Friday, February 12, 2010

International Distribution Blues

It all started out with an offer to send some matchbooks "across the pond." Back in mid-January, Julian Baker--Matchbook Story's first international registrant and first "Pick of the Week" winner--kindly posted a glowing review of MBS on his excellent blog, Sybawrite (sybawrite.wordpress.com). Wanting to thank him and (let's be honest here) extend MBS's readership, I proposed sending some matchbooks to England. No problem, right? Wrong. My journey into the jungles of international haz mat shipping began with the United States Postal Service. I found this in section 344.21 of their Domestic Mailing Manual:

"Strike–anywhere matches are nonmailable in international mail and domestic mail. Safety matches (book, card, or strike–on–box) are nonmailable in international and domestic mail via air transportation."

OK, I thought: No USPS; I'll try UPS. I tracked down their AIR FREIGHT TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF CONTRACT (“TERMS”) FOR UPS AIR FREIGHT SERVICES IN THE UNITED STATES, CANADA, AND INTERNATIONAL and found their No-No list, which didn't mention safety matches, but listed some other awfully unsavory characters. Some make sense, others don't (to me, anyway). These interested me the most:

-Corpses or cremated or disinterred remains
-Live animals (including birds, fish, reptiles, or insects), except mice, rats, toads, frogs or leeches destined to or originating from medical laboratories within the United States or Canada.
-Stringed instruments including, but not limited to, violins, violas, cellos, bass violins, guitars, mandolins, or banjos (unless strings are removed prior to shipment).
-Fissile radioactive materials.
-Nursery stock or plants
-Fish meal.

Wow. I found the phone number for UPS's Hazardous Materials Support Center (1-800-554-9964, in case you need it) to ask about my matchbooks. The operator informed me that international law prohibits everyone (USPS, UPS, FedEx, et. al.) from shipping matchbooks via air transportation. "So the only way to get these matchbooks to England is on a boat?" I asked.

"Try freight forwarding," she said.

"What's that?" I said.

"Look in your phone book," she said, and hung up.

A Freight Forwarder, according to Wikipedia, is "a third party logistics provider [that], as a non asset-based provider, dispatches shipments via asset-based carriers or otherwise arranges space for those shipments. Carrier types include waterborne vessels, airplanes, trucks or railroads." Huh? No wonder the operator didn't want to explain. Basically, a freight forwarder is a shipping company that doesn't own/operate its own transportation fleet, staff, etc., but instead arranges with real shipping companies to get your stuff where it needs to go. Think of it as a travel agent for packages. My phone book listed Sky2C (get it?) as the freight forwarder in my area. I called and explained my situation. "OK. Lemme forward you to Maggie. She's the one who handles international shipping via the sea."

The line clicked over and started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. I left a message. A day later, Maggie returned my call about "shipping a mattress."

"I'd like to ship some matchbooks to England. Not a mattress. I understand that international law prohibits the transport of flammable solids via air."

"Yes, that's correct."

"So I need to get the matchbooks to England on a boat."

"How many?" she asked.

"Less than a cubic foot. A small package."

"To London?"


"That'll run you roughly $450. I'll have to check with customs on their procedure for shipping flammables, OK?"

"No, thank you. Don't bother." I hung up.

Alas, I was "dead in the water," so to speak. Sorry, Julian. I tried. We'll have to wait for that trans-Atlantic tunnel.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Unless they're carrying matches.


1 comment:

  1. That's a shame. I wonder if you could somehow print the covers here and have them assembled over there? Or even just send the design to some matchbook maker there and have them done in England?