delivering the magic: unpacking the mysteries of shipping & handling

Friday, March 6, 2015 8:48 AM

delivering the magic: unpacking the mysteries of shipping & handling

It’s been 10 years since we first determined our fulfillment, shipping and handling structure. This post reveals lessons learned, the why behind our decisions, and why we are restructuring handling fees in our customers’ favor.

Fulfillment is an essential function of all e-commerce enterprises. While it doesn’t have the shiny appeal of designing products or marketing, it is the strong and silent personality that delivers the promise.

At flowtoys, fulfillment takes pride in serving as many people as possible, while sending every package out with good vibes and flow-filled mojo. Thankfully love and good vibes are free and infinite, even if shipping materials and time-in-a-workday are not. We can work with that.

Shipping and handling are critical aspects of e-commerce fulfillment. After all that sexy inventory management, helping you choose your perfect prop, and ensuring the webcart works, filling your order and getting it to you is where the rubber meets the road.

We take much of what we do for granted now, but when we first launched our webcart, we had so many decisions to make:

  • which courier to go with
  • what fulfillment window can we promise
  • how to create the most optimal workflow
  • what/whether to spend on packaging
  • what to charge for handling

The list goes on. Sean and I discuss and process every scenario, balancing expectations and desires against costs and sanity. We want to deliver happiness to our customers, help save them money, while ensuring that we don’t lose our shirts or burn ourselves out. I think most businesses can empathize, though as customers, we all just want everything now with free shipping :)

Which courier – USPS, FedEx, DHL or UPS?

Here’s a quick breakdown of what we’ve learned over years of shipping around the world:

  • USPS is the most economical option for small individual packages and has the potential to be the fastest.
  • USPS is generally a bureaucratic black hole, and if something is lost in the mail and you want to talk to a real person, you better have a headset and the ability to multitask, while being on hold forever.
  • The USPS tracking page you see online is what the 1-800-ASK-USPS representative sees as well. You are not going to get more information by going into the phone wormhole – don’t go there. This advice is priceless. Your local postmaster has the ability to see more, but he or she is often only available at your post office for a certain window everyday, so don’t go line up at the post office without knowing when that window is. Make friends with your postal person, get your postmaster’s phone number. Kill them with kindness.
  • FedEx and UPS are more reliable and responsive, but also more expensive than USPS for small individual shipments, even for their cheapest ground options.
  • FedEx or UPS Ground can take longer than USPS priority, because of how their logistics are organized.
  • FedEx and UPS are great for larger shipments with multiple boxes, wholesale orders and packages that need special handling.
  • UPS is generally more expensive than FedEx, but is also a more conscious company with more fuel-optimized routes and happier employees.
  • In the US, DHL only does international shipments.
  • All couriers will damage and/or lose a package at some point, no matter how well you pack and protect it. What matters is how they deal with a situation.
  • All couriers are staffed by people with emotions. UPS treats their staff well, so you generally get happy people delivering happy things to your doorstep.
our USPS postal guy twirls a baton!

our USPS postal guy twirls a baton!

While we offer quality props that appeal to people of all ages and walks of life, most of our customers are fairly young and cost-conscious. Getting flowtoys to them in time for their next spinjam, date, party or peak experience has always been a priority for us. Because of how FedEx and UPS optimize their shipping logistics, when they say 5 days, they take 5 days. When USPS Priority says 2-3 days, you might get it tomorrow. This reason coupled with cheaper shipping costs for our customers led us to choose USPS for all domestic web orders. The shipping rates on our website are based on real-time shipping quotes, so you are charged what USPS charges us for postage of a package of that specific weight to your address.

For international orders, we use USPS and we have a fairy-godfather named Howard. Howard works with inXpress, a DHL shipping partner that combines the shipments of many small businesses leveraging them into larger volume discounts that small business wouldn’t otherwise have. Howard is amazing. He works tirelessly for us, and makes miracles happen. We can’t tie Howard’s DHL rates to our webcart, but if your order is within a certain size and you choose USPS Priority or Express, we will often ship it via DHL. The shipping cost is comparable, but the service is superior – much faster (2-3 days) and much more secure, especially if you paid for USPS Priority, which has dismal tracking and can take 2+ weeks to get to you. That said, some countries like Russia do not deliver courier packages to residences. Also if you are in a remote location or if your order exceeds 48”, there is a $50 surcharge, so we use USPS in those instances. If you choose USPS First Class International, we will ship first class as the postage does not cover the cost of DHL. It could take 2-6 weeks and has no tracking. Yes it is cheap. Here’s the part where we love you, but we can’t lose our shirts.

Using only USPS for international shipments would be much easier in terms of fulfillment, as DHL shipments require more paperwork on our end, but we think it’s worth it to our customers to get their stuff in 2-3 days as opposed to 2-3 weeks.

Fulfillment windows

As customers, we all want it now. As reasonable people, we know that’s impossible. But everyone loves a miracle, so we try to make them happen as often as we can.

Our policy is to get orders out within 3 business days, though we fill most orders within a day. The 3-day window is a cushion if someone falls sick, frontstock is unexpectedly depleted, if power or the internet goes down (not the internet!). Certain products like composite system staffs and flowlight wands are made-per-order and have longer lead times.

good vibes with your order

good vibes with your order

Clearing the order queue is part Whac-A-Mole, and part meditative act of being at peace with the knowledge that there is no end. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

We prioritize orders that are ready-to-go in order to serve as many people as possible. If someone has a change in order or special request, they fall into a separate queue that gets handled at the end of the day, or are handed to another team member who can serve them without affecting the 99%.

We are a small company – currently 9 employees with just one person primarily responsible for order fulfillment and a couple of us cross-trained for resilience. We want our staff to have a life, so we don’t fill orders in the evenings or weekends. Someday our volume may justify us working 24/7, or maybe robots will take our place, but for now we have to balance our desire to get customers their orders immediately and our need for personal downtime.

To package or not to package?

Postal and shipping accidents happen. Sometimes a truck runs over a package. No cardboard box will prevent damage in this instance. Our toys are meant to be spun around at high speeds, impacted against each other, tossed in the air and dropped on the ground. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t learning

You must be logged in to post a comment.

to log in