Ecommerce Operations

Shipping Zones 101: How to Get the Best USPS Rates For Your Ecommerce Fulfilment

Every ecommerce retailer wants to cut fulfilment costs. And shipping zones can be essential to making that happen.

Shipping zones play a key role in how carrier companies (like USPS, UPS, and FedEx) determine how much they charge for delivering each domestic US package.

Yet many ecommerce retailers don’t take the time to truly understand how they work.

So in this post, we cover everything you need to know on shipping zones. Including what exactly they are, and how to use them (and not to use them!) to your advantage.

What are shipping zones?

Shipping zones help carriers measure how far a package will travel. Zones are categorised by taking the mileage between origin and destination zip codes, which is then used (usually along with weight and/or package dimensions) to determine a price to ship that package.

Here’s what USPS shipping zones look like:

  • Local. Destination zip in same delivery network as origin Post Office.
  • Zone 1. 1-50 mile radius.
  • Zone 2. 51-150 mile radius.
  • Zone 3. 151-300 mile radius.
  • Zone 4. 301-600 mile radius.
  • Zone 5. 601-1,000 mile radius.
  • Zone 6. 1,001-1,400 mile radius.
  • Zone 7. 1,401-1,800 mile radius.
  • Zone 8. 1,800+ mile radius.
  • Zone 9. Freely associated states (e.g. Palau & Micronesia).

For example:

The distance between a major Los Angeles zip code (90001) and San Francisco (94108) is around 388 miles. So shipping between these locations would be Zone 4.

But going from our LA zip to downtown Manhattan is over 2,800 miles – putting this journey well into Zone 8.

You can work out the zone for any two destinations by going to the USPS shipping zones calculator and selecting the Get Zone for Zip Code Pair tab:

USPS shipping zones calculator

UPS zones look slightly different, but work based on the same logic. You can see more about them here.

How shipping zones affect cost

Basically: the higher the zone (i.e. the greater the travelling distance), the more it will cost you to ship. Unless you’re using a flat-rate, non-zoned service – in which case, you pay the same price regardless of domestic US destination.

USPS has a range of both zoned and non-zoned services. Here’s a quick run down of them:

USPS zoned services

  • Priority Mail Express
  • Priority Mail
  • USPS Retail Ground
  • Bound Printed Matter
  • USPS Cubic Rate (a secret, cost-saving service available when shipping with USPS in Veeqo)

USPS non-zoned services

  • Priority Mail Express Flat Rate
  • Priority Mail Flat Rate
  • First Class Mail & Packages
  • USPS Marketing Mail
  • Library Mail
  • Media Mail

How “flat rate” services work

Flat rate services remove the need for shipping zones entirely. They usually price based on package weight and/or dimensions, regardless of distance.

For example:

USPS has a Flat Rate version of its Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express services. There are a number of specific sized boxes and envelopes that can be used, which USPS provide for free.

You’ll then be charged a flat rate to ship anything up to 70lbs anywhere domestically within the US – as long as the items can fit inside one of the box sizes.

Here’s what the rates look like (both at a USPS Post Office, and with the discounted commercial rates available in Veeqo):

USPS Flat Rate

Pro Tip: We typically recommend using Cubic Rates when shipping with USPS. These are normally exclusively available to high-volume merchants, but can be accessed by anyone shipping in Veeqo.

How shipping zones affect delivery speed

Pure logic suggests it’s always going to take longer to ship to higher numbered zones. So a package being shipped within Zone 1 will arrive sooner than one being shipped within Zone 8.

But how much longer does it take for each zone?

The answer: it depends.

USPS puts a range of 1-3 business days on its Priority Mail and First Class Mail services, while Priority Mail Express has an overnight guarantee to any zone.

And this UPS calculator gives an even greater insight. Like the time it takes to ground ship to all areas of the US from New York:

UPS ground transit times New York

With pretty much the inverse seen when shipping from Los Angeles:

UPS ground transit times Los Angeles

You’ll notice that the average transit times seem to be 2-5 days, with one-day shipping only really available in zones relatively local to a package’s origin point.

Selecting the best shipping service

The best shipping carrier and service will usually come down to:

  1. Cost. Most retailers just want to pay as little for shipping as possible.
  2. Reliability. Packages need to arrive at the right place, within the right timeframe.

The national mail provider often wins this battle in most major countries – USPS in the US, Royal Mail in the UK, Canada Post in Canada, Australia Post in Australia, etc. (Although couriers like UPS, FedEx, DHL, and more can also be popular.)

When it comes to USPS, ecommerce retailers tend to rely on a few main service options:

Priority Mail Weight-Based

This calculates pricing based on USPS shipping zones and the weight of the package being shipped (available up to 70lbs).

  • Delivery time: 1-3 business days.
  • Tracking: Included.
  • Usually best for: Packages over 20lbs in weight.

Priority Mail Flat Rate

This uses a flat rate for several standard box sizes, regardless of zone or weight (available up to 70lbs).

  • Delivery time: 1-3 business days.
  • Tracking: Included.
  • Usually best for: Sometimes long distance, but rarely the best rate.

Priority Mail Cubic

This is priced on zones and package dimensions (up to 0.5 cubic feet). It’s a ‘secret’ USPS service usually reserved for high volume merchants, but anyone using Veeqo has access to it.

  • Delivery time: 1-3 business days.
  • Tracking: Included.
  • Usually best for: Packages 1-20lbs and smaller than a typical shoe box.

First Class Packages

This is available for lightweight packages up to 13oz, with final pricing calculated based on size, shape and weight.

  • Delivery time: 1-3 business days.
  • Tracking: Included (Packages only, not for First Class Mail).
  • Usually best for: Small, lightweight packages up to 13oz.

Parcel Select Ground

This is specifically for oversized, heavy packages that aren’t permitted to fly on airplanes, and is priced based on weight, size and zone.

  • Delivery time: 2-8 business days.
  • Tracking: Included.
  • Usually best for: Oversized packages.

USPS also has an Express version of its Priority Mail service, which is more expensive and guarantees overnight delivery to most domestic US zones. There’s also a few more services that can be useful in specific situations, but will likely be irrelevant to most online retailers.

You can see all available domestic USPS services here, and international here.

Getting the cheapest shipping rates

Getting the cheapest shipping rates will come from selecting the right carrier and right service, according to the shipping zone you’ll be shipping to.

USPS offers some excellent commercial discounts for its business customers too. Unfortunately, many online retailers don’t do enough volume to qualify for the best discounts.

This is why using a third-party shipping software to print labels can be so beneficial.

With a tool like Veeqo, you can:

  1. Consolidate orders from every sales channel into one place.
  2. Browse quotes for each order from all the carriers you’ve connected.
  3. Access the cheapest Commercial Plus rates for USPS.
  4. Bulk print up to 100 labels in one go.

Bulk print labels & docs in Veeqo

All this makes it simple to always find the cheapest shipping service – whichever zone you’re shipping to, or carrier you’re using.

Note: Veeqo also lets you set up custom rules to automate repetitive tasks, and keep track of all your shipments and tracking numbers in one place.

Discover how Veeqo makes multichannel inventory & shipping simple

Start a 14-day free trial today, no credit card required.

Final thoughts

Shipping zones are simply a tool carriers like USPS and UPS use to determine how far a package will have to travel, and therefore how much they should charge for delivery.

Most online retailers don’t pay too much attention to them. But understanding how shipping zones work can be majorly beneficial when it comes to minimising fulfilment costs.

The info laid out in this post should help you buck that trend. Use it to make sure you’re always selecting the best carrier and service for every shipment – and your profit margins should benefit as a result.

Content Editor at Veeqo
Content Editor at Veeqo. Writes good ecommerce stuff. Lover of all sports. Purveyor of the finest GIFs in the West.
Want more insights like this?

Join thousands of other subscribers and get the best content on ecommerce growth, marketplace trends and warehouse operations delivered directly to your inbox.