USPS, UPS, or FedEx: Which Shipping Carrier Is Best?

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With the holidays quickly approaching, online sellers and postal workers alike are bracing for the sudden rush of packages from the holiday buying frenzy.

USPS, UPS, and FedEx workers everywhere are pulling out their gloves and strapping on their lumbar support. Winter is coming, and they are prepared!

Merchants, on the other hand, may feel a little less ready for the holiday rush. Not only do they have to maintain inventory and process orders, but they have to navigate the complex role of fulfillment.

With three major shipping carriers to choose from, it can be difficult to know which service you should use for your shipments.

Never fear! We’ve researched the advantages and disadvantages of each of the three major shipping services, and we’ve asked merchants to tell us their own experiences with each carrier. Keep reading to learn what each shipping carrier does well and where they can improve. We hope you’ll keep this information in mind as you explore your fulfillment options.

Table of Contents

USPS

The United States Postal Service is a public shipping carrier, subsidized by taxpayers. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” will keep the postal service from delivering letters and packages to Americans’ mailboxes (though in my experience, freezing rain does the trick).

The USPS is the #1 shipping option for many merchants, especially those who ship small and light products. However, USPS is not perfect by any means. Here’s what you should keep in mind as you consider USPS for your business:

Pros

There are a lot of praises to sing about USPS. Here’s what merchants love most about the postal service:

It’s The Most Inexpensive Option For Small Packages

The USPS is, hands down, the most affordable option for merchants who ship small items. Because taxpayers subsidize much of USPS’s expenses, it is able to ship small objects (letters and bubble mailers) for incredibly low rates.

The USPS provides the cheapest shipping for many packages under two pounds, and USPS simply can’t be beat for packages under 13 ounces. Let me state it clearly:

If you’re shipping products under 13 ounces, you should use USPS.

In addition, many merchants benefit from USPS’s flat rate options through Priority Mail. For one price, you can ship products of any weight across any distance; it just has to fit into USPS’s box.

Merchants also save by utilizing USPS’s free packaging material. Priority Mail boxes are available for free, and you can even arrange to have them delivered to your place of business.

If you’re trying to cut costs, USPS may be the way to go.

It’s More Reliable Than In The Past

While in the past, USPS was infamous for misplacing packages or delaying shipments, in recent years, they have greatly improved their reliability. Here’s what Allen Walton of SpyGuy.com had to say about the USPS’s improved delivery rates:

Deliverability is pretty solid. We very rarely have lost packages. Occasionally there are hiccups in their system that make it seem like a package hasn’t moved in days, and that can sometimes cause annoying issues, but getting better tracking means way more money using UPS or FedEx, and those guys have their own tracking issues.

Dr. Eugene Emmer from RehaDesign uses USPS to ship from his store in Europe into the United States. He reports:

In 10 years, only 2 parcels have been lost. Both times, all costs were fully refunded.

If your concern is lost packages, it seems that concern is now unfounded. Merchants often state that their savings from using USPS more than covers the very few packages that go missing.

It Delivers To Mailboxes and PO Boxes

The USPS has a monopoly on mailboxes and PO boxes. They’re the only shipping service that does not have to drop off packages at customers’ doorsteps.

Zondra Wilson of Blu Skin Care lists these perks well. She says:

By far the best option when it comes to price, USPS also offers insures overnight delivery. USPS also delivers to most locations such as post office boxes, has pick-up options, a wide array of packaging (some free), and offers insurance for Priority Express mail and Priority Mail as well as tracking for various services.

Because the USPS routinely delivers across the country, it excels in getting packages to out-of-the-way destinations. According to Jim Milan of Auto Accessories Garage:

They’re definitely the king of the lightweight package, and since they try to prioritize every address equally, they’ll occasionally surprise us with how quickly they can ship something to “the middle of nowhere,” so to speak.

If you’re looking for a service that will allow you to deliver your packages along with customers’ daily mail, USPS is the only way to go.

Cons

While USPS is great for many purposes, it is by no means a perfect solution. Here are a few of the downfalls you’ll have to look out for:

There’s No Guaranteed Delivery

It’s common wisdom that if a service is cheap and good, it cannot also be fast. This holds true for USPS.

The USPS will not guarantee delivery for express shipping. Kristin Anthony, CEO of Anthony’s Ladies Apparel, shared her experience with me:

We do use UPS for all of our express packages (Next Day, 2-Day or 3-Day shipping options) because UPS guarantees delivery within those time frames and USPS will not guarantee it.

If you absolutely need a package to arrive within a brief window, you’re better off going with UPS or FedEx.

Tracking Is Not Great

While USPS has improved their reliability in recent years, packages still go missing from time to time. The USPS’s less-than-perfect tracking system does not help matters when deliveries are delayed or lost.

Although Milan from the Auto Accessories Garage emphasized that pricing is an important consideration for his company, he still has a few complaints regarding the USPS’s tracking methods:

…while USPS may often be the cheapest choice, they can never guarantee a delivery date, and rarely if ever provide accurate tracking. This can be very frustrating to our customers, and frustrating for us when we can’t provide more information about a shipment.

For better tracking capabilities, you’ll have to look into more expensive alternatives.

Poor Customer Service

Merchants report that when packages do inevitably go missing, it can be difficult to have them located and to get the refund you’ve been assured. Here’s what SpyGuy.com’s Walton has to say to that:

Their customer service is garbage. Impossible to find lost packages, and they don’t make it easy for the customer to do the legwork themselves – it’s always on the business that shipped it out. When they put you on hold, it’s just a dead silence for like 30 minutes and you never know if someone will get on the line….Getting refunds is not easy. Sometimes they don’t deliver on time and the process for requesting refunds is antiquated. Really wish they would make it easy.

In order to get the affordable shipping rates USPS offers, it appears you’ll have to sacrifice a bit in terms of customer service.

The Low-Down

While the USPS is not the ideal option for every merchant (or every shipment!), it still is well worth considering as a part of your fulfillment strategy. Those super low rates for light shipments are impossible to beat.

UPS

UPS is a private shipping carrier specializing in secure, speedy delivery. eCommerce merchants love UPS for its reliability and comprehensive tracking system. However, UPS’s services tend to come at a higher price. Here are the top pros and cons of the brown van shipping service:

Pros

There’s a lot to love about this service, but here are the primary reasons online sellers choose UPS:

It Offers Guaranteed Express Shipping

If you need a package delivered ASAP, UPS is the way to go. UPS provides services like same-day delivery and next-day delivery.

Guaranteed delivery gives you the peace of mind that your packages will arrive on time, keeping your customers happy and your business moving.

It’s Affordably Priced (At Times) For Heavy Shipments

While the USPS is the cheapest option for light shipments, pricing increases dramatically for heavier shipments. If you’re shipping packages heavier than two pounds, you should take a look at UPS’s shipping rates. They may be able to deliver your packages more quickly (and securely) at a lower price.

What’s more, if you ship large volumes through UPS, you should be able to lower your rates through negotiation. You’ll have to have proof of your previous shipments, but the discounts are worth the effort.

It Provides Unbeatable Tracking

UPS offers comprehensive tracking services. Customers will be able to see where their packages are from start to finish. UPS’s detailed tracking gives your customers a sense of security, and it’s also great for you! The UPS will be able to tell you at any point exactly where packages are. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll lose a package while shipping through UPS.

Cons

While UPS is a great service in many ways, it isn’t perfect. Here are a few areas in which you’ll have to sacrifice if you ship with UPS:

It’s More Expensive

While this is not true in every case, UPS’s services can cost a bit more.  There are a few reasons for this, but two of the main culprits are the fees and surcharges that UPS adds to their base rates. These include residential surcharges, extended area surcharges, and more.

You’ll want to consider these surcharges, especially if you’re shipping internationally. as they can be rather steep.

There’s No Free Package Pickup Service

Although the USPS offers scheduled pickups free of charge, you’ll have to pay a flat rate for the same service from UPS.

One of our contributing merchants, Mark Aselstine from Uncorked Ventures, explains how this affects his business:

…our packages are pretty heavy-a standard 2 bottle shipment of wine runs about 7 pounds. Since we often have dozens to ship, we prefer to have them picked up. Fedex charges some extra amount per pound for a pickup in our area whereas UPS charges a flat fee.

In this case, UPS is actually the best option as it offers the lower pickup fee when compared to FedEx. It’s just a bummer that UPS doesn’t offer this service for free like USPS.

There Is No Free Saturday Delivery

UPS is the only carrier on this list to not offer Saturday delivery as a part of their basic services. This can slow down your shipments by up to two days. Instead, Saturday delivery is offered as a “value-added service.” You’ll have to use qualifying shipping services and pay extra to extend your delivery window one more day.

The Low-Down

UPS is a great carrier for larger shipments. While it isn’t as inexpensive as USPS, UPS tends to be a bit faster and its tracking capabilities are much better.

FedEx

I’m going to be honest: From what I’ve seen and heard from online sellers, FedEx isn’t too different from UPS. I know I’m going to get loads of protests about this in the comment section below, but in my opinion, the two are pretty similar.

Merchants often cite location as their main reason for choosing FedEx over UPS. However, your experience may prove quite different. Regardless, here’s our list of what FedEx does well and where it could improve:

Pros

As a private shipping carrier, FedEx has many of the same advantages that UPS does, including a great tracking system and speedier delivery. Here’s what you can expect from FedEx:

A Precise Tracking System

FedEx offers customers a robust tracking system. You can view your shipment’s progress every step of the way. You can also use FedEx’s delivery manager to hold packages at a FedEx office or schedule delivery for a specific time. Watch FedEx’s Ways to Track video to learn more.

Saturday Delivery

Unlike UPS, FedEx offers Saturday delivery as a part of their basic shipping packages. Mark Tyrol, president of Battic Door Energy Conservation Products, names Saturday delivery as one of the reasons he chooses FedEx for shipments:

For most other orders we use FedEx. FedEx delivers on Saturdays so some items shipped mid-week that would arrive on Mondays via UPS arrive the Saturday before via FedEx. So we use FedEx for these shipments.

Delivering products just two days earlier through FedEx can make a huge impact on customer satisfaction.

Negotiable Pricing

If you’re shipping large volumes of packages through FedEx, you may be able to negotiate for lower shipping rates. You may find that FedEx offers competitive rates for packages up to 50 pounds.

Cons

Of course, as you consider FedEx, you’ll have to also keep in mind its downsides. Here are a few of the most notable:

Higher Shipping Rates

Due to the highly variable nature of shipping costs, it’s impossible to label one carrier as definitely more expensive than another. However, from what I’ve seen with sample calculations, it appears that FedEx often charges more than its competitors. Of course, this won’t be true in every case (especially for merchants who negotiate their rates), but it does appear to be a trend.

No Free Package Pickup Service

Like UPS, FedEx does not offer a free package pickup service. That does not mean, however, that you cannot schedule a package pickup. You’ll just have to pay a fee.

Fewer Offices

There are over 1,900 FedEx Offices worldwide. In comparison, UPS provides over 5,000 UPS Stores. Merchants should be able to find a FedEx Office nearby; however, it’s probable that office won’t be quite as convenient as UPS.

The Low-Down

FedEx is an excellent option for merchants who are looking for fast, dependable shipping. As always, you should compare shipping rates with UPS and USPS to make sure you’re getting the best service for your money.

Finding The Perfect Balance

As you choose shipping carriers for you business, it’s important that you don’t limit yourself to just one shipping provider. Most merchants use a mix of two or even three services to offer customers the fastest, cheapest shipping every time.

You may, for example, choose to ship light packages with the USPS and heavy packages with UPS. Or you may ship everything through the USPS, with the exception of expedited shipments, which you send through FedEx. It all depends on your business model, your average order weight, and your shipping destinations.

Are you already successfully shipping with one or more of these carriers? Let us know in the comments which carriers you prefer and why. We love to hear from you!

Liz Hull

Liz is a recent college graduate living in Washington state. As of late, she can often be found haunting eCommerce forums and waiting on hold with customer service representatives. When she’s free, Liz loves to rock climb, watch Spanish dramas, and read poorly-written young adult novels.

Liz Hull

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