ecommerce

How a Slow Printer Almost Ruined Our Holiday Season

As I sit on the precipice of starting my second ecom business (more on this later!), I can't help but reflect on my past adventures in this arena.

My relationship with ecommerce is love-hate. I love the immediate gratification of launching a digital campaign and watching orders fly in after. I hate the constant to-do lists, never being able to close your shop (yes, orders come in day in night, but so do issues), and the constant uphill challenge of an ever-changing marketplace.

I did, however, manage to build an ecommerce business from the ground up from $0 to $7 million annually over the course of 5 years. That’s a super fast timeline, and without any outside funding means you have to do a lot of things right and operate very leanly to make it happen.

I’m not going to dive into the specifics of how to reinvest profits and sustain a rapid growth rate, today, nor am I going to harp on some of the basic core principles of ecom (mobile and user friendly website, search engine optimized, tailored product offerings, secure checkout, yada yada), but I want to talk about one extremely simple, yet nuanced principle that may get swept under the rug, that I believe is critical to rapid and big growth.

Speed.

I want you to ask yourself this:

Is EVERYTHING in my ecom business lightning fast?

Here’s why speed matters:

A Google search can take a user from your storefront to a competitor’s in just seconds. Additionally, the average human attention span is declining due to the mobile device revolution, falling from 12 seconds to just 8 (goldfish clock in at 9 seconds!!) Therefore, on top of having what a customer is looking for, you have to serve it up super fast, otherwise they will get bored, antsy and look for the goods elsewhere.

Amazon is investing in shipping programs that allow users to get their products not just in 2 days via the usual Prime account, but on THE SAME DAY they ordered.

In the last few years, live chat features have cropped up on almost every website from AT&T to Backcountry.com, shortening the time spent getting an answer to minutes.

So what exactly needs to be fast? Let’s dive into a few details and anecdotes.

Page Speed

Here are a few fun facts:

—Users expect webpages to load in 2 seconds or less.

—40% of customers will abandon any site that takes longer than 3 seconds to load.

—For every 1 additional second of load time, conversion drops by 7%.

—For every 1 additional second of load time, user satisfaction drops by 16%.

So, you wanna have more customers and higher conversions? Up your page speed times and get there. Ask your developer to minify all Javascript, optimize images, enable compression, leverage browser caching and to provide information on adding a content delivery network (CDN) to your site (if you don’t already have one).

And it's not just your users want pages to load fast. Google will favor faster pages over slower ones as well.

Fulfillment

Once an order is placed, customers don’t want to wait to receive it. Your time is well spent in optimizing the time between order placed and order fulfilled. Whether you do all your fulfillment in-house or work with a 3rd party fulfillment center, look for ways to make this process as efficient as possible. Here are my suggestions for streamlining:

Packing slip and postage printing speed

Seems obvious, but there are so many details here that can slow this down. Be sure you have one or multiple printers that can handle the order volume you receive at PEAK times for both packing slips and postage labels. The way your business operates at peak levels will determine if you can grow or not.

Let me repeat that: The way in which your business operates at PEAK times will determine whether or not you can grow.

I’d like to share a real life story from my ecom days…

The first warehouse we ever outsourced our fulfillment to was an excellent fairly small mom and pop shop just outside Kansas City. They were awesome people, took great care of us and gracefully handled whatever random exceptions and instances we needed for them to handle.

Our business, like so many ecom businesses, was largely driven by the holiday season. As the season got nearer and nearer, we watched our fulfillment speeds get lower and lower. The situation got more and more tense as we would ask each day how the day before’s backlog was getting handled. Each day, the backlog grew and grew until we had to escalate the issue to the president of the company. At the rate they were going, our Black Friday orders may not ship until after Christmas. It was bad.

They were finally able to isolate the issue as being a slow printer. At the printing station, there was a software glitch that was holding up the printer and orders were bottlenecking there. It did take a few calls to both the software company and asking the fulfillment partner to invest in a new printer before we were able to get through the bottleneck. Ultimately, however, we realized that at our 200-300% year over year growth rate, we were never going to be able to succeed in this scenario, and it ultimately cost the warehouse our business. A few months later we were relocated to a new facility that boasted split second print times.

It’d be easy to say that this was not a huge issue because it only cropped up during our busy season, but with our growth rate, our “busy season” was really only a great training period for what would in a few months become our new “normal”. (Well, not quite, but we would reach those peak numbers much more quickly around smaller holidays).

Case in point, take your peak seasons seriously. Be optimized for them (or be able to quickly scale for them) at ALL times, and you will be primed for growth.

Picking

Do your pickers have to travel long distances to get to best selling products? Consider ordering products by sell through volume (instead of sku) so that the high volume products are nearest the packing station, and to one another, and the less popular items are further away. (There is a whole science around this. If you are already doing high volumes consider investing in a person who can optimize this for your business.)

Packing

What do your packing stations look like? Are they a jumble of flattened boxes and half empty tape guns? The packing station should look like master craftsman’s workshop and function like a well oiled machine.

Each day should start with a good amount of prebuilt boxes, tape rolls should be mostly full, labels and branding material freshly laid out, and bubble wrap, packing paper, etc, at an arm’s reach.

Any specific guidelines should be laminated and posted at eye level so the packer doesn’t have to make any mental notes or stop to look them up.

Shipping

This could be an entire blog post, but I’ll spare you the various ways to optimize your shipping carriers and methods, as for one thing I find it really dull, and for another, it’s not what I specialize in. Just know this - you do need to analyze this for the health of your business. If you don’t already have relationships with UPS, FedEx, <insert your favorite carrier here>, then you need to form one and understand their bulk price rates, policies and promises they can make around peak times in your business (Ie, holidays).

Why is this so important? At this point you have your customer's money and they have nothing aside from your promise. Your brand integrity now lies in the hands of a shipping partner and method to get them the goods in a timely and safe manner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to personally take the blame for a mistake UPS made, because ultimately, the customer doesn’t care. They gave you their order, and their money and they will hold YOU responsible - even if UPS makes the mistake.

Returns & Refunds

Handle these in an expeditious way to ensure you don’t lose your customer’s trust, especially after the hassle of having to return something.

Ways to keep this process pain free for all parties are:

  • Post an easy to understand return policy on your website, stating:

    • In what condition the items must be for the return to be accepted

    • In what time frame from the order date you will accept a return

    • How to place the return (from an RMA to the way to ship it)

    • How and when they will be refunded

    • Who to contact with questions

  • Create easy to use screens for your customers to find their order, print a return label, and ship it back to you. Work with your web developer to understand what is possible on your website platform. Products like Magento, Shopify and Squarespace have out-of-the-box return functionality for both logged in and guest customers.

    • Make it crystal clear how returns should be processed for customer service/warehouse staff. Account for all scenarios:

      • Items are broken or not in new condition (or the condition you specify in your return policy)

      • A return received outside of the allowed window

      • The wrong item returned

      • No customer info included

      • Anything custom to your store

Customer Service

I will save a lot of customer service goodness for a later post, but I include it under the topic of speed because no one likes to wait when they need help. Put key performance indicators (KPIs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place regarding customer service. Actually, put them everywhere you can in your business, but especially in customer service. Here’s why…

What gets measured, gets managed.

This means if you aren’t paying attention to why people are writing you and how long it takes to get back to them, and the overall time it takes to close a ticket, then you aren’t managing that time either. It could be a day (yay!) it could be 2 weeks (boo!). At a minimum start looking at these response rates. Use customer service software like SmarterTrack, Live Person or Zendesk (or any other, there are many), that have these features built in.

Set KPI goals and targets for the time it takes to answer an email and phone call and time it takes to resolve (close) the issue. Track the team’s performance over time (record these KPIs in a Google Sheet or Smart Sheet) and review them on a regular basis. And per my point above, pay special attention to them during peak times. This will determine your ability to grow.

Conclusion

While these all seem like no-brainers, it’s amazing how easily they can shift to the background when other fires come up (and ecom is all about putting out fires). But when we shifted our attention these important (not urgent) issues and put goals and strategies in place to increase their performance, we elevated our playing field. We knew now that we could crank our volume knobs to the Spinal Tap mythical 11 setting, and not be hindered speed issues that could ultimately take us down.

Have you been the victim of ecom slugishness, or the victor in an online speed war? Let me know in the comments below!

 

How My Favorite Rockstar Set Me on My Good Path

Tristan, sporting the Good Path Bangle Set, the product that started it all!

Tristan, sporting the Good Path Bangle Set, the product that started it all!

One of the best ways for me to sit down and get a bunch of work done is by finding music I love, pressing play and busting through my to do list. It was through this habit and the advent of internet radio and ITunes that I stumbled across singer songwriter, Tristan Prettyman. She was young, sang from the heart, and had percussive acoustic guitar tracks that reminded me of Ani Difranco meets Jack Johnson. What's better is this was also the time of MySpace where musicians would bare their souls through tons of photos and blogs and let you in on their creative process, behind the scenes tour moments and deep thoughts, be them random, profound or a total waste of time.

Tristan did a fabulous job of this. Through this wacky online world of transparency, I became even more connected to her music and her. I was a totally fan-girling.

People close to me knew that if I likened something to Tristan Prettyman-greatness, then I was giving the ultimate compliment. It was funny. It was my thing. I was oddly obsessed, and to this day I can't exactly pin down why, other than the fact that Tristan has a genius ability to speak and sing from her heart that instantly connects you to her if you're listening at all.

Fast-forward to the onset of Twitter. MySpace has died a quiet death, and I'm now gobbling up TP words of wisdom in 140 character chunks. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I'd like to do business with Tristan. We were two birds of a feather; I, a small business owner selling jewelry to the fans of this jewelry, and she, a singer-songwriter, band leader singing songs to her fans. I wanted to team up, meet her and collaborate. My soul was screaming for me to do this. 

So, through a series of Tweets, emails and conversations, we did! It was a momentous occasion for sure for me to be connected in real life to someone who I had prior only a virtual connection to. We collaborated with Tristan and key designers to go on and create a few of our best selling skus. We even met up with Tristan when she toured in Portland and hung out pre and post show, pretending to be rock stars along with her for the night.

We named the first collaboration we did with Tristan "The Good Path Bangle Set", after the Path of Life charm that hung from one of the bangles and the tattoo she had just gotten in Balinese that read "Find and follow your good path".

Having way too much fun post-show with Tristan Prettyman, Jill Crimmins, and Paul Cannon at the Doug Fir.

Having way too much fun post-show with Tristan Prettyman, Jill Crimmins, and Paul Cannon at the Doug Fir.

I truly believe the universe orchestrated all of this, hence setting me on my Good Path. I believe if you are looking and listening, yours is always there, right in front of you. When it came time to name this venture, it only made sense to keep with the theme. Hence, Good Path Consulting was born.

As soon as I registered the LLC, I emailed Tristan to let her know that she and her tattoo continue to inspire me. We agreed that life takes you exactly where you need to go, you just gotta open up your eyes and go there. 

Where has life guided you? What is your good path?

PS - Guys, Tristan and I are business name twinsies! Check out her Instagram feed about health, food and wellness @GoodPathSD. 

 

 

 

What I Learned From Swimming With Sharks

In June, 2014, I woke up one morning only to realize that I was swimming in shark infested waters. 

My business partner and I were on the tail end of a riding a long and epic ecommerce wave. We had paddled into it in 2009, armed with the best practices in SEO, PPC, web design, usability and development and only blue water in front of us. All we had to do was follow all the advice we had been giving our clients and we would succeed in the ecommerce landscape.

The ride lasted 4 years before everyone else caught up, and next thing we knew, the wave was getting crowded and sharks were showing up.

The concept of the red ocean/blue ocean strategy is one pioneered by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in the book Blue Ocean Strategy - Create Uncontested Market Space & Make the Competition Irrelevant.

Their book goes into more detail, but the basics of a Blue Ocean strategy are that after a while any market and business can find itself in a red ocean. All the sharks have shown up, attracted to the blood of the initial kill and are feeding on an ever-dwindling school of fish. 

A Blue Ocean strategy is one where a company deliberately looks away from the red ocean feeding frenzy into the vast sea of blue. It requires new non-competitive thinking, and innovations. It leaves the competitive landscape for the creative, opportunity building one. 

For more info on the specifics of finding a Blue Ocean, definitely check out their book, but for the purposes of my point here, that's all you need to know.

Ecommerce as I knew it, as a retailer of designer jewelry had become a straight up red ocean. The cost per click was way up. Amazon, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales AND the brands themselves were competing with us on cost, pay-per-click, loyalty programs and customer services. There were no more ways to differentiate ourselves within the constraints set up in our business.

Our next move wasn't to lower our costs, we couldn't, we had Minimum Advertised Price agreements in place with our vendors. We couldn't add services, we already had fast, free shipping and returns. We couldn't pay MORE per click. As it was, we already only broke even on the first customer acquisition cost, relying on the total lifetime customer value to make a profit. Our only option was to completely pivot. But to what? 

We came up with a few ideas. The first, start a subscription-based "box" model, a la Blue Apron, Stitch Fix or Trunk Club. Hand picked jewelry just for you, delivered once a month. Another option was to create our own brand, that contains an element of personalization. The 2 places Amazon can't compete in (for now) are any type of engraving, and when the brand chooses not to sell on Amazon. We'd do both. We also considered a jewelry rental model that you could subscribe to, wear the pieces, and send them to trade out for new pieces (similar to handbag programs out there).

These ideas held water (to keep with the H20 analogies). The problem was this - we hadn't planned for any of this until the red water was around us. We rode the wave too long. It was crashing on the beach. Our boards were on the sand, and it was WAY easier to hop off and sunbathe for a bit, than to paddle back out and wait for the next set.

Personal factors weighed in too. I had an infant in my arms, and bringing a new business model into the world at the same time felt like WAY too much. Also, I didn't want to do it. I was getting tired of the impersonal world of ecom. Never touching the product. Never interacting with the designers. It became mundane and souless.

So, while the blue ocean almost always exists, you may not always like it.

What did we do? We sold the business. Based on the track record we had, we were able to find a buyer extremely fast, and offload the whole project to them to execute. 

It was a real moment of reckoning for me. Was this the life I'd envisioned for the business? No. Was it what felt right at the time? Yes. What I do wish I'd done was stay one step ahead of the red ocean feeding frenzy and to put blue ocean strategies in place one small step at a time. 

The best way to eat a hippo is one bite a time. Don't wait til the sharks are circling to think about where your next blue ocean might be.

Have you ever swum with sharks? Are you implementing a blue ocean strategy now? Let me know in the comments!