A little shipping experiment

Have you ever wondered about the practicality of shipping costs? Private vs Federal? I have, and last week I took some time and money to figure out what that difference might actually be. It didn’t really start out as an experiment, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.

On Thursday, Apr 12, I ordered an item from Adafruit Industries, one of my go to places for electronics. To present some perspective, I live in Oregon, so the package is going to have to get all the way across the United States to get to me.

My first order weighed in at 0.64 lbs, and I chose to go with the recommended shipper, UPS. Figuring that I didn’t want to spend too much on shipping, I went with UPS Ground and was told it would be 3-7 days. The package shipped out on the 13th.

The following week, I realized there were a few other things I wanted, and my inner lazy scientist decided to try a little experiment. According to UPS, My package would be arriving on Friday, Apr 20th.

I placed another order, this time on Apr 16th. I gave this one to USPS Priority Mail. The package was 1.34 lbs. This one took a few days to actually get shipped, And went out on Apr 18th.
My experiment was relatively simple: Who’s the quicker shipper in the same relative time/cost frame?

Here are the results:

Box Weight Method Shipped Arrived Shipping Cost
Order #1  0.64 lbs UPS Ground April 13 April 20 (7 Days) $9.78
Order #2  1.34 lbs USPS Priority Mail April 18 April 21 (3 Days) $12.15

Now, granted that the second package was 3/4 of a lbs heavier than the first, so the price was $3 more. Using Adafruit’s cart shipping estimator, if I’d done order #1 through the USPS, it would have cost me ~$8.05 for Priority mail.

If I had more cash to spend I would do some more thorough experimenting. My conclusion is pretty simple: The United States Postal Service offers a really really dang good deal. Moreso, UPS has an incentive to not get the package where it’s going as quickly. The USPS is going to your house 6 days a week. UPS or FedEx are only going to show up if they already have your money. USPS gets the package to you faster because they already have a lot of mail going your direction anyway. They’re not going to go out of their way to get the package to you faster, but they’re spending the money on the plane, the processing, and the truck already. UPS on the other hand wants you to know that your package could have arrive in  3 days instead of 7, or 2, or 1. They can make it happen, for a price.

UPS and FedEx are decent services, but if you can wait a couple of days USPS is where it’s at.

Contrary to popular belief, the Postal service is not subsidized with federal tax dollars. Your mileage may vary, but if I’m footing the bill I think I might be sending a few more things through USPS.

  1. That’s interesting. I would love to see this with a larger sample size. I wonder if Adafruit Industries would share their shipping time/destination data with you in the name of science?

    If you get your hands on the data, I’ll help you crunch it. 🙂

  2. USPS works well for shipping to my home when the package is small and can be put in my mailbox and does not require a signature. It seems like most suppliers I order from use FedEx or UPS for most shipping, or if they do use USPS, it doesn’t seem any cheaper.

    For my own shipping needs, USPS is useless, as they are not open the hours I need them to be open. I did write up some of my recent shipping adventures from the shipper’s point of view, over here: http://rasterweb.net/raster/2012/03/09/maker-business-shipping/

  3. USPS is not *directly* subsidized with tax dollars. However, they do have a federally enforced monopoly, so they enjoy many legal protections and benefits that UPS and FEDEX don’t.

    The most egregious of these is their monopoly on first class letter mail. My favorite fantasy for postal service privatization is to allow other carriers access to USPS mailboxes. It’s currently illegal for fedex to put a letter in your mailbox, if that where changed I think the postal service would quickly tank completely, though the cato institute suggests that I’m wrong on that.

    “unlike other private businesses, the Postal Service is exempt from paying federal taxes. USPS can borrow money at discounted rates, and can condemn and acquire private property under governmental rights of eminent domain” (http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/consumerawareness/a/uspsabout.htm)

    See also http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj31n1/cj31n1-9.pdf for a more in-depth review of USPS’s finances, and a proposal about what to do with it in the future.

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