Fulfilling Merch Orders the RIGHT Way (For Musicians)
8/19/2022 by Jesse Gillenwalters
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So, you've accomplished a seemingly impossible task: You've created a fan that is so interested in you that they’ve paid you money in exchange for merchandise related to your music.
Congratulations...but don’t celebrate just yet! You've still got to send that order to the fan and ensure that it gets to them quickly, with everything they were expecting and more...
Thankfully, I’m here to show you everything you need to properly fulfill orders you receive on your merch - and how to do it cheaply, fast, and in an orderly manner.
If you prefer a visual aid (especially with a tactile process such as packing orders), be sure to watch the video companion above!
For most burgeoning indie musicians, you’ll likely be selling some of the following items: Shirts, Hoodies, CDs, Cassettes, Vinyl, and other smaller apparel and accessories.
Obviously you might get a little fancier than that, but for now I’m going to assume you’re selling one or a few of those items at the moment. So, what packing supplies do you need on hand to make sure you can handle any combination of those items within an order?
CDs and cassettes go in what’s called a Bubble Mailer. This is a padded envelope that’s lined with a thin bubble wrap material and seals shut with pre-applied adhesive. A 6 x 10 inch bubble mailer is perfect to fit most combinations of CDs and cassettes. It fits about 5 standard CDs and 3 cassettes - meaning you can also fit combinations of CDs and cassettes in here pretty safely.
In a pinch, you can also stuff a shirt in here if that’s the only thing in the order. However, that leads us to our next topic - apparel!
You will typically want to send all apparel in what’s called a Poly Mailer. Poly mailers are simple plastic bags that have a good resiliency for when they’re potentially tossed around through the mailing system. There are many different sized Poly Mailers, but I find that a 9 x 12 inch poly mailer is the perfect size for most orders I get. This will hold up to 3 shirts if rolled/folded correctly. You can also throw CDs and shirts together in a poly mailer if you wrap the shirts tightly and neatly around the CDs. Additionally, any smaller apparel item like wristbands, bandanas, beanies, socks, etc all work great in here.
You may need bigger poly mailers if you're selling larger apparel items like hoodies, or jackets!
One thing you do NOT want to do is put cassettes in a poly mailer - you want to save that for a bubble mailer to protect the plastic case on it! This also goes for any fragile items.
Cardboard Boxes (Specifically for Vinyl)
For vinyl, you need a 12 x 12 x 1 vinyl mailer box. These boxes can fit almost 4 vinyls inside, but if you have just one vinyl getting sent out, you’ll want to either user corrugated pads to sandwich the vinyl inside to stabilize it - or rap the vinyl in bubble wrap. I’ve done it both ways and had no complaints upon delivery.
What’s great about the vinyl box is that you could also fulfill an order with shirts, CDs, and vinyl all in the same order. The shirts can be wrapped around the vinyl which even offer more protection. And, the CDs are so thin that they can be laid against the vinyl and not make the package too thick. So, bundling things with vinyl is an easy win and can all be sent in this one box. You'll also want to have some packing tape on hand to seal up these boxes.
With that out of the way, let's look at the steps involved for receiving and fulfilling a merch order.
The Fulfillment Process
Step 1: Identify your postage options
First…you received an order! Congratulations. The first thing you need to do is consult your merch store or fulfillment app to pay postage on the order and download the associated packing label and packing slip.
The packing label is basically the “stamp” for your merch order. You can pay for postage online based on your package’s weight and dimensions. You can also choose different shipping options to get the order to your fan quicker - or choose budget options if time isn’t an issue. Once you’ve discerned what postage is owed based on these options, you can pay that postage and then receive this packing label. It can then be slapped on your package, deposited into a corresponding public mailbox or dropped at a location, and then the barcode on the label will be used to track it through the system - which sends updates to your customer as well.
Shipping is different in every country, so it makes sense to do some research on the options available to you based on what you’re often selling. For example, in the US, there is an option called Media Mail which is the cheapest possible shipping option, but can only be used if everything in the package is a CD, Cassette, or Vinyl. If you have a shirt in there as well, USPS may randomly audit your package, discern it’s not truly Media Mail, and then require your fan to come into a location to pay the difference in shipping to receive the package. You’ll want to avoid this by using First Class mail instead.
So - your shipping label needs to be paid for, based on weight and dimensions of your order, as well as your desired shipping option.
The next thing is that you need to obtain the packing SLIP. This is merely the itemized receipt of the order, with customer information and descriptions of what was paid for. This should be provided in your store or fulfillment app.
To obtain both the Label and the slip, you need to consult your store or fulfillment app. For example, Shopify allows you to set weights for your products, so that when you get an order, it knows the weight of all of the items combined. Then, you can load in the dimensions for your bubble mailer, poly mailer, and boxes, and select which one you’re using in Shopify. Shopify then calculates rates for that order based on the weights and dimensions and tells you precisely how much postage it will cost to ship it.
You can then pay for and download this shipping label right within your store or fulfillment app so that you can put it on the package for the mail system.
If your store app doesn’t offer this, you’ll need to either get a fulfillment app such as Shipstation, or take it into a local post office or logistics service like FedEx and manually write the shipping and pay for it on location…but this article is called Fulfilling Merch Orders the RIGHT way, not the long, ramshackle way!
Step 2: Printing out your packing label and slip
So, you’ve paid for the label, and now you’ve downloaded both the label and the slip as files on your computer.
What you need to do now is print the label and slip. I recommend buying label paper. This is printer-ready paper that is essentially a giant sticker that you can print things onto. With this, you can print up to 4 labels on one sheet, and then peel off the labels and slap them onto your mailer or box. For this reason, I recommend a label paper that is precut into 4 quadrants. This way you can easily print 4 labels onto a sheet and merely peel them off as needed. Save on ink and paper!
This also speeds up the process, but if you don’t have the labels, you can merely print on printer paper and then tape the paper to the order. However, this will take much longer if you have a lot of orders.
For the packing SLIP, you merely need to print it out on regular printer paper. I also recommend printing this as 4 sheets to one piece of paper to save on ink and paper. You will need to cut them into fourths using long scissors or a paper cutter.
Alright - you’ve received the order, discerned the right shipping options, paid for the postage, and obtained the Label and Slip to complete the order...now it's time to set up your fulfillment workspace.
Step 3: Setting up your workspace
You’ll want to give some intention to this step if you start selling merch regularly. It will cut down time massively to discover your process and set up a workspace accordingly.
First, put all of your merch items within arms reach so that you can grab what’s needed for each order. I recommend rounding up all of the merch items you’ll need for the orders and bringing them to a desk or concerted space to complete the orders.
Next, gather up all of the mailers and boxes you’ll need to pack the orders - the same principle applies here - you want to make sure all mailers are within arms reach.
Then, I recommend arranging your workspace like so: Labels and slips on the left, all merch items towards the top of your desk, and mailers to your right. Leave plenty of space directly in front of you to do the work of packing the orders.
Now, we’re set up to…
Step 4: Pack the orders.
Once you’re at your desk and totally set up to fulfill, the first thing to do is review the packing slip and grab the items needed to fulfill the order.
At this point, you will want to write any notes on the packing slip and sign any relevant items such as CDs with a sharpie.
You’ll also want to grab any add-ins such as stickers or pins that may be eligible for this order.
Then, discern the mailer you will need for the items on the order. If the order involves apparel, you will want to use a poly mailer. If it involves a vinyl, you’ll need a box. And if it’s just a mix of CDs or Cassettes, you’ll want just a bubble mailer.
Carefully pack the relevant mailer to ensure the items will be safe during transit. This means wrapping CDs tightly in shirts if they are going in a bubble mailer, for example.
For vinyl, you’ll want to also apply corrugated pads, bubble wrap, or air fill to make sure it’s secure in the box - or arranged nicely against the shirts or CDs that may also be in the order.
Additionally, don’t forget to also fold and include the packing slip for that order.
Once the relevant mailer or box is loaded with items and the slip, seal the mailer with the adhesive strip, or tape the box shut. Make sure it’s clearly sealed.
Now, remove the relevant label from the label paper, and stick it onto the package. Repeat this workflow for every order you need to ship, and…you’re done!
Step 5: Putting these into the mail system
Okay, so you’ve got a load of orders, all packed up and ready to be put in the mail. What do you need to do?
Thankfully, not much. All you’ve got to do is take this to the relevant location based on the postage you purchase and drop it off in a dropbox or with at the main desk of the location.
It sounds self explanatory, but for example, if you purchased postage with the United States Postal Service, you need to go to a USPS location. If you used FedEx or UPS, you need to go to one of their dropbox or mailboxes, or go to one of their locations. This is also the case for other countries.
These locations should have a drawer-style dropbox that you can dump orders in - or, you can leave them with an attendant if you’re there during office hours.
Then, you never have to think about these again! …Or DO you?
Step 6: Tracking
One last thing I want to point out is the online tracking for each order. Your shipping option should have included a tracking number, which can be monitored through your shop or fulfillment app. It’s out of your control when and how it gets to the customer at this point, but I wanted to put this on your mind in case you have a fan wondering where their order is.
You simply need to check the tracking number through the postage service you used to see updates, and relay that information back to your customer. For example, you might see that it was undeliverable due to an address typo and is getting sent back to you. In this case, you’ll be lucky you checked the tracking!
…Well okay! That’s literally everything there is to know about sending merch orders as an independent musician. This process tends to be a bit of a blind spot for indies selling merch online, so we thought this article would be a great resource for anyone looking to actually get paid for their music online.
Most of the fulfillment process is solved simply by having all of the right materials on hand. If you're set up for success there, you won't be stumped by a future merch order that comes in.
Learn how to find, purchase, and download packing labels and slips from your shop or fulfillment app.
Then, dial in a workspace you can return to regularly, stocked with all of your supplies, and establish your own supply-chain style process.
If you can figure all of that out, you will become a merch-fulfilling machine all by yourself! Now go out there, and get those orders!
Get all of the mailing supplies listed in this article from the following companies:
If you read this article, you're probably an independent musican with merch online for sale! Before you can really get moving with this new fulfillment process you just learned, you'll need to first learn how to get more customers. Join our independent marketing community called IndiePRO and gain access to trainings like "Make Merch That Fans Want", "How to Generate Sales Year-Round", and "How to Profit From a Launch Campaign".
About the author:
Long-time Indepreneur student and community member turned team member; Jesse serves as a dedicated instructor for our IndieFounder Coaching program. As "The Future", Jesse is also responsible for testing new strategies at the front lines for the Indepreneur knowledge base.
If you are a member of our Indie Community and have a story to tell about your journey as an independent musician, reach out to Graci at firstname.lastname@example.org! We're always looking for new stories to share. If you aren't yet part of our Indie Community, you can get access to our entire library of music business trainings, our entire suite of exclusive discounts on partner products and services for musicians, our 4000+ private community of Indies, and weekly live stream Q&A's and coaching calls by signing up for INDIEPRO!
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