Please, Mr. Postman: Your guide to packaging and shipping from northwest Michigan

Long lines at the post office. Costly packaging supplies. Tacked-on fees for special handling, insurance or delivery confirmation. Small business shipping can be a hassle-but it doesn't have to be. With a little research, and our handy regional shipping guide, you can save your business precious time and money.

THE BIG THREE BREAKDOWN

Shipping costs alone can easily send one into a tizzy, with prices dependent on so many factors. It may make sense for you to use exclusively one carrier, or it might save you money to use different carriers for different shipping needs. We compared prices between USPS, UPS and FedEx on different-weight items shipping from Traverse City to the same location (Chicago), and found that, generally, USPS is the best deal for lighter items, while FedEx and UPS will save you money on the heavy stuff (think items over 15 pounds). There are pros and cons to each carrier's services, too: USPS can be a great value, with bulk mailing discounts and flat-rate packages, but doesn't offer tracking; UPS has great online tracking and overnight delivery options, but often tacks on surcharges for fuel and the like; FedEx offers real-time tracking and is considered best when you absolutely need something delivered on time, but can be pricey for small volume shipping.

The bottom line: Whether you run a one-person enterprise or your small business is bigger than mom-and-pop, it pays to do your homework. Shipping rules and rates for UPS and FedEx usually change on January 1 each year, going into effect in the middle of the month, so read up annually to determine which solutions are smartest for you.

BEST LOCATIONS FOR LAST-MINUTE EXPRESS SHIPPING

It's after 5 p.m. but you need your goods to get there first thing tomorrow? These three staffed shipping locations have the very latest hours in the region; scoot in just before they lock the doors and know your package will still make it on the truck.

– USPS Barlow branch, 5:30 p.m.

(1756 Barlow St., Traverse City)

– The UPS Store on Garfield, 6:15 p.m. (801 S. Garfield Ave., Traverse City)

– FedEx Express Ship Center, 6:00 p.m. (2386 Traversefield, Traverse City)

DROP-OFFS & PICK-UPS

Really short on time? Ship your package at a self-service drop-off location, like the 24-hour automated center at the USPS Union Street branch, or the ubiquitous FedEx and UPS drop-off boxes at grocery stores, businesses and airports around the region. Pros: Quick in and out; easy-access locations; open any time. Cons: Collection times vary, and you're often locked into a specific rate and limited package size (check each carrier's website for specific drop-off box dimensions). If putting your feet up sounds better, schedule a pick-up: the service is free for all carriers, but if you need it at a specific time, it might cost you extra.

BEST TIMES FOR AVOIDING LINES

According to our casual poll of clerks at local shipping centers, Thursdays are the best day of the week for shipping; the best time any weekday is usually mid-morning, between 10 and 12. Worst times? Mondays (when people flock to shipping locations to catch up on weekend mail), and weekdays at lunch time and during the after-work rush.

SIZE MATTERS

Proper packaging is crucial-not only to protect what you're sending, but to cut costs. "One of the number one ways to save money on shipping is to make sure your cardboard box fits what you're sending," says Jackie Morrison, an 18-year veteran of the packaging/shipping industry, and owner of The Business Helper in Suttons Bay and Traverse City. Gone are the days of weight-only shipping; carriers now charge by dimension as well, so choose the smallest, lightest packaging possible for your item.

SHIP YOUR LUGGAGE AND SAVE

Save some dollars and avoid the headache of schlepping your luggage while traveling: Have it shipped to your location instead. The UPS Store on Garfield in Traverse City offers two sizes of suitcase-shaped boxes ($13 and $18 unfilled) that you can stuff to your heart's desire; they'll ship it directly to your hotel with a return label so you can have it picked up and sent home at the end of your stay. Depending on what you pack, it can be cheaper than airline luggage charges, says owner Carol Ziesman. One common item they ship this way? Golf clubs.

BEYOND PEANUTS

Most staffed shipping centers sell packaging supplies and offer a few free ones, like boxes or packaging tape. But taker beware: some freebies, like USPS Priority Mail boxes, will lock you into paying a specific rate. Even if you run an eBay shop that only ships a few times a month, you can usually save money over the long run by buying shipping products in bulk at a supply store. BN

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