For those of you who have never shipped a package, are relatively new to shipping items, or just need a little brush-up on your technique, please take this to heart. For those who already pack stuff really carefully and well, you can skip this last part.
I have had some people ship things to me before without so much as a piece of tissue paper to pad them, so I feel like I should post something about shipping items correctly. I don't remember seeing any comprehensive threads about this around so I thought I'd take some time and go over the most important points (feel free to add ideas I may have overlooked).
Overview: We're going to be talking about several different ways to ship items but before that I'd like to point out a few things not to do.
Remember, I'm not singling anyone out, this is about multiple people over the course of many years online, so PLEASE don't be offended if you feel this is about you specifically, because it is NOT.
a. Above all else, do not put plastic action figures inside a cardboard box without wrapping something soft around them first. This does not mean you can just use a 3/4-big-enough piece of bubble-wrap so that the figure falls out of it either. Please, either wrap each figure in a whole plastic shopping bag around and around the figure, or wrap it completely in bubble-wrap and tape the bubble-wrap so the figure can NOT come out. If you don't follow this, the paint on the figure (especially the nose on the figure's head) WILL get scraped off by the inside of the box. Paper is not a good wrapping for a figure either. Remember, paper is made of wood.
b. Never leave a lot of empty space inside a box. You're just inviting disaster because if a box is dropped, a toy is much more likely to break if it can move around than if it stays in the middle of the package. The best bet is to make a pile out of all wrapped items in the middle of the box with packing materials all around (pile of scrunched up shopping bags, paper, styro peanuts, etc.). I'll cover this more in the later sections.
c. Always make sure the other person knows where you are located before making the deal. Also, always use Delivery Confirmation inside the USA. I'll also be discussing this last one a little more later on.
Now that we have those out of the way, Here's the way I like to ship. I'm including one section for each major variation on the USPS shipping methods. If you guys want to post tips (if there are any) on other companies, feel free:
1. 1st Class shipping: I love this option for items under the wieght limit. Not sure exactly what that weight limit is but a few minutes on http://www.usps.com
can tell you. But if you're sending something like a single 6" figure and it's acc., you can get away with really cheap shipping this way. As long as the figure doesn't have really sharp/fragile parts sticking out and the acc. are not too brittle/fragile that is. Something like a ML/SMC Spider-Man is what I'll use as an example.
Basically, what I do is take the figure, and put it into a plastic shopping bag (you know, the kind they want to put your groceries in at Stop & Shop, etc.) and once it's in the bottom of the bag, fold the other side of the bag over lengthwise (so you now have a long, folded-in-half strip with the figure in the bottom) then wrap the remaining portion of the bag around and around so the figure is well-padded. I use a separate bag for each figure, and then one for the acc., if any. Once I have all my little packets done (you can tape them closed if you want, usually not neccessary though) you simply put each one into a padded envelope (I always try to keep/re-use envelopes that are sent to me, but you may have to buy one from the P.O.) until you run out of packets. I always try to arrange the packets so the figures' feet are towards the outside of the envelope and the heads are towards the center, if I can. Once the envelope is filled as much as it will be, simply fold the end over so that there is no extra space, and seal it. The last sentence is important so pay attention: no extra space...
The reason this type of shipping is so good is because for one, it's fast; most of the time people one or two states over from me get stuff in 1 day, and people all the way across the country, 2-3 days. Usually beats Priority Mail!
Two, it's cheap; a single 6" ML is something like $2 before special services. Even factoring in DC# (tracking, which is around $ .75) and you're well ahead of the game.
2. Parcel Post: This is a good option when something is going to be too big/bulky to send 1st Class but not big enough to warrant Priority Mail. Examples might include a Hulk figure w/large base, or something similar. It's good because you can sometimes get away with spending substantially less than Priority Mail but bad because it takes a long time to arrive (usually 4-9 days depending on how far away you are within the US). This is an option I only use when I can't justify spending the price of Priority mail based on the low value of the trade (seriously, do you feel spending $6 shipping to trade someone a "$10 item" you spent $8 on is fair? You're basically spending $14 to get another $10 item from them, meaning something that you'd pay $10 MAX for locally). Another good point about it is that it's flexible; you can use a padded envelope, or box when using Parcel Post. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Using A Box: Usually I like to use a box when something is too big or fragile to use the padded envelope. A box is usually great when going the Priority Mail route as well since it's more economical if you're already paying the Priority fee (which is around $4 minimum and goes up with weight).
As I said before, the way I like to pack a box is first I take each item I'm sending and bag them (each figure or large base/acc. is bagged separately and a pile of small acc. is bagged together with each other but separately from the figures), then take each small packet and make a pile. I then take a small-as-possible box (meaning, big enough to hold all the items plus whatever packing material, but small enough so that they don't rattle around smacking into the inside of the box) and fill the bottom with a layer of either crumpled-up plastic bags, or styro peanuts at least 1-peanut deep all over (paper is ok, technically, but is heavier than styro peanuts, increasing your shipping fee). I then place the pile of items I'm sending in the middle of the box, squarely on top of the middle of the layer of padding. Then fill all around and to the top of the box with padding material and seal the box. I don't always go through the exact letter of this method (sometimes let the pile rest against one side of the box if they're not fragile, etc.), but if you want to make sure your stuff won't get broken, at least 90% adherence will be good.
If you're sending a large, fragile item however, like for instance, a large Zoid model, there is an exception to the method I just outlined. In that case, I like to make sure that the really fragile parts are well away from anything else. Let's take a Zoids Dark Horn for example; I actually had someone send one of them to me still assembled. There is no way that item WON'T break that way. What I would have done, is completely dissasemble the item and then pack the most durable parts near the bottom and sides of the box, with the most fragile parts near the center, surrounded by the packing material. The same with say, a Transformer which has a breakable part on his chest, for instance. Put him on his back on the bottom of the box with his breakable part being padded the most of anything, towards the center of the box, etc. Sometimes it takes a little common sense, a little ingenuity, and a LOT of trial-and-error to get it right.
You might be asking, where do I get boxes? I like to use boxes sent to me by other traders, but you can also find a lot of useful boxes at stores. Out behind malls and other plazas, etc. they might be willing to give you a lot of clean, large boxes, or if they are clean, but in the trash, you can just take them. Also, smaller stores that have small items, such as dollar stores, gift stores etc. might have the smaller boxes you need. Your last resort might be the P.O., but beware; if you try to use the Priority Mail boxes for parcel post or anything but Priority, you might get yelled at by the postal employees. Unless you cover them with plain paper, etc.
Taking a couple figures and wrapping them in soft padding and throwing them into a "cassette-size" Priority Mailer Box can be ok, if you're planning to pay the Priority rate from the jump. Just make sure to add enough padding after the figures go in that they don't rattle around.
4. Special Services (Delivery Confirmation, Insurance, etc.): Now, I'd like to start this section off with a note on Insurance. Insurance is good if you are sending something over $25 and want to make sure that even if it gets there, you could collect the money should it be even slightly damaged (great with stuff like expensive Zoids, which almost always arrive broken). Or, if it never arrives, you can collect merely because of that. However, there are some caveats with Insurance that not everyone knows;
Buying Insurance starts at something like $3 (not sure how much anymore) for under $50 in coverage. But this means that you are only covered for the amount your items are WORTH, not the whole $50. So they force you to spend the same amount whether your items are worth $20, or $50. Moreover, you must be able to prove how much the items are worth when you file the claim. So basically, if you get insurance and then can't prove in written format somehow that when you sent the items they were worth $__, you will get nothing from the Post Office (printouts of eBay end-of-auction pages work well though).
Also, THE PERSON WHO BOUGHT THE INSURANCE MUST FILE THE CLAIM, although not all postal employees know this. You can read more about it on their site. Also, to make matters worse, insurance does not cover anything sent to somewhere outside the country you are in. Overall, for most deals I have made, insurance was practically worthless, except in the case where I either KNEW the item would beak in transit, or when I didn't really trust the seller/trader. Insurance is usually greatly outdone by:
Delivery Confirmation: DC is GREAT, because you can almost always feel worry-free since you're able to make sure exactly where your package is at any given time. If the P.O. somehow can't read the address, but the DC# is still on the package, they can find it for you. When I use 1st Class with a DC# I feel like Insurance is pretty much a scam at that point. And DC is only $ .75 or so.
Ok, so we covered all the major points I could think of. Remember, this isn't a be-all-end-all strict guide, this is a fast-and-loose type of running tutorial meant to simply give you some idea on how to make your shipping hassles as small as possible. You don't have to feel like you must follow these methods to the letter, and that if you don't some all-powerful trading gods will come down and smite you. Many times I've been satisfied when the way someone shipped something was somewhat different than the way I do it, but their items were still well-protected. And that's the key.