What alternatives to Lumi do you recommend for small businesses?

Managing packaging is challenging regardless of how big your company is, but the kind of challenges you encounter change as you grow. This is a brief guide with recommendations that will be helpful if you’re still getting started. To familiarize yourself with the terms and concepts of packaging, take a look at our YouTube show Shipping Things and our series on packaging lingo.

Software tools to manage your process

Lumi is a software platform designed for supply chain teams. Typically the smallest companies that use Lumi have at least 15 employees, and revenues of at least $2M per year. Once you get to that scale, you encounter new challenges and complexity in your packaging development and procurement process. Lumi is built for those challenges — i.e. managing quality, costs and sustainability across many packaging components, manufacturers, and shipping locations.

If you are not at that scale yet, you can manage the process using less specialized tools such as spreadsheets, Airtable, Quickbooks and Xero.

Differentiating between manufacturers, distributors and brokers

In the world of packaging suppliers there are broadly three types of companies you will encounter: manufacturers, distributors, and brokers. Manufacturers own factories that produce the packaging. It can be challenging to reach out directly to manufacturers when you’re just getting started as the minimum quantities are typically high, and you can’t always be sure what level of quality you are going to get. Most manufacturers are specialized in one specific type of packaging and material such as corrugated boxes, glass bottles, or paper envelopes.

Distributors and brokers resell packaging from manufacturers. They typically have a broader range of options and sell at lower minimum quantities. They may also offer storage options and help manage the logistics of getting packaging to your location. Distributors usually have their own warehouses, delivery trucks, and an inventory of stock packaging, whereas brokers don’t.

Lumi is not a manufacturer, distributor or broker — Lumi is a software platform that helps you find and work with manufacturers.

Early on, you may find that the easiest way to source packaging is through online distributors that offer a wide variety of options in one place. These include companies like PaperMart, EcoEnclose, Berlin Packaging, or brokers that you can find on Alibaba. When purchasing from a distributor, the unit prices may be higher than working directly with a manufacturer, but you can purchase in much lower quantities and have higher confidence that you are receiving a quality product. 

Freight and sourcing locally

Packaging is relatively costly to ship because it’s usually bulky and inexpensive per unit. For this reason it’s often best to look for local providers in your city. This approach minimizes shipping costs and transit emissions. There are hundreds of regional brokers, distributors and manufacturers that you can find via Google or ThomasNet. In the United States, it’s typically most cost effective and sustainable to source paper products from American companies since the paper is produced locally. 

Custom-made poly mailers can often times be more cost-effective when produced in Asia, however to keep costs low you should use ocean freight which means that your order may take up to 9 weeks to deliver.

Packaging is typically delivered on pallets. This means you will be expected to have a dock or a forklift on site. Read our guide about receiving freight shipments to avoid costly shipping issues. If you don’t have a dock or forklift you can usually request a freight delivery with a lift gate (as small elevator on the back of a freight truck), but you will probably still need a pallet jack.

What kind of packaging to use

See our video on getting started with custom packaging at any budget.

If you’re just getting started, consider using unbranded, stock packaging. This is the most economical approach, and is used even by the largest companies in the world. Off-the-shelf packaging is available in small bundles of 50-100 units. You can customize the outside of the packaging using rubber stamps, labels, tape — or the inside using colored tissue paper, note cards and other collateral.

Remember that your customers are buying your product, not your packaging. When you are getting started, make sure you invest in making the product great before you overthink your packaging — especially the outer shipping packaging (secondary packaging).

If you are dead set on custom-printed boxes, there are a few options. For the lowest quantities (under 500 boxes), search for digitally printed boxes. These are typically expensive per unit (anywhere from $2-5 each), but available in very low quantities — even down to a single box. Digital printing on corrugated cardboard uses a process similar to a low resolution inkjet printer. It can look a bit grainy if you are trying to print large areas of a single color. However, an advantage of digital is that you have no limit on the number of colors, you can print very colorful designs.

As you grow, other manufacturing processes become more cost effective. These include flexographic and lithographic printing — see our video on the differences between flexo and litho. Flexo has minimums of 1,000 units, whereas litho is around 10,000 units or more. These processes typically require custom cutting dies and printing plates (also known as tooling). These methods allow you to print spot colors such as Pantone colors, and generally offer higher quality results. Tooling is a one-time cost for each style of packaging you use. The cutting die and printing plates usually end up costing around $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the size of your box and the number of colors you use. The benefit is that with this investment, the equipment used is much faster, and therefore produces packaging at a much lower cost per unit — around $0.50 to $1.50 each.

If your product requires very specialized custom inserts, you will likely need to work with a packaging engineer and produce a custom-made cutting die. However, you can also avoid creating custom inserts by using other void fill options such as butcher paper, honeycomb wrap, cornstarch peanuts, or other padding.

More resources

Packaging is a vast and complex world. We’ve created hundreds of hours of free videos, interviews with entrepreneurs and useful content that can help you figure out how to think about packaging as your business grows:

  • Shipping Things — Our YouTube show full of bite-sized insights about packaging and selling products online.
  • Well Made — The podcast where we interview the movers and shakers of ecommerce. 
  • Instagram — A feed to find packaging inspiration from brands using Lumi. 
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