain fresh after arrival.
Delivering on time fosters better customer relationships, which can increase their loyalty towards your brand. You don’t want to lose 59 percent of consumers who will not do business with a company again after going through two or three negative experiences.
Additionally, it's even more important for food ecommerce merchants, as prompt delivery helps prevent losses due to food wastage.
💡 Pro tip: Shipping perishables early in the week is crucial to avoid the risk that the food will have to be stored in a warehouse or fulfillment center until the following Monday, when the business week begins.
4. Shipping services 📮
Customers usually understand the time-sensitive nature of food ecommerce, so you should try to be transparent with them. Provide them with information on the benefits of choosing a faster delivery option, and how it can help ensure their food arrives in perfect and fresh condition.
Express shipping is the best option, but it can be too costly for SMBs. One workaround is to do batch shipping. Standard ground shipping is ideal for consumers who want low shipping costs on non-perishable food items.
Find out what your chosen courier offers. Some of the top carriers that offer food shipping include:
- FedEx offers unique temperature-controlled shipping options for perishable goods.
- USPS can handle certain types of shipment using dry ice or other cooling agents, but they don't offer refrigerated services.
- UPS express shipping program offers many options for shipping perishables in a time-sensitive manner.
5. Shipping costs 💵
Free delivery is often an excellent incentive for people to buy your products. 90% of consumers said they would purchase more often online if shipping was free.
Unfortunately, shipping food products is a complex process that involves a variety of factors. So free shipping isn't always possible. To give you context on how costly it can be, a package weighing two to three pounds can cost between $30 and $150.
The following factors play a crucial role in computing shipping costs, so they should be taken into account:
- Package dimensions. Most carriers use the dimensional weight to calculate the shipping rates.
- Package weight. It tells how heavy an item is. Shipping is more expensive for heavier and larger packages.
- Destination. Shipping rates measure how far a package travels from its origin to its destination. The US has zones ranging from 1 to 8.
- Delivery times. The cost of shipping increases with higher zones in the US. For perishable items, urgency can also be a factor.
- Extras. Cooling agents are essential to preserving the most perishable items, but they add weight and costs to any shipment.
6. Customer policy 🧔
Perishable goods can be transported safely and in good condition by considering the factors listed above. However, implementing customer policies will help you safeguard your business.
Because the truth is, food products, especially perishable ones, are always susceptible to spoilage.
Establish expectations early on for your shipping policy and outline the process for refund and replacement, particularly if the product does not arrive in good condition. Make sure you post the information on your website and include a copy of it with the shipment to avoid misunderstandings.
7. Local delivery zones 📬
In some cases, shipping food to certain locations doesn’t make sense for your business. For instance, if an area is too far from your store and any delays in shipping would compromise the quality of your products, then you may need to establish delivery zones that specify exactly where you ship.
Communicate this with your customers on your website and other assets to ensure that they’re well aware of your policies.
Materials required for effective food shipping
If you're wondering what's the best packing material to ship food, there's no single answer. Knowing how to handle the materials you can use to keep your product fresh and edible is important.
Are you selling baked goods, perishable foods, or frozen food? The type of product you offer largely affects the type of box you choose to put it in. You also need to choose the right size to make sure there's enough empty space for fillers. These two are the most common types you’ll see in food shipment:
Corrugated fiberboard box. There's a reason behind the $320 billion value of the corrugated box industry. Corrugated fiberboard boxes offer a lot of advantages, such as durability, cost-effectiveness, and extra protection. They are also customizable, recyclable, and easy to handle. Understandably, they are suitable for perishable and cold products.
Cardboard box. Cardboard material isn’t as sturdy, but it’s good enough storage for dry food products. The term "dry food" refers to any food that won't become moist during travel, such as vegetables, baked goods, and dry foods.
These materials keep your products in place and protect them when they are put under heavy weight. The bottom, sides, and top of the box should be lined with the proper material to reinforce the box from within.
In some cases, these materials can also provide insulation and keep your food fresh until your product reaches your customers.
Crumpled paper or crinkle paper. This is a fully recyclable product since it is made from paper. This can, however, be really expensive for something that doesn't offer much protection and only fills the box. The upside is that it adds a rustic feel to your package.
Bubble wrap or bubble wrap alternatives. Not only does this material make a great stress reliever, but it also keeps and protects your items during shipping. In addition, you can now find insulated bubble wrap for cold food products.
Biodegradable packing peanuts. A great alternative to foam peanuts, this biodegradable alternative is made with cornstarch and is virtually identical to the styrofoam version. Use it to pad extra space in your boxes to ensure that food items stay secure. Known as foam peanuts, these types of packing materials are often used to protect fragile items during shipping.
Mushroom packaging. Made out of hemp hurds and mycelium, mushroom packaging serves as a solid and sturdy packing material that can secure your product firmly in place. Mushroom packaging is compostable, meaning the material can decompose back into the earth, making it it an eco-friendly alternative to styrofoam.
Styrofoam sheets. Material such as this insulates the package and secures your product firmly in place. However, they're not the most eco-friendly option.
Air pillows. These can protect light to medium weight food products. They don't affect shipping costs because they are light and have minimal storage space.They’re traditionally made out of plastic, but you can opt for an eco-friendly option by using air pillows that are made from biodegradable film.
Coolants and refrigerants
The use of coolants and refrigerants prevents temperature-sensitive products from becoming warm. As a result, they help lengthen the shelf-life of these products while in transit, especially for frozen or cold food products. There are two well-known effective coolands and refrigerants.
Dry ice. Dry ice helps frozen food products remain chilled during shipment. It's a solid form of carbon dioxide and doesn't become liquid over time because it goes straight to gas. One downside is that it's costly, and some carriers prohibit its use.
When shipping with FedEx and UPS, you need to indicate the package contains dry ice. USPS doesn't, but they have strict guidelines and requirements for it.
🚨 Safety tip: Check with your dry ice supplier and shipping company to use dry ice in shipments. When not handled properly, it can become a hazardous material.
Cold packs. Cold packs or gel packs are the best way to package and ship cold items since they are less likely to melt than ice and last longer, typically 24 to 36 hours. In addition, they are ideal for preserving fresh meat because dry ice tends to freeze the meat along the way.
There are various types that serve different purposes:
- Gel cold packs can be reshaped, making them ideal for irregular spaces.
- Plastic or foam cold packs do better on surfaces with defined contours.
- Ice packs and freezer packs help are perfect for keeping products frozen.
Examples of food businesses that ship online
We've shown you some factors and materials that play into food shipping. Let us give you some creative ideas on how to ship your product by looking at some food companies doing a great job of it:
Frozen food: Wanderlust Creamery
Wanderlust Creamery, an artisanal ice cream brand, ships across the United States. However, they have a minimum order of 4 pints in California, Arizona, and Nevada, and the shipping fee is $20 for up to 13 pints.
Anywhere else in the US, the minimum order is 6 pints, and shipping starts at $29 and varies based on location.
Wanderlust Creamery relies on dry ice to keep its ice cream products frozen. Due to the extra weight added by dry ice packaging, shipping becomes more expensive. According to their website, the company doesn't profit from the shipping fees and continuously works on lowering the additional fee.
Cold food: Wholey
Wholey, a Pittsburgh-based retailer of fresh and frozen animal products, has expanded their online presence. The shipping rates vary by location, but you’re eligible for free shipping if your order exceeds $200 (except for orders coming from Alaska and Hawaii).
The location also affects shipping schedules. For example, they ship from Mondays to Thursdays for nearby states, but only from Mondays to Wednesdays for further areas.
Wholey uses extra-thick recycled polyurethane foam containers and industry-leading package cooling to ensure the freshness and flavor of their products. These materials help the shipment remain at the best temperature during delivery.
They use cooling gel packs to keep their fresh products chilled, while their frozen products remain frozen with dry ice. They also have a disclaimer on their website that says fresh and frozen items will arrive frozen when shipped together. It’s a great idea because clearly defining expectations helps avoid customer complaints.
Cooked food: Fresh N Lean
Fresh N Lean is a healthy meal delivery service that offers a variety of diet options, including keto, low-carb, plant-based, and more.
Every Friday, they deliver freshly made meals to their subscribers, according to their chosen meal plans. Shipping is always free nationwide via GLS, FedEX, or UPS.
As part of their efforts to keep foods fresh during delivery, Fresh N Lean uses vacuum-sealed, insulated, and refrigerated boxes. They also use cardboard boxes to house their products, and these come with biodegradable padding or insulation. Additionally, they have frozen gel packs that keep the food from going bad during shipping.
With these materials, meals typically remain fresh in the refrigerator for up to seven to ten days after delivery. Storing the product in the freezer will extend its shelf life by 6 to 8 weeks.
Dry food: the Finer Cookie
The Finer Cookie, an online cookie shop, delivers to domestic locations and international destinations (48 US continental states) from its kitchen in Montreal, Canada via FedEx, DHL, Purolator, and the US Postal Service.
All products are freshly baked. And within a few minutes of being taken out of the oven and sufficiently cooled, cookies are carefully packaged in clear, food-safe bags, which are non-permeable, and keep the cookies as fresh as possible while they are in transit.
The Finer Cookie also has a couple of temperature-sensitive cookies on their roster. Due to this, they ship temperature-sensitive cookies to areas with temperatures below 50ºF without a problem. However, for addresses with higher temperatures than 50ºF, they use insulation packs to keep the cookies cool, or you can swap out your selection if you don't want to use insulation packs.
The famous cookie brand only ships its products on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays to ensure product freshness.
Shipping food can be expensive. But, if you don't put in the time and effort to learn how to package and ship your products correctly, you'll lose out on a lot of sales. Hopefully, this guide helped you discover the food shipping strategy that makes the most sense for your business to maximize profitability and minimize losses.
Enjoyed this story? Check out more in our Shipping Series: