“Is your website glitching? Why does it cost so much to ship a ribeye to me?”
I’ve gotten this question a few times by email, and each time my stomach has lurched. That meat customer is saying the shipping prices are too expensive, I say to myself, anxiously. It’s a sentiment I can totally understand and empathize with. While our nonperishable shipping is a flat $10 for all zones, and we do often offer free shipping specials, for certain time zones our meat cuts come with a shipping rate that is pretty “spendy” - as they say in Montana.
Before I respond to these types of emails or DM’s I remind myself: that’s the shipping price because that’s the cost. Actually, the shipping costs more than that. We * subsidize * our shipping costs 10% or more. There are a lot of reasons why we can’t compete with the big meat shippers on shipping rates. But we can beat their quality. And the customers who have tried our meat know that. So after my moment of worry, I reset and type out a cheerful response explaining just that.
Maybe you’re one of our meat customers, curious about the cost and mechanics of our shipping system. Maybe you’re a fellow rancher curious about perishable shipping and wondering if you should make the jump. I’ve only been shipping perishables for 2+ years but I have learned a lot in that time, and made plenty of mistakes.
I hope this blog post can be helpful to both types of readers.
Little Creek is a proud member of the M5 Entrepreneurs community. Mary Heffernan of Five Mary’s Farm has been an invaluable mentor to me as I navigated perishable shipping, and I am still learning from her. I’d also like to give big kudos to Susie Felton at Felton Angus Beef (another M5 member), who selflessly shared her advice and experience with me many-a-day in cold storage. Susie continually put community over competition, and inspires me to do the same. And lastly, Alderspring Ranch is a great resource if you’re looking to get up and running quickly or trial run a shipping program. They have a free course to get you started shipping meat in just 5 days.
Ok, let’s dive in!
If you have further questions at the end, please leave them in the comments and I will respond there.
How is perishable shipping different from nonperishable shipping?
Unlike shipping a pair of sneakers, you can’t just throw beef in a box and expect it to arrive at its destination in good quality. We need to keep our meat very cold during transit, which means it also needs to travel from our freezers to your door within 24-48 hours. This requires us to use custom, top-of-the-line insulated box liners ($$$), to ship with dry ice ($$$), and to use expedited shipping ($$$).
Why does it cost so much to ship one ribeye?
Three main reasons.
1. Because shipping carriers charge by the size of the box over the weight. (I won’t get too far into the weeds here; google “dimensional weight” if you are curious.)
2. We have a couple standard box sizes we ship small, medium, and large orders in. We don’t have teeny tiny custom insulated boxes for one ribeye. So whether a customer orders one ribeye or five, both are going in our small box and both are incurring roughly the same shipping price.
3. Additionally, we have to ship almost all boxes outside of Montana by air, which is very expensive. If we shipped the boxes via UPS ground they simply wouldn’t get there fast enough and would completely thaw in transit.
Why can some big meat companies ship “free” or at a much lower rate?
First of all, “free” shipping isn’t free. Large companies can sometimes absorb part of the expense of free shipping as the cost of acquiring a customer. Most often they are building the shipping price into the products. Plus, their costs aren’t the same as ours. Many of the major meat shippers actually have their beef transported the central areas of the country near population centers (think: Ohio) with vast ground zones. Therefore they never have to ship the meat by air, and can charge the much lower ground rates. They can market their meat as ranch raised, but actually it does not ship from anywhere near the ranch. Lastly, their volumes are so high that their costs - from shipping rates to boxes to liners to ice - are much lower than small operations could ever dream of.
And that’s before we even talk about the meat itself.
What shipping carriers do you use?
We ship almost 100% with UPS, as they are the most effective and convenient for us. We have negotiated rates directly through UPS. Negotiated rates are discounted from retail rates for those who ship a lot. The discounts improve the more you ship. When we first started shipping, our costs were noticeably higher than they are now because our volume was much lower. As our volume went up, we were able to decrease our shipping rates.
Can you break down your perishable shipping costs specifically?
There is a baseline cost for each meat box BEFORE we even ship it. That cost is itemized below.
Please note that prices of each item can vary tremendously by volume and region, and may be different for other folks.
dry ice: $5-7
insulated box liner: $8+
packing + marketing materials: $2
So, before we even ship the box, we are into supplies $19 dollars.
What are your current shipping rates for meat?
Our shipping rates vary by state + timezone, to reflect the different prices we are charged by UPS. We reserve the right to change these as necessary. Often we have weekly specials that contain free shipping specials (subsidized shipping built into the box for all zones), but we also have set rates for a la carte meat orders that are as follows:
Montana shipping - $29
MST Time Zone - $39
CST + PST Time Zone - $59
EST Time Zone - $69
So those shipping rates cover all your costs, right?
Wrong. We subsidize our shipping costs to make them more manageable for our customers. Montana + MST boxes are our most subsidized because we are trying to encourage more orders within our UPS ground zone. The other zones’ pricing is more accurate but still does not cover the full cost.
This is one of the many reasons we encourage our customers to order in bulk - they get more bang for their buck, it helps us hit our margins, and more meat actually helps keep the box really cold during transit.
If a box is then headed to a fellow Montanan, in our UPS ground zone, shipping generally costs us $15+ for an average box size with our current negotiated rates.
For almost all other regions we ship by overnight air (or two day air, in the winter months when boxes can stay colder longer), which can cost anywhere from $40-$65 for small + medium boxes. Large boxes can cost even more. Second day air boxes are about $10 cheaper than overnight.
Not to mention that we are totally beholden to UPS to set their shipping costs. Around the holidays they always raise prices and there is nothing we can do about it.
Plus - each box comes with a risk. Less than 1% of boxes are lost, but it does happen, and we will always make it right with the customer. The shipping carriers have suspended their service guarantees due to covid, and so businesses have no recompense if their boxes get lost during transit. We just have to re-ship the box and eat the expense a second time. We have to keep these losses in mind when setting shipping rates.
SO, AS YOU CAN SEE, SHIPPING IS REALLY EXPENSIVE.
And the last note on this topic - last I checked, we are in the second highest negotiated rate tier for UPS (if they’re being honest with me). That means if my volume goes up, my shipping rates will get a little bit better and I may be able to lower prices. However, UPS could just as easily decide to raise rates right where they are. I will always strive to get our customers the best bang for their buck, but I can only do so much subsidizing and am still subject to so many outside forces.
How can we optimize “bang for the buck” when purchasing meat from you?
The more meat you buy, the more the shipping cost will be distributed. We will never charge you extra for shipping, even for very large orders.
Also, you can wait for our free shipping specials!
I want to start shipping meat. What size + type of box liners should I get?
There are all kinds of boxes + liners out there. The best set up for you is going to depend on what you are shipping, what your price point is, and how cold you need your products to stay. Let me give another shout out to Mary Heffernan at Five Mary’s Farm here - she is the shipping master and has tested every liner under the sun in every box size. I am simply a padawan to the Jedi master, and I’m not going to spill her tried and tested methods/suppliers that she shares in her meat shipping course.
I’ll just share what I have discovered works for me. I have two main box sizes that I work with currently, though they are always subject to change. Most often, I use a 12” cube box for all meat orders less than 10 lbs, and a 14” cube box for meat orders over 10 lbs.
Cube boxes tend to be stock sizes at many liner companies, and stock size liners are cheaper than custom liners. They also hold cold really well as all the meat and ice is consolidated in the middle of the box, as opposed to a long, skinny box. However, it really is a matter of preference. Rectangular boxes can sometimes present better to customers, as the meat is displayed beautifully upon opening the liner.
12” cubes work really well for lamb, ground beef, steaks, and other smaller cuts. 14” cubes are my go-tos for hefty orders (I can get over 20# of meat plus ice inside them), large roasts, etc. You want to pack your boxes full so that air doesn’t circulate (air causes thawing). We encourage our customers to order at least 5 lbs of meat per box, and pack extra space with craft paper.
When choosing a box size, you need to anticipate the interior dimensions of the box after your liner is inside. You also need to consider the size of your cuts of beef. For example if a customer orders a gigantic brisket, I can’t ship it in a 12” box. I need at least a 14” inch cube box to fit it in there, plus ice. Some cuts from the butcher are so wide that I don’t get them at all, because they won’t fit. Such as tomahawk ribeyes or super long racks of beef ribs. This is where the rectangular boxes can also have a big advantage.
When you are getting quotes from box liner companies, ask about their stock sizes, the liner thickness (1” is a good minimum, 1.5” will hold cold better), performance data, shipping costs, minimum order quantities, and recyclability. And do'n’t forget to haggle if you can - sometimes they will come down on price if you have a competitive quote from another company.
AND NOW FOR TYPES OF BOX LINERS:
There are also styrofoam box liners but environmentally conscious customers don’t like them (and neither do I) so I won’t link them here.
I’ve only linked some here - there are plenty more out there! Do some googling and make sure you request samples so that you can test each liners effectiveness yourself!
I’m a rancher thinking about shipping meat. Is it actually worth it? It seems really expensive.
You got that right.
I can’t say what is best for your operation, but I can share why shipping is right for Little Creek.
We live very rurally and don’t have enough of a local population to support our business alone.
We raise premium, niche products and spare no expense along the way. Our customers value this and are willing the bear the shipping expense for the added value and quality of the meat.
I am able to dedicate one day per week to shipping (though it used to be one day per month or less).
I was able to invest in shipping supplies to get started (~$5,000 or so to get started - thank you credit card).
I don’t personally want to sell at farmer’s markets (as a former musician, I’ve done enough schlepping of products and gear and setting up for a lifetime) - I would rather do local deliveries and handle shipping myself.
I am really, really passionate about our products and prioritize adding value to the meat boxes in various ways to help overcome the shipping cost.
What’s your best advice for perishable shippers just starting out?
Get on UPS and Fedex’s websites and find out your ground zone. Print a map out and stick it up on your bulletin board. Your 1-2 day ground zone is the perfect region to start shipping in. It’s a great way to get your feet wet without incurring major air shipping costs. If you live in certain parts of the country, ground shipping may be all you ever need to do.
Don’t go into debt for shipping supplies (like I did). Don’t put $5,000 of insulated box liners on a credit card because you think you need to have everything right away. Order in small quantities from ULINE and get customer feedback as you go. Over time you will know what box liners, box sizes, and what kind of shipping is best for you!
But this is a blog post that has been a long time coming, and I really do hope it has been helpful or illuminating for some.
Got questions? Leave them below.