Everyone loves the rustle of wrapping paper at Christmas, birthdays and other special occasions, and the pleasure of finding out what is inside, especially home-made presents. The anticipation is even more keen when the parcel has arrived in the post - possibly from friends abroad, or at least from a cool auntie or uncle who, for whatever reason, won't be able to come and bring their present personally.
As the Internet world expands, parcel post seems to be on the increase. Not only do we send presents, but with more and more people buying and selling online, the post and parcel services have increased volumes of goods passing through their depots. Pressure from this growing quantity, and the demand for a fast turnover and impossibly short delivery times mean that lovingly packed parcels are not treated as gently as the sender or the consignee would wish.
Some people seem to believe that they can dump a box of assorted goods on the counter and the post office will see to it that everything arrives at its destination in one piece. Unfortunately, a piece of sticky tape across the flaps of the box is simply not enough to withstand the journey through sorting machines, conveyor belts, in and out of vans and lorries, and the manhandling it will receive in the dark and the rain at railway stations and airports. A sticker with 'FRAGILE' or a pictogram of a wine glass is equally futile.
So, to ward off the disappointment of receiving broken coffee mugs, crushed boxes of chocolate, or only half of what was originally in the parcel, here are some ideas for protecting the contents, as well as making parcels attractive and a joy to receive.
Do not throw away sturdy, undamaged cardboard boxes or cartons - keep a store of a selection of sizes, somewhere out of sight, ready for use.
Weigh the item(s) you are sending, including the box you have chosen, and adding 200-300g for packaging materials.
Check with your Post Office online how much this weight would cost to send, and make a note of the maximum and minimum permitted sizes for parcels1. Bear these in mind when choosing your box.
Whilst on line, compare these prices with those of parcel services which have offices in your town and check their small print with regards to insurance, delivery times, maximum size of parcel, etc. Some services may even collect at your house.
If you suspect that the contents of your parcel might be subject to some Customs or other regulations, check this out, too. This could affect consignments to foreign countries containing alcohol, arms, drugs, perfumes, certain foodstuffs, plants and seeds. Some countries forbid certain forms of packaging which contain particular chemicals - for example, if you use wood shavings to pad out your parcel, be careful if the wood was treated with any preservative.
Print out three A4 sheets (landscape) with the recipient's address2 in a large, clear font, and your own address in a somewhat smaller font in the top left-hand corner. If you know at this stage that it will only be a small parcel, of course, you can print them on A5. At the same time, print a short covering letter or a list of the contents of the parcel. Save this list for future reference.
Check that your bathroom scales or luggage scales, and your kitchen scales, are correctly calibrated. It is most annoying to arrive at the desk and find that your parcel is 100g over the weight limit for the category you were aiming for and you have to pay for the next category up.
When you are next passing a post office, pick up a few parcel labels, so that you can fill them out at home, in comfort, rather than with a pen-on-a-chain at the post office counter, with a grumbling queue mounting up behind you. As well as your address and that of the recipient, this will ask for the weight and measurements. Measurements can be made at leisure at home, but get the clerk to weigh the parcel for you to get the exact, 'official' weight.
Start preparations at least a day before you intend to take the parcel to the post office, and allow plenty of time for delivery: 2-3 days for inland parcels and up to a week for deliveries abroad.
The following items are mainly optional, but recommended. They will probably all be found around the home anyway:
Two to three reels of wide transparent adhesive tape. As strong as possible, but definitely transparent! Do not use duct tape, especially in the US, where it is not approved by the postal service.
A large sheet of transparent plastic - these are available in home improvement shops for use as dust sheets for decorating. Any thickness will do, but the thicker the plastic, the easier it is to work with.
A generous amount of gift wrapping paper - suitable to the occasion3. Alternatively you can use standard brown parcel paper.
Old newspapers, bubble wrap, etc, for padding.
Scissors and/or a carpet cutter (the sort with disposable blades).
All-purpose glue (suitable for paper).
Self-adhesive address labels.
Getting Down To It
If you follow all the suggestions given below, your parcel will be absolutely unbreakable, should arrive intact, and opening it at the other end will be quite a challenge for the recipient, who will be rewarded with the suspense of opening a well-packed parcel, and with all the contents in perfect condition. You may consider the method rather 'over the top' and can leave out practically any of the steps if you consider them unnecessary or don't have the materials.
Allow yourself at least an hour from start to finish. Clear a large table or a space on the floor approximately four times the size of your parcel.
Cut off several short lengths of normal-sized sticky tape and stick these temporarily to the edge of the table or somewhere handy.
For a parcel containing several small items for a birthday or Christmas treat:
Wrap all items individually in gift wrap, especially if, for example, they are presents for different members of a family or a group of people at one address. This also adds to the excitement of unwrapping at the other end!
Wrap breakable items in an extra layer or two of bubble wrap or in several layers of newspaper before the final layer of gift wrap.
Gift labels should be stuck down well, to prevent them parting company with the gift. Alternatively write directly on the wrapping paper with decorative pen (silver and gold are available - or white for writing on dark backgrounds) or use a sticker. Or you can simply identify the presents by using different papers for each member of the family. Ribbons and bows will be crushed en route, so these are to be avoided. But any kind of flat or robust decoration can be used, such as a dried rosebud for a favourite girl, a twig of fir for a Christmas present, a sparkler for a bit of fun, a wooden spoon on a cook book for a wedding present, a small packet of jelly babies for a youngster, a small soft toy for a new baby.
The remaining points apply to parcels containing a single large item as well as a collection of smaller parcels:
Put crushable items in a box which is slightly larger than the item itself, and fill the gaps with scrunched-up sheets of newspaper or similar.
Line your box with newspaper or bubble wrap and pack everything in, leaving as little space as possible between items, as you would in a game of Tetris. Fill the gaps with scrunched-up newspaper, paper from a paper shredder, polystyrene chips or a similar lightweight, soft material. Breakable and delicate objects should preferably not be touching the outside of the box.
Put the list of contents and one of the address sheets inside the box. Cover with a final layer of newspaper or bubble wrap and close the box.
This is your last chance to adjust the weight, so weigh the carton once more - bearing in mind that a couple of layers of wrapping are still to come.
Seal the box with the wide adhesive tape, covering all openings and finishing with a length of tape all the way round the middle in all three directions, overlapping it well.
Stick the second address label to the outside of the bare box with glue, sealing the edges with more wide adhesive tape.
Wrap the box neatly in the gift wrap, cutting off any superfluous paper at the ends and tucking them in to make an envelope-style finish. The small pieces of sticky tape which you stuck to the edge of the table are now useful for holding the paper in place while you fold the ends. Stick all edges and ends down well with the wide sticky tape.
Stick the third address label on to the outside - again with glue and tape. If you have used a busily-patterned wrapping paper, or a dark-coloured one, this will make the address stand out against the background - some post offices may even charge extra for an address which is not clearly legible against a dark background, as the sorting machines cannot discern the print. On larger parcels, this may not be necessary, as the Post Office's own parcel label will be stuck over your printed address label.
Cut a piece of the transparent plastic sheet large enough to wrap around the box with a hand's breath of overlap and no longer than the height of the box plus its width. (If the plastic overlaps too much, it will no longer be transparent and it is harder to make a neat job of finishing off the wrapping process).
Lay the plastic sheeting on the table or floor and place the box with the address side down in the middle of the plastic. Pull up the sheeting round the sides, fix it with a short length of adhesive tape, and fold the ends down neatly, again envelope-style. Stick all ends down, covering all edges, so that no stray post can slip into overlaps in the wrapping4.
If your packet classifies as a 'small parcel', stick a small, plain self-adhesive label near the address, as the post office might use stamps which will not stick to the plastic outer skin of your parcel, but will adhere to paper. However, most modern stamps are self-adhesive, and will stick directly to the plastic.
Tying the Knot
If the parcel is particularly large, heavy, or awkward to handle, tie string around it to give people something to hold on to. Done properly, this can replace some of the sticky tape. Some parcel services may, however, refuse to accept parcels tied with string. Check the small print first!
Here is a professional's tip as to how best to do it:
Measure the amount of string you need: holding one end of the string in one hand, and running it through the other hand, stretch along the diagonal of the largest side of the box twice, then turn it on its end and repeat with the smaller side. Then add two arm's lengths and cut.
Lay the parcel on the string, with the string about one third of the way along the parcel. Ensure that about the same amount of string is visible on either side.
Take the two ends and cross at one end of what is now the parcel's top (that is really the base) and twist the string through 90°. Take the string down the opposite sides of the parcel, at right angles to the first round. Turn the parcel over.
Now loop the two ends under the first string round the girth of the parcel, which should also be about one third along the length of the parcel, and knot. Run both ends of the string lengthwise to the equivalent point one third of the way from the other end, knot again, and then run the string down the sides. Knot at the top again, where it meets the central string, then wind the excess string between the two knots to form the handle, finally securing with a double knot and trim.
Check all the knots, tuck the ends in well and cut off loose ends.
Take the parcel to the post office or parcel service office and keep the receipt in a safe place until you are sure the parcel has arrived.
Send an e-mail to the recipient so that they can look out for the postman, giving an idea of the size and appearance of the parcel, and with the list of contents (unless it is a present and/or a surprise!). Save the list of contents nonetheless until everything is safely received.
If the worst comes to the worst, and your parcel does not arrive, or is damaged on arrival, it may be worth your while to lodge a complaint with the parcel service, or, if applicable, with Royal Mail.
You can now relax at the thought of a job well done. Wouldn't you be pleased to get a parcel like that?