I have a startup operation in the lines of a traditional business. Shipping tangible products to customers. I order the inventory in bulk from factories in China. However, I need to ship orders to customers in smaller quantities. As I cannot use the packaging from my stocking orders, and cannot afford to regularly buy boxes from manufacturers, I'm wondering what are some of the ways to collect medium label-less boxes that other businesses would end up tossing away. Btw, the members of the startup are currently employed in day jobs also.
I think the simple answer here is: charge your customers more so you can afford to buy boxes in bulk. If you can't afford to buy boxes, you are not correctly assessing your costs.
There's definitely something wrong with your scheme if you can't price in boxes. I don't use this type of thing and just searched quickly, so you can probably find even better deals. For about the size the USPS calls a large flat rate box and even assuming a few cents for tape & foam peanuts, you should be able to stay under $1/box.
It isn't clear where you are, but why not use USPS flat rate and get free boxes from them? You need to order these online and can't just pick them up at a post office, but the regional flat rate often works out to be cheaper and offers bigger (free) boxes to ship with. Then again, it isn't clear what size you need from "medium".
Whatever the actual sizes and costs, your competitors are pretty much facing the same thing. I ship small packages and get enough bubble wrap to re-use. The postage + bubble mailers for most shipments are just over $2 and I charge a flat $3 for First Class shipping. This is very standard or cheaper than others in my industry and I still make a small profit or handling fee.
Factor in Packaging Costs
You must factor in the cost of packaging as it is part of your cost of goods (CoG). If your margins are so tight that $0.50-$3.00 worth of packaging materials is a big factor then you need to adjust your pricing accordingly.
Find a Packaging Vendor (US Based)
Unless you can ship with USPS Priority Flat Rate service where the boxes are essentially free, you need to get price quotes from at least three local box vendors. Use Google Local and search for packaging suppliers/supplies. Then get three price quotes from each vendor for different quantities. For example, if you think you need about 250 boxes, get a quote for 100, 250, and 500 quantity. That will give you an idea of how volume will affect your price. For instance, you may want to invest in 500 boxes if the price drops 50% and you know you will eventually need 500 anyway. I think a general rule of thumb in the packaging world is to buy 90 days out (i.e. quarterly).
Consider Custom Packaging
Most vendors don't actually make boxes, they are just resellers. If you need small quantities and you're not sure on the dimensions or your dimensions may change in the near future, find a vendor that has a box making machine in house. They can quickly make you 1 to hundreds of custom boxes if needed. This is also great for testing. The only downside is that these machines are limited to low volume.
In my experience, custom made boxes are generally not more expensive than standard-sized boxes, once you start buying in volume. It's best to have correct and proper packaging. It looks professional and protects your products. There is nothing more disappointing then receiving a damaged product. The customer will always think the packaging was inadequate because everyone knows UPS/Fedex/USPS beat the crap out of our packages.
Also, custom made boxes will be label-less, like you need. As you grow, you can design a print die for $100 to $600, depending on the size and complexity, and print any custom graphics on your boxes. This is a one time cost and may be worth it if you're trying to brand your company or products.
A good vendor will also provide packaging design services. The four vendors that I have worked with have never charged directly for this. It's just part of making the deal. But remember, don't let them over-design your packaging. This almost happened to me the first time. Essentially, I modified his final design and reduced my packaging and costs by almost 50%, yet my design was just as sound. My rep was actually impressed, but I know he was pissed that I just cut his paycheck. ;-)
Another big factor to consider is packaging time/labor. This is where custom packaging can actually save you money. For example, consider an employee making $9/hr ($0.15/min). Let's say you have cumbersome, inefficient packaging that costs $2 and takes about 10 minutes to package a product (total cost = $3.50). On the other hand you could use some very cool, efficient packaging that costs $2.75 and takes only 3.5 minutes to package a product (total cost = $3.28). The higher cost packaging will impress your customers, make your employee happier, and you will be saving money!
Get a Shipping Rep
It is also a good idea to get yourself a local representative from UPS or Fedex. They will walk you through it, take you out to lunch if you do lots of business with them, get you custom pricing (i.e. save you $$$), and make sure your packaging meets their standards. That way if you do have a claim on a damaged product you won't be liable for damages.