A shipping label… it’s just a sticker on a package, right? Actually, things aren’t quite that simple. As an e-commerce seller, have you ever stopped to really think about just how important a shipping label is? Your shipping labels are a crucial element of your supply chain, so having a good understanding of their value is critical.
In this blog, we’ll take a look at the anatomy of a shipping label, how to print a shipping label, and much more. Want to get to some down-and-dirty shipping label FAQs? Jump down to the bottom of this post!
A shipping label, sometimes called a package label, identifies many things about your package: its point of origin, its destination, its weight, the carrier’s name, and so on. These labels are used by humans and their machine counterparts to understand where your package came from, where it needs to go, and what stops it may have made along the way.
Without a clear shipping label, packages can be delayed in transit, delivered to the wrong address, or lost completely. Any of these scenarios may lead to either a financial loss or a loss of customer trust, which makes the shipping label extremely important!
Shipping labels between the major carriers—USPS, FedEx, and UPS—all have slight variations, but they generally contain the same information. Here’s a shipping label example that highlights the various elements you’ll see on a carrier’s label.
2. Recipient Name & Address, the package's destination.
3. Package Weight, including the item being shipped and the box/packaging.
4. Unidirectional Code, or maxicode, designed to be read by a machine in any direction.
5. Postal Barcode, or IMpb code, the recipient’s scannable zip code.
6. Service Type, the method of shipping, i.e. Standard, Express, Priority, etc.
7. Routing Number, which informs sorting where to route the package.
8. Tracking Number, which customers can use to track the package online.
If this seems daunting for those of you just starting out, don’t worry—much of this information will be automatically generated by the carrier or proprietary software!
Even if you’re only shipping a few packages a week, purchasing labels at your carrier’s office is throwing away money because you’re paying for postage at the retail rate, which is the most expensive way to go (you also waste a lot of time standing in line in order to ship packages from your carrier’s office).
To save money and time, you’ll want to create a shipping label yourself. In doing so, you can take advantage of postage discounts and make pickup arrangements from your home with the carrier. You can do this by printing a shipping label through the carrier’s website or by creating them with shipping software solutions (see how to print a label in our software GFSTM).
You can create a shipping label manually through your carrier’s online services. It’s not the fastest method, but it’s fine if you’re shipping a low volume of packages. Simply visit the carrier’s website, fill out the shipping label template, and then download the file and print it out. Here are the major carrier sites for reference where you can do this:
There are a variety of shipping label software solutions available online that easily integrate with your e-commerce software platform. There are some that follow the pay-as-you-go model, ideal for small-to-medium volume sellers, or monthly fee-based models ideal for high-volume e-commerce sellers.
What’s really great about these solutions is that most of them do more than just provide labels. Regardless of the payment model you choose, you generally get substantial carrier discounts and access to a dashboard offering a number of reporting tools.
Here are a few other things to remember regarding shipping labels:
If the contents of your package require special instruction, make a note of it on the package. This could mean labeling it “Fragile,” “Perishable,” or “Flammable” (carriers will often ask this as well). You may also want to note if a package needs to be “This Side Up.” Noting these special requirements will help ensure your package arrives at your customer’s doorstep in perfect condition.
Labels should be placed on the top of your package (especially if there is a “This Side Up” instruction). Make sure the label is fully visible and not folded over any edges, as this could obscure important information or make it unscannable. Also, be sure to flatten any bumps after sticking it down as this could also make codes unreadable. If you cover your label with transparent tape or place it in a plastic wallet for protection, just be sure the whole label is legible.
A good e-commerce seller always includes packing slips, sometimes called a “waybill.” This goes inside the package (or outside, in a plastic wallet) and basically serves as a receipt. The slips should include your company contact information, the customer’s address, the order date and number, the items included in the package and their quantity, a customer service number, and any additional comments or information about returns, refunds, etc.
Most e-commerce sellers eventually find that they spend too much time packing boxes, printing labels, and shipping packages. After all, they have more important things to do, like growing their business! When this happens, they may turn to a product shipping service, otherwise known as a third-party logistics (3PL) company.
With a 3PL, you can store your products in their warehouses and, when orders come in, they will label and ship your products properly, you just need to cover the shipping charges. (And, you can certainly benefit from warehouse kitting, if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of putting things together yourself.)
If a 3PL sounds like a good solution for your business, choose The Fulfillment Lab. At The Fulfillment Lab, we store inventory strategically across domestic and international centers to reduce shipping costs with major carriers and increase the speed of delivery.
We also use fulfillment warehouse management software to ensure order accuracy and to offer you valuable metrics. Interested in customizing your packaging? Through an online portal, you can tailor packaging to your customer based on demographics and data analytics, delivering a more personalized, unique customer experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
You can get shipping labels from individual carriers in-person or online, by printing a shipping label at home through personal shipping software, or by letting a 3PL handle it (you only pay for shipping).
It’s free to create a shipping label but, of course, you aren’t free to ship the package until you’ve paid for postage.
Some companies will pay for the shipping of items that are being returned for repair or refund, and some non-profit organizations will pick up the shipping cost for items being donated. They do this by sending you a prepaid shipping label to stick on your package or giving you a web address where you can print it out.
Follow the instructions provided by a carrier; if you’re uncertain about what anything on the label means, check out the section “A Sample Shipping Label Explained.”
Yes. For more on how to make shipping labels, read the section “How to Create a Shipping Label”.
Absolutely (as long as your writing is legible), however, some information, such as the barcode, will need to be generated from the carrier prior to shipping. Because of this, online tools are much more efficient.
Yes, just be sure it’s clear tape and that the label is completely visible. Try not to allow any air pockets underneath the tape for a smooth affixture.
You should be able to print a shipping label on any modern printer, however, if you want to use self-adhesive shipping labels (instead of gluing or taping them on the package) you’ll want a thermal printer that can accept them. Check out the 8 best thermal printers here.
Place your shipping label on the side of the package with the largest and most visible surface. Labels can warp if placed on edges, making them unreadable to machines, to be sure not to wrap them around corners.
If there is an indicated “ship by date” on a label and the date has passed, the label does expire. Some delivery services may still ship it past the expiration date, but complications can arise so it’s best to keep an eye on that date.
A standard shipping label size is 4” x 6”, but different carriers may have different standards so you should be sure to check with them if you’re creating your own shipping label.