Warehouse worker packing a shipment with void fill.

Cushioning and Void Fill in Shipping: What You Need to Know

The materials you use can have a big impact on overall shipping cost and efficiency.

What should you put in your packages to get products to their destination safely and efficiently? Air pillows? Kraft paper? The truth is, no single solution works for every situation.

Shippers must consider cushioning to protect the item itself, as well as void-fill material to keep the item from bouncing around inside the box. These materials can have a major impact on overall cost, efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Eric Wenzel, Field Sales Director for Staples Shipping and Packing Supplies, shares insight into how to make this important choice.

Focus on Your Product

Most companies ship a variety of products – one type of void fill may not work for every item. Start by analyzing the various types of items you ship.

“A void-fill choice should begin with examining each product,” he explains. “Do you have fragile items? Can they withstand movement in the box? The answer to this varies, depending on the product. Sometimes, you don’t need void fill at all.”

If your product could pass the “toss test” — if you could toss it across the room without it breaking — you likely don’t need cushioning or void fill. T-shirts and hats can be sent in mailers, for example. On the larger side, a box of Keurig cups can be placed without void fill in a slightly larger box.

If void fill is needed, air pillows might be the perfect fit if you are shipping over 250 products per day and your products do not have sharp edges. If not, Kraft paper might make the most sense.

Consider Efficiency and Labor

Next question: Which type of void-fill is going to be more efficient to pack?

“Ask yourself if you’re able to get more out the door if you switch to a different method for assembling and packing filler,” Wenzel explains. “Consider how that might free up a bottleneck in your warehouse, or even decrease shipping time to your customers.”

Picking the right void fill can have a snowball effect, so it’s wise to look at the overall impact of your choice instead of the price of the material itself. Void fill that is quicker to pack might be a better choice for your warehouse, even if it is more expensive. For example, an air pillow or paper void-fill machine requires an investment, but it typically speeds up the rate at which you can process packages.

The cost of labor per package is also an important consideration. Packages that require many manual touches result in sub-optimal shipping.

"If you’re hand-crimping Kraft paper to put into boxes, your per-package fill costs might be low, but labor costs will add up,” Wenzel says. “If you switch to an automatic void-fill method, you will be able to save time and put it toward getting more packages assembled and out the door.”

Think About Your Customer

The right void fill for your shipping also depends on your customer priorities. Wenzel recommends considering the customer experience from a waste, disposal and sustainability perspective.

“Put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” he says. “Think about a customer opening a package, and what kind of reaction they would have to the filler and overall package.”

Boxes that are significantly larger than the product and are stuffed with unnecessary filler may appear wasteful. This is not great on the face of it, and may send a message about your company’s overall approach to business. Also, consider how customers will dispose of void-fill materials. For example, packing peanuts might spill out when the recipient opens the package, leading to an annoying cleanup that leaves a bad impression.

Finally, make it easy for customers to dispose of packing material. For example, Kraft paper is biodegradable and easily recyclable. It shows your company’s commitment to being more environmentally friendly, and that can positively impact customer perception.

When deciding on a new type of void fill, work with your shipping products supplier to analyze your goals and find the right solution. A supplier should be able to do pack-outs at your location to help determine the most economical way to safely cushion your product, so take advantage of their expertise. Finding the right material and process is well worth the effort.