Friday, September 11, 2009

International Shipping - Just Do It!

Anyone who reads the Etsy forums knows that there are certain topics that come up, um, often.  Non-paying buyers, feedback concerns, and SHIPPING seem to be three of the biggest, and international shipping is definitely one of the most hotly-dissected topics.

All three of the Bosses on this blog have online businesses, which naturally means that our items are viewable by potential customers living outside of the United States.  I personally get a thrill out of sending my bags to countries I've never visited, knowing that there are knitters out there with Julip Bags jaunting around the UK, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, and other faraway lands.  (And if you are, please please pretty please upload a pic of your jaunting over on my Rav group!)

So perhaps I'm biased, but when people ask me "Should I offer international shipping?" my answer is ABSOLUTELY YES!!!  Even if your stuff is really heavy or really valuable (which will potentially increase the shipping costs) there ARE people outside of the US that will buy your lovely handcrafts and willingly pay the shipping costs, if only you give them the option.  This will be a long one, so check it out after the jump!

So here is Amby's Bottom Line on shipping internationally: it is no different from shipping domestically, except that I have to fill out a customs form and stand in line to pay for postage as opposed to printing it out myself and putting the packages in the post office's drop box.  That's the only difference.

How much to charge for international shipping?  It's honestly not that hard to figure out, I promise!  I have three different shipping rates, one for the US, one for Canada (since I live right across the river and it's often cheaper to ship stuff there than to California), and one for Everywhere Else.  To figure out a rate for Everywhere Else, I just used the USPS shipping calculator to calculate the estimated cost of shipping each item to the UK, added a dollar to be safe, and went with that.  In the two years I've been selling and shipping internationally, I've never had an actual shipping cost exceed the estimate, and remember that you can always refund your buyer the difference if your estimate is high.  Some sellers prefer the "contact me for an international shipping estimate!" route instead of plainly listing the rates, but that does seem to be a turnoff to some buyers who don't want to bother with contacting you, they want to be able to buy NOW!

What service to use?  I ship everything First Class International via the United States Postal Service, as my bags are neither breakable nor irreplaceable.  To my knowledge, everything I've ever shipped that way has arrived safely.  Pros: it's the least expensive USPS shipping method and it's pretty reliable.  Cons: there's no tracking system after you mail your item, and you can't print off the postage from PayPal or (I've heard you can through, but there is a monthly fee associated with that service).  So you do have to stand in line to pay for postage at the post office.  If you bump your shipping up to Priority or Express, you can print out the postage online and hand it to your mail carrier or put it in a collection box.  I have no experience shipping internationally via UPS or Fed-Ex, if anyone does please feel free to let me know and I'll add your comments to this post!

Customs forms: the post office should have a stack of them, or you can order them FREE from the USPS online store, or you can do what I do and download the USPS Shipping Assistant, which creates a shipping label and a customs form and prints them out onto one label.  It's very easy and straightforward to fill out, just make sure you are HONEST on it.  If you are shipping merchandise, make sure you indicate that (on the green form pictured above, you will check "other") even if a buyer begs and pleads with you to mark it as a "gift."  Some people will do this in order to avoid customs duties and fees for items they order from overseas.  Just be aware that it is illegal to falsify information on the customs form, and it may be a good idea to state plainly in your shop's policies that all duties and fees are the responsibility of the buyer.  I have heard that some items under a certain weight/size do not require customs forms, but I have no experience with knowing what that determining factor is.  If anyone who ships small stuff and doesn't need customs forms would like to chime in down in the comments, it would be appreciated!

So you've sold your item, packaged it up, filled out the customs form, and are in line at the post office.  When your turn is next, tell the meanie that waited on me this morning nice postal employee that you want to ship your package First Class International and hand it over along with your customs form.  Pay and you're done, on your way to being a seller in the global economy!  Easy Peasy!

Now, a couple of caveats:
-It is both the buyer and seller's responsibility to be aware of the restrictions of shipping to certain countries.  As an example, in my shop policies I plainly state:
"Please also be aware of your country's individual laws regarding imports, I may not be held responsible for any item held by customs. If a country prohibits the import of "sewn items" I am not able to ship one of my handmade bags there."
Italy has a long list of restricted imports, and Australia has some interesting ones too.  You don't need to memorize the list of restrictions for every country on earth, but familiarize yourself with some of the more common ones.

-If you underestimate the cost of shipping, suck it up, pay the difference out of pocket, adjust your shipping charges accordingly, and consider it a life lesson.  You can't ask a buyer to cough up more in shipping costs than they've already paid.  Not only is that Bad Customer Service, it's illegal in some states.

-It is not outside the realm of possibility that your item may be held by a country's customs department, opened, rummaged through, and sometimes NOT sent on to your buyer.  Sometimes it also takes a long time for stuff to arrive.  I've had a package arrive in Germany in four days, and a package across the Detroit River to Windsor take two weeks.  Be aware of that fact.

But is an absolute fact that offering international shipping will increase your sales.  I ship AT LEAST one package outside of the US per week, sometimes more.  There is a whole world of customers out there, desperately wanting to buy your fabulous stuff...don't let them down!!!


  1. Excellent post and a HUGE help! International shipping how to's have been making me nervous, but this has helped boost my confidence in offering it once I get up and running. Many thanks! ~ lori

  2. I've been quivering about international shipping too. I've seen a few posts about it, and, as of now, I just put on all of my listings for buyers to contact me even though I know that's not the best way to do it. Now that I have a scale to use, I guess I don't have a good excuse...
    Thanks for the great info and encouragement!