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How to ship perishable products

Any online food retailer will agree: it's one thing to ship books or bags, but quite another to ship butter. A lot can go wrong with mailing perishable items, which requires online retailers to give extra thought to shipping customers, carrier services and more. The good news is that once you've sorted through your setup, these operations need be no more troublesome than shipping any other products. Here are five steps to take to make sure your perishable products arrive safely:

1. Check Shipping Regulations

With the growth of cross-border ecommerce, knowledge of international shipping regulations is essential for online retailers. Can you send artisanal sausage to Singapore? Can you mail gourmet ice cream to Iceland? Making an assumption about international customs can be a costly mistake. Australia, for instance, doesn't allow the import of meat products (including dried, salted and smoked meats), seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables (including foods such as granola with dried apricots) and all dairy and eggs. Even a cake mix that contains 10 percent or more of dried milk or powdered egg will be rejected for import. So your first step, if you plan to offer international shipping, is to check the shipping customs in each country where you hope to ship. If your food products seem to be fine to mail, you might still be required to obtain a special import license for mailing perishable foods into the country.

2. Invest in the Right Packaging

The USDA recommends all perishable foods—even items such as smoked or cured jerky—arrive to the recipient at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. And don't simply think your box will be at room temperature for transport. It might be on a hot delivery truck for hours or get sorted in a warm facility. To achieve that level of cold, you'll need to invest in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard for shipping containers and then use a cold source, such as dry ice or frozen gel packs, to keep the container's contents cool.

The main perk of dry ice is it keeps a package dry, while gel packs tend to sweat as they thaw. If your perishable product is sold in cardboard or other paper-based packaging, for instance, a gel pack can easily moisten or destroy the internal packaging. Yet dry ice isn't always the clear-cut winner, because there are restrictions on the amount of dry ice that can shipped by air. Talk with your shipping partner to figure out which cooling component will work for your deliveries.

3. Label the Package Appropriately

It's not enough that the customer knows you're sending food. Your shipping partner needs to know as well, so the box doesn't languish in a hot warehouse for hours on end. To help avoid that, label the package with "Food content, handle with care" and "keep refrigerated" or "keep frozen." If you're using dry ice as a cooling agent, it's important that you include this info prominently on the package to avoid anyone getting a dry-ice burn. "Contains dry ice" is a common shipping sticker you can find and apply to all packages.

Proper labeling is key for mailing packages.

4. Time it Right

Nothing is more frustrating than realizing your box of perishable food is stuck in a shipping warehouse for the weekend. To avoid that messy—and costly—mistake, research which shipping provider is the best fit for your online store. Shipping items overnight is generally the safest way to guarantee perishable food arrives in good shape, but that still means avoiding a Friday send for carriers that don't operate over the weekend or charge more for Saturday delivery. If you mail things with two-day delivery, you'll want to be even more certain you understand how this will impact Thursday or Friday shipments.

5. Be Clear with Customers

Once you understand your shipping parameters, make sure these are clearly communicated to the customer on your site. Make the policy as easy to understand as possible to minimize frustrations over weekend delays. Also, consider whether you want to require a recipient signature for delivery. Doing so can inconvenience some customers, but it will also guarantee the package isn't left sweltering in the sun at a customer's home for hours while he or she is away. If you do require someone to sign for delivery, make that clear before the customer finishes the check-out process.

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