Everything You Need to Know about Custom Packaging for Subscription Boxes

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If done correctly, your physical packaging can be key to improving customer experience, and even help drive down churn. It’s on your packaging that you control your brand; it’s a visual storyboard that should both excite the customer and work to your benefit, spelling out calls to actions for the customer and adding value to the unboxing experience.

Organizing, designing, and ordering custom packaging, however, can be difficult. What kind of packaging exists? you might wonder. How does it actually get created? What’s a good price? How many do I have to order?

These are all questions subscription business owners should be thinking about as they get ready for their first order. Below, we’ve outlined the answers to these questions (and more!) and will take you from inception to completed order on what to expect and how to maneuver during your first custom packaging order.

In addition, we’ve created this short checklist to keep you on track for completing your order:

Download the Checklist
This guide will cover:

  1. Selecting a packaging type
  2. Deciding on a printing method to create custom boxes
  3. Choosing a size
  4. Creating a design
  5. Finding the right manufacturer
  6. Knowing what a “good” price is
  7. Placing a custom packaging order

Part 1: The Types of Custom Packaging Available

Packaging Types for Subscription Boxes
Let’s start at the beginning: the types of packaging available. While many use the word “box” in their name, your subscription business is by no means stuck with a box for packaging. There are many other packaging options, including:

Padded/Bubble Mailers: Large envelopes built with bubble wrap or other padding, utilizing a source of protection directly in the packaging design. This is ideal for smaller shipments or subscription boxes that specialize in non-fragile merchandise, such as clothing.

Five Four
Five Four Club packs their clothing into a black bubble mailer.

Mailer Boxes: Smaller-sized boxes, about the size of document envelopes, but with square sides. Ideal for shipping small items, like stationery or jewelry.

Level40two Mailer Box
level40two uses a mailer box to protect the pictures, cards, and posters included.

Custom Mailers: Regular, flexible traditional mailing envelopes without padding. Ideal for flat items like stationery.

Pipsticks Envelope
Pipsticks uses a clear, flexible mailing envelope to carry their stickers and assorted crafts.

Rigid Envelopes: These envelopes use a paperboard layer to add rigidity and durability to the package, designed to prevent any damage (such as bending) during shipping. Ideal for flat items.

Rigid Mailer
A custom rigid mailer for Photo Barn. Photo Credit: Salazar Packaging

When deciding on the type of packaging you’ll use, you need to think about the contents of your box, the size of each product, and how fragile they are. In the cases of large, fragile items, the traditional box mailer may be the best option available.

Questions to consider:

  • What are the largest items I will include in my subscription?
  • What is the most fragile item I will include in my subscription?

Part 2: Learn How Packaging is Printed

Digital Printing Machine
A digital, wide-format printing press

Once you have chosen the type of packaging you want, you can begin to think about how you want that packaging designed. There are three primary printing methods used for custom packaging, and all of them have pros and cons.

Digital Printing: This is more common for smaller orders (under 3,000 subscriptions). Digital printing is similar to the standard laserjet printer you might use at home – the machine mixes the inks and directly applies your colorful design to the box. Cratejoy’s recommended printing partner, BoxUp, specializes in small-batch digital printing to customize your box — so whether you have 10 subscribers or 500, they’re there to make your box look the best it can. (They also offer 10% off for a Cratejoy merchant’s first order, then 5% off for life!)

  • Cost: Since digital printing is best for small orders, it’s generally 3-5 times more expensive than flexographic printing in a similar-scale comparison. While there are digital printing tools that allow for large runs, generally it’s easier and more cost-effective to transition to flexographic printing if your subscriber list grows to 1,000. Otherwise, you’re better off with digital.
  • Minimum order: Digital printing requires much smaller minimums, with the caveat that the costs are much more expensive. While BoxUp offers affordable pricing and fast turnarounds for Cratejoy merchants, other presses may not have the same flexibility.

Flexographic Printing: This is the most common form of custom box printing. It functions much like a rubber stamp on a large scale – a printing plate with your box’s design acts as a large ink pad that spins on a rotary drum, picking up ink and then stamping it onto your corrugated box.

  • Cost: Flexographic printing requires a printing plate to be created. While the price varies, you can expect around $1000 per plate. You’ll also need a unique plate for each color, so if you use 4 colors for your box, you would need 4 printing plates.
  • Minimum order: Due to the machinery involved in flexographic printing, most manufacturers require a minimum of about 1000 boxes per run.

Litho Label Printing: Short for lithographic, this printing method provides a much cleaner, higher-resolution print that functions similar to wallpaper. Unlike printing that occurs on the physical box, the litho label method prints your design onto a paper sheet, processes and cuts around it, then attaches your design to the box with adhesive. When an entire box is covered in a litho label, it’s called a “full label,” whereas a partial covering of the box is referred to as a “spot label.”

  • Cost: This method of printing is generally more expensive than flexographic printing, but becomes competitively priced around the 3000-5000 box mark. At that quantity, litho label may just be a bit more expensive than traditional flexographic printing, while offering a much cleaner, higher-resolution product.
  • Minimum order: Minimums with litho label printing are more flexible than flexographic printing, but the costs are higher.

Note: Almost all types of printing will require production of a die, a tool used to cut your box’s shape from a sheet of cardboard. While dies are generally priced at around $500-$700, you can avoid this expense by using a stock die offered by your manufacturer. Cratejoy’s packaging partner, BoxUp, does not charge for dies.

So what’s the best option? Generally, if you’re planning on going with a run over 1000 boxes, you’d be wise to go with flexographic printing. It will offer a high-quality form of printing at the lowest price possible for smaller-sized orders (i.e., under 3000 boxes).

Part 3: Choosing a Size

When debating box size, you can always take direction from existing businesses. We surveyed over 100 active subscription business owners on Cratejoy to determine the most common package sizes; see the results below.

While you’re at it, also take a look at the average, median and mode measurements from our survey, as well as the average cubic value:

Choosing the perfect box size should be your next step in the process. Though it may seem like an afterthought, size plays an important role in packing the contents of your box safely and calculating shipping costs. For example, if you decide to use USPS cubic shipping rates, your package dimensions can greatly affect which pricing tiers your box falls into.

Generally, USPS cubic shipping is the most cost-effective way to ship your subscription. Cubic pricing is not based on weight, but rather on volume. To calculate USPS cubic shipping, follow this formula:

Length x Width x Height / 1728 = Cubic Rate

Note: The longest dimension may not exceed 18″.

For example, if your dimensions are 10″ x 6″ x 3.75″, you end up with 225″ / 1728 = .13

You would then fall in the 0.2 range, as it falls over 0.1 cubic rates.

To see how this affects pricing, compare the cubic rates below:

Cubic Feet
Range (up to)
0.10 0.20 0.30 0.40 0.50
Zone 1 $5.60 $5.71 $5.96 $6.03 $6.64
Zone 3 $5.77 $5.89 $6.18 $6.97 $7.82
Zone 4 $5.89 $5.99 $6.69 $8.01 $8.65
Zone 5 $6.01 $6.13 $8.23 $9.57 $10.55
Zone 6 $6.14 $6.26 $9.09 $11.23 $13.22
Zone 7 $6.42 $6.55 $9.87 $12.15 $14.97
Zone 8 $6.95 $7.09 $11.03 $14.14 $16.91
Zone 9 $9.47 $9.66 $15.34 $19.82 $24.14

 

Note: The one exception to this is if your mailer weighs under 16 oz., which would classify it as First-Class Mail and lead to better (less expensive) rates.

Why is this important? Because you can strategically size your box to decrease shipping costs.

In the earlier example, we ended up with 0.13, and by changing that size by just a few inches – to 9″ x 5″ x 3.5″ – you then end up with .09 cubic size, which is below the 0.1 cutoff. This means you can use 0.1 pricing over 0.2 pricing, and on average, save $0.13/shipment. Compared to 0.3 cubic range, you save on average $2.52/shipment.

To get a sense of how shipping costs work, use Cratejoy’s (free!) Power Shipping Calculator.

Cratejoy Power Shipping Calculator
With 1000 subscribers, that’s nearly $150 of savings in shipping from 0.1 to 0.2. By 10,000 subscribers, you’re saving roughly $1500/month on shipping because of your improved pricing. Compared to 0.3 pricing, that’s $2500+ in savings with 1000 subscribers, and at 10,000 subscribers, it’s over $25,000 in savings!

When choosing your size, keep in mind that the result can have a large impact on your costs.

Part 4: Creating a Design

After you’ve chosen your packaging type and size, you’re ready to start designing!

This part of the process will likely run concurrently with the next – choosing a manufacturer. The main reason for this is because you’ll need a PDF version of your packaging, perfectly sized to the correct dimensions. It will look something like this:

Box Outline
Once you have your packaging outline in hand, you’ll then need to pull it into a program for editing and designing.

Tip: Not confident in your design skills? Consider outsourcing this part of the project to a skilled designer. Check out our Resources section for designers and consider asking your manufacturer for a referral.

Because the design process can vary, we’ll offer some general tips for the design process:

  1. Choose your program. If using the Adobe Creative Suite, you’ll likely use Adobe InDesign for print-ready designs.
  2. Keep your printing method in mind. Flexographic printing doesn’t provide the same clarity of resolution as digital or litho label printing, so avoid small fonts or lines when creating a design with this method.
  3. Consider your colors. If using flexographic printing, you’ll need another print plate for each color.
  4. Ask for samples. Your manufacturer may be willing to send you swatches to see your preferred colors in person.
  5. Remember calls to action (CTAs). Make sure you maximize the impact of your design to capture the customer’s excitement.
  6. Send final designs to your manufacturer to get their feedback. You should ask them about the clarity and complexity of your design, and if they think what you’ve produced will come out the way you intend it.
  7. Consider having a sample box printed. These prototypes can be expensive (about $200) and come in a hard paperboard, not the standard corrugated cardboard, but can be used for early product shots. This will also help you decide if you like your design, or if you want to change it.

Part 5: How to Find the Right Manufacturer

A manufacturer should be on your radar as you design your box, namely due to the benefit you’ll get from including them in the design process. For a list of manufacturers, check out the Resources at our Subscription School.

So what kind of things should you consider when choosing a manufacturer?

Location: Finding a manufacturer that’s geographically close benefits you not only in seeing how your boxes are made but also reducing shipping and freight costs.

Fulfillment: Some manufacturers also offer fulfillment (i.e. packing and shipping) solutions. By working with them on both box production and fulfillment, you can remove shipping/freight costs for boxes by keeping them all under the same roof.

Price: When asking manufacturers for quotes, have your specific size and order quantity in mind. Compare manufacturers based on price, but also be cautious about manufacturers who offer prices far below others; they may be able to offer lower prices by reducing the packaging’s liner. “Keep in mind that if you’re haggling hard and trying to lower the price, a manufacturer may reduce the liner, both inner and outer, of the paper stock,” says Dennis Salazar, owner of Salazar Packaging. “A thinner liner makes it so you can see the flute – the little rivets in the board. A better liner means better printing quality on corrugated.”

Turnaround Time: Generally, it takes 3-4 weeks for your printing tools (i.e. plates and dies) to be created and for a box order to be completed. You’ll also want to add 1-2 weeks for shipping on the order if it isn’t a local manufacturer. When planning your ship date with manufacturers, keep this timing in mind.

Based on these parameters, consider using a spreadsheet to track manufacturers’ quotes.

Download Manufacturer Contact Sheet
Manufacturer List

Part 6: Placing an Order & Getting a Great Price

Once you’ve decided on a manufacturer, you’ll need to get yourself the best rate possible.

  1. Remember printing costs. Expect higher costs for digital and litho label printing, especially in smaller quantities.
  2. Consider box and ink quality. Recycled or sustainable packaging and ink may be more expensive but could complement your brand, depending on your niche.
  3. Keep different types of board in mind. In considering the contents of your subscription box (small or large? fragile? perishable?), ask your manufacturer which flute they suggest for your box.

Generally, you should aim for less than $2 per box when ordering custom packaging, especially if you order over 1000 boxes at a time. As you negotiate prices with manufacturers, keep detailed notes on what influences the overall price — flute type, board type, quantity, and deadlines.

Note: On average, Cratejoy merchants report paying $1.61 per box. 

To get a sense of what are some normal costs per box, check out our report on Custom Subscription Box Packaging, which compiles over 100+ survey responses from merchants on pricing, quality, and satisfaction.

Once you’ve agreed on a price with the manufacturer, you can also negotiate on how you remit payment on your order.

If your manufacturer also does your fulfillment, ask if they will charge you “as you go” or as you use the boxes. If you’re bootstrapping, ask if you can split the payments for your boxes and printing tools, paying 33% of the total over a 3-month period to improve your cash flow early on.

The Next Steps

After placing your first order, start thinking about how to increase volume and achieve better rates on future orders. Set a reminder for yourself 30 days before you run out of boxes, as well, so you can order and ship your next round of boxes. This will leave you plenty of time for shipping, packing, and making your monthly deadline!

And don’t forget: you can download our checklist for placing your first order below.

Download the Checklist
Have more questions about how to create custom packaging? Add them in the comment section below and let us know how we can improve this guide!

Learn More About Cratejoy’s Custom Box Program!

Check out the standard Cratejoy boxes or design your own custom boxes through the Cratejoy box program! We offer high-quality boxes, fast shipping, and special prices, only for Cratejoy sellers!

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