Sending Maple Syrup by Mail

by Tig Tillinghast

There is an art to sending maple syrup, especially if you’re sending a large volume, and extra especially if you want to spend less on shipping than you do on making syrup. Decisions early in the process – such as which bottle shapes you use, and which sizes you offer customers – come to have very large, often unintended consequences.

Where to Start?

Start with your bottle. The materials, shapes and sizes all affect shipping, sometimes in unanticipated ways (for a quick review of different materials advantages and disadvantages, see this older post. People tend to like plastic best for sending by mail, but I’ve had about as good luck with plastic as with glass – which is to say some pretty messy packages for every couple hundred ones sent without incident. You tend to pack glass with greater care. In fact, the only accidents I’ve had with glass have been bottle stoppers coming out in transit, rather than the glass rupturing. On the other hand, the plastic fiascos I’ve see involved rupturing, almost always at the interface between the container and the cap.

When people buy maple syrup for practical purposes – like putting in their coffee each morning – they tend to order plastic bottles, which is often cheaper than maple syrup sold in glass bottles (2007 proved the exception to the rule, when petroleum prices went so high that packing in glass was actually cheaper). Several companies make special plastic syrup jugs with oxygen barrier coatings that prevent the syrup from going bad after a few months. They also have the charm of fitting into those single-price/send-anywhere boxes that the United States Postal Service markets. All-in-all, a pretty efficient way to get a lot of weight of maple syrup across a lot of country.

For maple syrup operations doing bulk and wholesale business, shipping five gallon pails or larger barrels becomes the rule, more often using UPS or FedEx Freight for pick-ups. On a dollar-per-gallon sent ratio, larger barrels of wholesale maple syrup typically cost about $7 to $12 for moving across the country, depending on scale, location, need for a lift-gate truck and several other factors.

On the higher end of the market – and especially for gift bottles – customers tend to like to order glass bottles. Choosing the right size here is trickier. With all the cushioning that glass requires in the box, you can throw out those single-price boxes from the USPS, as they won’t be big enough. That hurts not just because of the loss of the low postage opportunity, but also because the USPS springs for the box. Now you’re really on your own.

Choose a bottle that fits with a box and packaging. I think I had a good idea a couple years back, realizing that the one-liter flask bottles are roughly the same proportions as a wine bottle. This was important because many, many wine producers send wine bottles by mail, which means there’s a small industry of companies that make special packaging for sending this very size of glass bottle through the mail. After spending $2.20 on a glass bottle, and $1.50 on a special mailer, a liter of syrup (about 3 pounds of syrup) cost an additional $10 to ship to most places east of the Mississippi from the maple syrup boondocks of Vermont. At 2008 prices, that was about 30 percent the cost of the liter of syrup. Folks buying bottles four at a time saw that shipping and packaging cost amount to only about 12 percent of the cost of the syrup. When you see that actual Vermonters must pay 6 percent sales tax for transactions made in the Green Mountain state, that’s actually not so bad for shipping and packaging costs to out-of-staters.

Sugar makers tend to like USPS versus UPS and Fedex, probably because of the flat rate boxes. When you give customers a choice, though, they tend to choose UPS or Fedex, even though it’s clear to them that it’ll cost more. I find that very interesting, and I suspect it’s due to a perception that greater care is given to packages at the private companies. Tillinghastmaple.com stopped offering Fedex and UPS simply because having a mish mash of shippers makes fulfilling orders much more painful. Besides, it gives me an excuse to visit with our local postal clerks, Bob and Henry, although I suspect they’d be happy to seem me go to UPS when the Christmas maple syrup gift rush is on.

Syrup is heavy stuff – 11.4 pounds per gallon, not including the container. Heavy stuff is much more likely to have accidents, spillages or packaging escapes, as the item’s own weight creates a momentum when its moving that can be pretty destructive when it comes to an abrupt stop. And, as it happens, getting maple syrup all over a customer’s mail tends to make them pretty irritable. The weight is also one of three key factors in determining the price of sending a package – along with distance sent and desired delivery speed.

Make sure that the maple syrup is completely immobilized within the packaging. Any room for movement – including after some of the packing settles – will lead to some degree of shock force on the container. When you introduce a new type of container or packaging, it’s best to test one out by doing a few drop tests on a hard surface.

People selling syrup online may be tempted to offer free shipping, but those costs could be a lot higher than anticipated, as the folks most attracted to that offer are often the ones who live the furthest away, causing a much higher than average shipping cost. It’s also an odd form of subsidy for western and southern states. If you think about it, a maple syrup producer who pays for shipping is effectively charging New England states and those nearby a higher amount than those to whom he’s shipping maple syrup in Hawaii and California.

Repackaging

It often makes more sense – and can be kind of fun – to order syrup in bulk and then split the larger amount into many smaller containers to send on to friends and family. Keep in mind that syrup intended to be stored any length of time should be “hot packed,” and you can find directions on how to do that properly here.