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Small businesses: delivering in one piece

How do you ensure your precious product isn't damaged in transit when delivering to your customers?

Alison Coleman - Guardian Profesional.

However good your products are, getting them to your customers on time, in one piece, and as fresh as a daisy, is a logistical challenge that can have a major impact on your business.

Fragile goods are often perishable or outsized, presenting big transport challenges for SMEs; but with careful planning, market research and customer involvement, there are solutions to be found. Glass bottled beverages are notoriously difficult to transport without damage, even short distances, as Edinburgh-based craft beer club Beer52 discovered when it began shipping its liquid wares to many of its 2,000 member customers based throughout the UK.

Founder James Brown said: "The damages we experienced in the first couple of weeks really helped us to focus on rethinking our packaging. It was a good thing in the end, as we improved our business. Customers who had received a damaged parcel were reassured because we reacted very quickly to resolve the issue and they happily accepted our offer of a replacement box of beer in the new packaging.

"We also listened to the local couriers, took great insight from them, and used it to work closely with our designer to ensure the durability, appearance and end user experience was perfect." This involved an intense 24 hours at the warehouse drop-testing boxes full of beer from a height of two metres, on every side, several times, until they found a design and packaging that didn't smash.

Brown went on: "Once we were confident that the parcel would arrive in great condition, we performed nationwide next-day delivery tests on the new boxes, which thankfully all arrived in perfect condition. We had found the solution. The key is to prepare your packaging for the worst, and then some."

Transporting large and heavy goods raises a different set of issues, as Manchester-based Panel Warehouse, a manufacturer of office screens, room dividers, display boards and panels, has found. Operations director Lyn Boardman said: "Our main logistical concern is the classification of our products as 'ugly freight,' meaning that our products are oversized, don't fit on the processing conveyors like other standard freight, and require special handling in delivery to prevent damage. This can affect how quickly and in what condition our products are received by our customers, potentially affecting our reputation as well as increasing our costs."

The company began working closely with a network of reliable couriers that understood how to handle their products appropriately in-transit and could meet their tight 48-hour delivery timetable. They also worked with their customers to identify shipping issues that could create problems for their couriers, such as deliveries to upper floors of high-rise buildings or clients requiring shipments to arrive at a specific time, such as schools and hospitals.

Boardman added: "Small business owners need to be proactive about identifying logistical issues that might affect their product materials or quality. You can't rely on third-parties to foresee them. For example, we had an issue with a panel that was frequently being damaged in-transit. After speaking to the courier, we realised that there was nothing that we could do to prevent the damage; it was simply the weight of the product that was causing it. Instead, we redesigned the product to include lighter materials, which effectively eliminated our logistical problem."

Shipping fragile goods carries the triple whammy of having to ensure they arrive fresh, intact, and on time at the customer's home. That was the challenge facing George Kazarian, founder of The Recipe Kit which delivers fresh ingredients with step-by-step recipe cards to customers who want to create restaurant-quality dishes at home. He said: "Our service focuses on providing ingredients of the highest quality, so we needed to source packaging that would keep all our perishable ingredients, such as meat, fish, dairy products and herbs at their freshest. This meant guaranteeing that the contents of each delivery was kept below five degrees celsius; no easy task when delivering to households all over the UK."

Simply packing deliveries with cool bags resulted in lots of condensation, damaging the packaging, so Kazarian sourced a product called woolcool from The Wool Packaging Company. He said: "It's completely biodegradable and recyclable, made from pure sheep wool, and is much more efficient at cooling products than man-made insulators. It also reduces condensation, meaning that it maintained the integrity of our packaging."

Timing is also crucial in the delivery of perishable, fragile goods. The Recipe Kit customers are asked to provide a delivery instruction so that boxes can be left somewhere safe if no one is at home. "However, this doesn't work for everyone,” explained Kazarian. "The only solution was to offer as much choice as possible, allowing customers to pick a time that was convenient for them. This degree of flexibility comes at a real cost, so we spent time finding a logistics company that wanted to grow with us and would provide a reasonable price that would give us more delivery time options. Finding the right partners, who believe in you, is very important for growing any business."

Since its launch in 2005, cake specialist Genuine Cakes based in Hatch End, Middlesex, has enjoyed plenty of local passing trade. But when long distance requests began arriving, founder Marie Sinclair had to devise a failsafe delivery strategy for her delicate goods. She said: "Macarons are a new extension to our product range. Like cupcakes, they are very delicate and the slightest knock can shatter them. Customers had been asking us to send them for a while, but until we were 100% confident that each and every macaron could arrive in pristine condition we weren't going to offer this as an option."

Sinclair and her small team spent six months road testing a range of delivery methods, including different packaging materials and methods, to ensure they arrived in tip top condition. She says: "Our challenge wasn't just getting the macaron to the customer in one piece, but making sure they tasted fresh. The key to avoiding delivery issues is to invest in sufficient research and development, and to avoid trying to cut corners. Spend time getting it right the first time round and you won't face any problems in the future."