Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Canada Post overview and shipping guidelines

Topics covered: Venture One, domestic shipping methods, international shipping methods, shipping slips, proof of shipment.

Lastly, an overview of Canada Post's (CP) services.  This is primarily written for Canadian sellers; however, it might be of interest of anyone who may need to ship to a Canadian address and is looking for some insight into how our system works to deliver packages once within our borders.

CP's shipping prices are largely tier based.  Sometimes, there are fluctuation of prices within each tier, but it is a very slight fluctuation considering the large jump from one tier to the next.

I'll start off by talking about some useful tips for all sellers, regardless of where you are shipping to.

First off, get a Venture One card (now called the "Solution for Small Businesses", SSB).  It's the small business program that CP has that will offer a slight discount on tracked shipping and shipping supplies purchases at in-person depots and online.  It's free to sign up and doesn't actually require a small business license, so anyone can and should sign up for one.  Once you have it, just show it whenever you go to the post office and the CP employee will scan it whenever there's a possible discount.  If you use print-at-home shipping methods, you can log in through your SSB account though you'll only get the full discount when using CP's Electronic Shipping Tools (either EST Online on the CP site or EST Desktop 2.0 which is downloadable for free from the CP site).  Heads up, you can't use EST for Light Packet services (which is not eligible for SSB discounts anyway).  Those still require going into a post office physically.

As for CP's shipping services, they are largely created on a tiered system, with costs often being close to flat-rate based on destination and service used.

In the past, Canada Post has had a history of being slow and unreliable, yet charging much more for shipping than many countries around the world.  This has improved over the years; however, it is still a far cry from being comparable to certain other postal systems.

Currently, all tracked shipping methods (excluding letterpost) include $100CAD of insurance free of charge, excluding a few more remote or exotic international destinations.  The coverage will be provided for up to $100 or the declared value on the package, whichever is lower.  Purchasing additional coverage is available for Expedited Post, XpressPost and Purolator (CP's courier level service).  If your buyer wishes to have full insurance on their package and the value is declared at over $100, make sure that the package is sent using one of these services and that you specifically request to buy additional insurance as CP will not add extra insurance coverage automatically.

For domestic shipping (within Canada), regular parcel post, Expedited Post and XpressPost are the 3 regular services used for parcel shipments.  With a SSB membership card, CP offers a free upgrade to Expedited Post for the cost of regular parcel, although even without one, the difference in cost is usually only a couple of dollars which is well worth it for the tracking number and peace of mind.  As domestic shipments are usually fairly fast requiring only a week at most with no danger of being caught in customs (since it does not cross a border), most buyers will be plenty pleased with the speed and coverage included with expedited post, but in the even that they need the package extra fast, XpressPost provides almost courier speed deliveries (often only 1-2 days) for a small increase in cost.

Surface mail outside of Canada can be very slow and most buyers are usually unaware of the time required for a surface mail delivery, so generally, it is not used, especially for international shipments outside of North America.  If you do decide to use it, be sure to confirm with your buyer and warn them that shipment can easily take over a month, often requiring many months to arrive.

For very small and light items, Light Packet is available, but have a requirement that the package is no more than 2cm thick.  Cost is very close to one flat-rate for the USA (approx. $3) and another for international destinations (approx. $5).  Unfortunately, this service is not available for domestic shipments.  As mentioned earlier, Light Packet is also only available at CP kiosks and can't be done up at home using the EST programs.

Airmail comes in three forms.  Small Packet for packages up to 1kg and length+width+height of 90cm or less, or regular parcel for packages over that limit.  The cost is primarily determined by the weight and destination.  On both of these options, neither tracking nor insurance has been available since the introduction of the Tracked Packet option.

Airmail starts at approx. $7 for shipment to the USA (by Small Packet) and starts at approx. $8 for shipment to other international destinations (by Small Packet).

As of mid-February, 2013, CP began offering a new service called "Tracked Packet" which is basically an airmail service similar to Small Packet, but include a tracking number and  up to $100 of insurance (or up to the declared value, which ever is lower) by default.  It will be available to most destinations worldwide.  The cost is somewhere between Small Packet and Expedited Post.  The service was released on the website for online postage purchases ahead of its release at in-person shipping kiosks, but is now available through either method.

Expedited post is available only domestically and to the USA.  It includes a tracking number by default and has a somewhat faster delivery speed than airmail or Small Packet.  Until Tracked Packet's existence, this was the cheapest track-able shipping method.  With rates starting at approx. $17 for a package to the USA, it almost doubles the cost of sending the same package by airmail for the addition of a tracking number and the option of purchasing insurance coverage beyond the first $100.

XpressPost is CP's equivalent of EMS and has a global shipping standard of delivery within 5 days (excluding date of drop off and date of delivery, so think of it as more like 5+2 day delivery).  It comes with tracking included by default and is the most expensive, but still commonly used shipping method offered though CP.  Generally, unless there is a strict and fast approaching deadline for receipt, most American buyers will be content to save a few dollars and have their packages shipped by Expedited Post instead if the tracking number and insurance coverage is what they seek.  For international buyers, this is the only track-able shipping method until the introduction of Tracked Packet.  With rates to the USA starting at approx. $22 and international rates starting at approx. $60, XpressPost is considered quite expensive and few buyers will opt for it outside of expensive purchases or a need for speedy delivery.

For more precise shipping quotes, you can use CP's online calculator if you can weigh the package with relative accuracy.  Otherwise, you can package the item roughly (or if  you're really strapped for time, just put the item into a thin grocery bag along with the packaging supplies) and have a quote generated for you in-person at the post office.

When addressing a package, print neatly in large letters (ideally at least 2cm tall on larger packages).  Do not use pencil as it can easily rub off or blend in if the package becomes dirty.  If you are writing with a water soluble ink, you can waterproof it by covering the address with clear packing tape, just make sure the tape overlaps a little if  you are using more than one strip so that there are no gaps in between for water to seep in.

You do not have to prepare shipping slips for most domestic shipments, but since there is no slip with a duplicate of the address on it, make sure that the recipient address and return address (aka sender address) are clearly written on the package. 

All international methods aside from lettermail (which is for paper goods only) require a shipping slip which doubles as the customs declaration form. The slip being used depends on the shipping method you are shipping with.  I usually have a small supply of every commonly used form (small packet, expedited USA and EMS) at home so I can fill them out in the comfort of my living room ahead of time instead of scrambling at the post office.  You can ask any post office for them and unless they're in really short supply, they'll be happy to hand some over.

In pretty much every case, the shipping slip with comprise of several layers of the form so that every party involved will have a copy (at the very least, one for you, one for Canada Post and one for the receiver).  Press with some force to ensure that the writing appears clearly on every layer.  Your copy is usually the bottom layer, so if you do not press hard enough for it to transfer through, you risk ending up with a blank slip as your proof of shipment (which is pretty useless for tracking and disputes since you won't know which package it was for).  I usually gently peel the bottom layer apart and check after I've filled it out to make sure all the information is present before I hand it over to the post office.  If it's light or some parts are missing, it's easy to trace over the writing  on the whole form with some extra force.

The alternative if you have a reliable computer and printer at home is using the EST programs to do up the entire shipping label plus pay the postage cost from the comforts of home.  Then all you have to do is adhere the slip to the package (top half of the print out for domestic shipments, top left quarter of the print out for USA and International shipments) and drop the packages off at the post office and be on your merry way.  If you're shipping outside of Canada, be sure to sign the bottom of your shipping slip and put down the date to fully complete the declaration.

Generally, the forms all require your name and address (fill out in full), the recipient's name and address (fill out in full, although few people will provide their phone number, so that may be empty), the content description (list the contents simply, ie. 'used blouse' or 'socks x3') and corresponding declared value (this is both for customs and for insurance), the "classification" of the contents (ie. "gift", "merchandise", "sample" and "other" are standard options) along with your signature and the date.

Tracked shipping methods often also include two tick boxes for "return at sender's expense" and "abandon".  These options are for when the package cannot be delivered (in case the mail to address is incorrect or the recipient rejects it/fails to claim it).  Cheaper untracked shipping methods usually have return-to-sender as a free service (although it can take months).  The more expensive tracked shipping methods will basically be returned on a CoD (Cash on Delivery) basis where you will be charged for the shipping costs when you pick up the returned package; however, it will return it to you in a timely manner (usually no more than a couple of weeks).  Since items sent with tracking tend to be more expensive items (where the buyer's willing to pay for the added expense for extra security), it is usually worthwhile to select the return option as opposed to abandon.  Use your own judgement on this.  If you're unsure, you can always select the return option and if the package actually does get returned and you change your mind, you can always abandon it at your local post office since you don't pay for the return delivery until you pick it up.

As an additional precaution because I've had bad experiences with ignorant post office employees who didn't know the difference between airmail and surface mail, I always tick off the "air" box on small packet forms too, even though it's in the greyed area that's supposed to be filled out by post office employees.  No one has ever complained about me doing so, and several have actually told me they appreciate it since it's one less question they need to ask (and one less thing they can mishear).  Sometimes, they'll put on a royal blue "airmail" sticker on the package to make it more obvious that it's a package to be sent by air, but generally as long the postage is correct and the form is correct, it will not be mixed up.  Regardless, if you wish to be absolutely certain that your airmail is sent the correct way, you can request some stickers to take home with you and then you can put the sticker on packages before you take them to the post office.

Once the post office has taken the packages, they will return one copy of the shipping slip to you after date stamping it (make sure they do this) along with the receipt.  Domestic shipments will not have a shipping slip, but any tracking information will be printed directly on the receipt.  CP employees are usually quick to staple the slips and receipt together.  Let them.  Once separated, it can be often difficult to figure out which slip goes with which receipt since even when written on with force, the CP cost information on the greyed area of the slip can be hard to read.  If you did your shipping slip and postage at home using the EST programs, you can request a receipt at the counter when you drop off the packages for tracked shipments to the USA and many other countries.  The receipt will have the date of drop off and the tracking number listed and in the event of a dispute, can be used as proof of shipment (although for sites such as Paypal, the tracking number itself is usually proof enough).

Once the package has been seen off, you should notify your buyer that their package has been shipped.  A generalized time (ie "earlier today", "yesterday morning") is usually sufficient for this update.  If the package had a tracking number, provide that to your buyer as well.  CP tracking numbers will appear on the shipping slip and receipt as a long number with spaces between every 3-4 digits.  The exact format will differ depending on the shipping method used, but in general:
Domestic: #### #### #### ####
International: EM ### ### ### CA

When you send the tracking number to the buyer, make sure to either take out the spaces when sending the tracking or notify the buyer to do so before attempting to enter it into CP's website to track.  There has been a long time bug (or maybe it was never taken into consideration to begin with) where if you enter it in with the spaces, it will give an error.  Most other postal services will remove the spaces automatically or ignore them when running the query, so people who are not familiar with CP may not realize that the spaces are causing the error, not that the tracking is not working.

(This paragraph is copied over from the general shipping guideline post, so you can skip it if you've read that already.)
If the payment was made by Paypal (as anything other than a "gift"), you can add the tracking information direct to the transaction details.  On your Paypal overview page (or the history tab for older payments), there should be a button with a drop down menu where you can select "add tracking info".  Clicking on the tracking option will open a small window where you can enter the shipping company (ie. FedEx, USPS, etc), enter the tracking number and mark the item as shipped all in one go.

In the event of the package being lost, Paypal will only accept a tracking number as "proof of postage/shipment".  Surface mail and airmail packages (including small packet and light packet) will be pretty much out of luck in this case, although you can still scan both sides of the shipping slip to try to fight the Paypal claim.

Lastly, whenever possible, provide the buyer with a rough shipping time so they know when they can expect their package to arrive.  This is important since CP often requires more time to delivery than other postal services and it is an easy precaution to take to avoid causing anxiety to your buyers (which can turn around and cause you problems if they start to believe their package is lost instead of simply in transit).  Estimated delivery time can be found through the CP shipping calculator or in-person at the post office, so you can simply ask the CP employee what the delivery time should be when you ship the package and then provide that information to your buyer.

Keep in mind the risks of online selling.  Considering CanadaPost's comparatively expensive shipping rates, it may be tempting to use cheap, less secure shipping methods; however, this can result in a much higher chance of loss in the event of damage or even a total loss.  Whenever possible, take steps to protect yourself.  Every little bit can help to prevent hundreds of dollars from being lost due to damaged or lost packages.  From holding on to the shipping receipt for an extended length of time to a couple of dollars spent on sturdy packaging materials to upgrading to a track-able shipping method.  Use your best judgement and treat every transaction as a unique exchange with unique requirements that need to be considered.


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