In General, Be Specific

According to Internet Retailer web sales exceeded $225 billion in 2012 and yet I found a sales figure of $289 billion from another source.  I tried to make sense of it and I took an educated guess because neither source was entirely specific.   So my educated guess was it’s the difference between product purchases that require shipping and services sold over the internet where there’s no shipping required.  Still not specific, but in general an educated guess works for me.

Guarantees should be specific.  But service in general offers some leeway to include ‘money back.’  Take improved ground shipping for instance today.  Carriers have maps to show the number of days in which you can expect a shipment to be delivered–just no guarantee.  Yet true to their maps, the majority of the time packages arrive according to the delivery time map and the chart is specific.  It’s available to help plan order fulfillment as well as for times to determine a guarantee is necessary for the package to arrive on a specific day.

Yet another sixty four thousand dollar question may be only applicable to how long will the bitcoin will be around.  (Maybe it’ll go on in similar fashion as crowdfunding.)  All involved here do so too in a general way as well to an end.  Neither bitcoins nor crowdfunding exist in a specific environment—another way of saying ‘unregulated.’  Pros and cons, as Randy Newman’s ‘Monk’ theme lyrics would indicate:  “it’s a jungle out there.”

Clichés aside, progressing ourselves through e-commerce is sifting through generalized information to get to some specifics that we can hold onto.  (For dear money if nothing else.)  As shipping goes from here, in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania (latitude 41°24’58”N, longitude 75°88’17”W), the reach in two days is about 162,066,420 people and 52,062,980 people within one day ground.  Sorry, I can’t be more specific regarding county populations and where exactly day delivery maps draw the lines.  Specifically, then, I’m referring to service in general.

Struggling with a Shopping Cart Choice?

Recently I asked Kyle Miller and Systems Manager at Karol to jot down some considerations when reviewing shopping carts for those just starting out in online retailing.  He had no problem with my request–though not because he had a lot of time or he wanted to document a thinking strategy for first time online merchants.  No, he did so because his experience would have been beneficial to anyone during the initial decision making process.  However, as so often is the case he is not contacted, though he should be.  His downstream experience can end a lot of aggravation, wasted time and expense for our clients.  (I try myself not to confuse web site development from necessary e-commerce functions and online back end operations.)

Here are those thoughts (five) that just may help you; or because you know someone about to start online retailing, you can share these fundamentals of cart choice decision-making.

Thoughts about shopping carts:

1.)    Picking the right shopping cart is not easy.  If anyone says that it is, they are not being frank or they are uninformed.

  • Not many shopping carts tell you in plain English what they can do or what you get
  • Not many people know what they need from a shopping cart
  • Not many chopping carts can afford to help you once you have signed up

2.)    Most people will go through several shopping carts before they reach the right one.

  • While this can be a normal progression to success, just don’t let it turn into a series of changing horses in midstream
  • Try to avoid this (changing carts) if you can but realize you may go through different carts as your needs change and your business grows
  • Reach out to businesses that have the same needs as you and ask about both their cart successes and cart failures.  Even competitors will gladly talk about the experience they have gained through hard work
  • Talk to all the people downstream from you before you choose a cart, find out what they need and make those requirements as important as your own

3.)    How do I know if a cart is right for me?

  • Identify what you (and the people downstream from you) need to have happen to complete and order
  • Try to get beyond the sales hype of each cart to verify that each step you need to happen will occur
  • Look for cart reviews online but keep in mind there are both those who inflate the positive scores and disgruntled people who inflate the negative scores.  Evaluate cart reviews by the verifiable information they present, not by the emotion they are displaying. Also realize that every cart is best for someone, but only one cart is best for you.  If a cart wasn’t right for one person who has a very unique need, and they pan the cart, that doesn’t mean the cart won’t suit your needs.  If a cart doesn’t suit your needs, that doesn’t make it a bad cart.
  • Evaluate your skill sets and the skill sets you may need to hire to build and maintain a cart.  Will I need to outsource a code writer, a graphic designer, or both to use a certain cart?  Again, most carts will not be able to answer questions unasked so the detective work is up to you.

4.)    Tell me what cart I should get.

There is tendency to assume that a cart is a cart, so I will just get any cart and that step will be behind me.  That means CHEAP is good and FREE is better.  Right?  No, No, No.

  • Never think of carts as a homogenized commodity.  Every cart is different.  No one wants to admit that things are not simple.  The earlier in the process you face that some homework is necessary, the smoother it will go.
  • Never buy a cart until you define your needs and match your needs to the cart that can meet those needs.  Again, no one wants to face the hard work, but the majority of work must be done before you purchase the cart and the majority of problems arise from skipping this step.
  • Never buy an open-source-build-it-from-scratch cart unless you have an advanced degree in code writing and have a lot of time to waste.  Yes, the software is free and yes, you know a guy that can put it together cheaply.  That is a long, slow and expensive train wreck waiting to happen.  (Disclaimer: open source isn’t bad in itself; you just have to admit that you aren’t the one genius out of a million that can make it work for you.)
  • Buy an out-of-the-box cart.  The cart people know what needs to happen in a cart.  Open source tinkerers never know all the things that need to happen in a cart.  Let the staff of the company that created it maintain the complex code, build the features and fix the bugs.

5.)    No, I mean TELL me the NAME of the cart I should get.

I do not wish to name specific carts or endorse any particular cart over another. The carts that are right for me will have no bearing on what is right for you.

A.)   There are basically three tiers of carts with lots of overlap between the choices.  Price is often a tip-off as to which tier a cart will fall into.

  • Easy to use, pretty front end (take or orders and process payment), not much advance function (communicate or export information outside of the software), not much back end (process an order to pull inventory and ship product).  Pros: good for startups working from the kitchen table, no code writing is needed as most functions will be predefined settings.  Cons: this type of cart will have to be abandoned if the company grows to the point of getting an outside company to ship the products out for you (a fulfillment house for example).
  • Moderate ease of use, some form of export function—most likely manually triggered and may or may not have back end options.  Pros: may integrate with an order fulfillment house.  Cons: some code writing and advanced computer usage may be needed with integrations manually triggered.
  • Advanced features across the board.  Pros: automation and advanced functions are available for fulfillment integration.  Cons: advanced code writing will be needed.

B.)    Besides the tiers, you must also be aware of the different business models.

  • The first type is the cart that will provide every conceivable feature included in the single purchase.  A pitfall to avoid is the cart that promises that every feature is possible with their cart but doesn’t reveal the caveat that the purchaser just needs to write the code to make it happen.  Pros:  ease of mind and room for growth.  Cons” high price and/or advanced difficulty of use.
  • The second type is the cart that sells the base module and they or third  parties sell add-on modules for each function.  The add-ons are either bought outright or purchased through subscription.  Pros: allows you to tailor your functions.  Cons: what will I need (how do I know what I will need)?  Do modules exist to do what I need?  The price will quickly go from cheap to the cost of an all-included cart.
  • Open source cart.  Pros: free or cheap, I can build any function I want.  Cons:  I have to know every function I want.  I have to build every function I want.  I don’t know what I am doing or hired someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
  • Mixed business model.  You might buy a premade base package that is based on competently assembled open source code.  It could be all inclusive or there might be functions that would be added by you writing code or by buying premade modules.  Pros and cons would be made on a case-by-case basis.

If you think Kyle can help you, he can be reached at 1-800-526-4773

Are Product Descriptions and Reviews Content Too? Absolutely.

Over time the term ‘content marketing’ has manifested itself yet it can still be called great copy and visuals.  Content, to include scripts for video or speeches for that matter, has to do with interest.  Reader or viewer will likely have a kindred purpose  with writer (photographer or IG designer).  And whatever product or service reviews come our way, we can label both as ‘interested parties.’

Same should hold true with product descriptions so as 99% of the time it is not returned for reasons of misunderstanding.  Product performance is another matter yet reviews should help improve product descriptions to include how well a product performs (and why photos and especially videos are helpful).  There is host of concerns from a buyer to include:

  • Who are you anyway?  (Brands reflect who, but are in fact NOT who.  Blogs help.)
  • Why your product?
  • How’s your product rating?
  • Can you deliver your product’s advertised performance as well as your service?
  • Will I be satisfied? (Does it improve my life, my relationships, my business, etc.)
  • Does it change or support my existing lifestyle?
  • Does the product save time or improve existing efforts?  (less laundry detergent needed)
  • Do you share an outlook on life in general or specific interests in particular?  (Blogs help.)

Handling bad reviews from all involved with product and services is not easy and why so much goes into performance—pre and post sale.  Success depends on delivering what is promised, we know, and yet it can take just one slip up and damage control takes over.  In order fulfillment many companies are qualified on timeliness and accuracy.  Anything less than a rating of 98% on-time and pick accuracy and package to carrier is considered below industry standards.

Live chat is a curious device for content delivery though its usefulness is based on the ability to handle numerous tasks if you’re the inquirer particularly.  Needle uses this to all’s advantage and Needlers are able to handle the task of product reviews for would be buyers.  Unlike phones, no one is pinned down in ‘real time’ though of course live voice communication has attributes beyond compare; particularly when there’s no substitute for a friendly chuckle.

All in all, both descriptions and reviews are necessary content sources for searches as well as supporting conversions.  And while we struggle, test, and struggle some more, reviews will always be name dropping even when it is not good.  And in that unlikely event, no need to worry as long as you can follow through with customer satisfaction (at least a refund with apology).

Monday April 15, Two Thousand Thirteen

While we hope for the best of times, we know too how difficult it can to keep up with online commercial activity and production–particularly for small enterprises of one kind or another.  And while all web related work may not end in an online sales transaction, it can pay to have a range of web marketing capability.  Interestingly—maybe it’s just me—that video and infographics are spring boarding on new delivery technologies.

Having entered the age of the PC and Cable Television long ago, I’ve witnessed the force of technology and at times have been intimidated by it.  ¾” U-Matic video tapes were a format of choice for many cable stations anxious to have any programming to include sponsored programs produced by associations and corporations.  Many programs were how-to or some sort of documentary.  Fact was, it took a relatively long time for cable TV to make itself the way most Americans received TV.  That’s history.  And no one probably cares (nostalgia for me).

So it goes I’m fascinated by video today and the opportunities many merchants and marketing professionals have embraced with the medium.  And there appears to be no end in sight.  I haven’t seen any leap frog as was the case with VHS video over Beta, but perhaps it will occur.  The use of video is virtually endless with all the elements to yield fast loading and interaction over the internet.  And the statics that bear out the effectiveness only means it’s a matter of time when video will be a mainstay for any presence on the web.  That is to say, technology will deliver full audio visual as if it were a still photograph—but then again, it already has.

What opportunities for all web sites and stores will be fulfilled has the natural course of events.  Not all can jump in why with overall marketing budgets to consider.  However, in my experience, I could not anticipate ever making a home video.  When I was a kid, you made a home movie on 8mm film with no sound.  There, I’ve dated myself again.

There’s a Reason the Word ‘Press’ Still Exists

“Go to press” meant something different not too long ago.  In fact, I dare say in this day in age, folks who are just starting out recognize that ‘circulation’ means followers or searchers by any other name.  Direct mail still exists for good reason; particularly for catalog merchandisers, finance and insurance companies.  And yes, magazines and newspapers still go to press however with less content.

I find what the web is interesting because you can ‘go to press’ in real time and still can edit.  And your circulation of followers—preferably kindred spirits for one reason of another—actually benefit in some sort of form by reciprocity.  Though there’s something special about the smell of ink on paper, I’m still amazed how true interaction between reader and writer or merchant and buyer relate to one another in today’s on-line world.

As far as this blog (the word reminds me of peat moss), it’s a means to present and offer compilations of experience and expertise not necessarily of the writer’s.  Particularly collecting and delivering the best advice regarding a range of communication related concerns or perhaps, ‘what to, what now- how to’; and in an age where the technology continuum is more than half the battle.  (If you don’t know what the terms ‘hot lead’ or ‘letter press’ mean, don’t worry.)

Today, though writing skills are required, best the writer understands much more.  What I find scrolling my categories in Quora, a favorite stress reducing means to find good business and technology information—while having a wee bit of fun.

No doubt many involved professionally with marketing via the web, let alone site designers and administrators, find themselves trying to budget time while information (education) overload is a daily challenge.  Yet as software development continues, the best developers will learn to deliver some fun to professionals along the way too.  The reader or customer should not be the only ones having fun.

And if the term ‘linotype’ doesn’t mean a thing, you’ll never know how much went into the garbage or how much time it took to do ‘paste up.’  Believe me, it’s no loss to you.

How Related??

There can be a relationship without direct contact.  Geographically, Love n’ Fresh Flowers is just outside of Philadelphia and about 2 hours south of Wilkes Barre.  What I liked about the article, notwithstanding the proprietor’s story, was the fact that so much land is still available so close to a metro.  Moreover, when I think about e-commerce, it does not necessarily mean one sells a product on-line, but rather promotes their business via the internet—and in Ms. Love’s case, social media.

From the article, I recognized two attributes she has—a marketing background as well as the technical wherewithal to embrace social media.  When you consider she built her presence first (Facebook), you know you’re reading a business lesson.  I suppose the farmer in her got the best of her; combine marketing and hard work, and well, stand back.

The story is worth the time (I’m not sure I could handle flower farming) to relay.  As much because it is happening in Pennsylvania and  I’m also a bit jealous because Ms. Love is closer to the Jersey shore than I.  And well, there is action in Philly that passes us by up here in the Wyoming Valley.  So be it, I’m just glad that passion can pay off for someone.  Weddings in your future?  Give Love n Flowers a go.

Outsourcing Conundrum?

Sometimes the decision to outsource can be difficult simply because we can’t see the value.  So I remind myself many times that my business (and job) is generating revenue.  Specifically, with developing and redeveloping processes to accommodate a range of service requirements for various clients needs.  While I am fascinated with accounting, I simply can’t devote the time to become a CPA.  Many immediately agree with that outsourcing decision.  (Tax preparation compares well to shipping and order management software—keeping up with code.)

Our experience regarding outsourcing comes from listening to prospects and clients indicates there is the gut approach insomuch as the venture needs a quick exit if nothing else; or it is calculated and is included in some way in retail pricing if not only for shipping and handling charges.  Those on-line merchants and retailers who keep fulfillment in-house likely have particular needs to include amortizing existing space and/or staff.

Budgeting for mandatory activities can be clearer when paying fees rather than wages and salaries.  And from the smallest in-home on-line merchant to the largest on-line retailer, outsourcing may be the better choice.

For me, other reminders include:

  • Time is wealth, not money
  • Invest in yourself
  • Tend to your enterprise

Outsourcing considerations:

  • Indentify your core competency
  • Day-to-Day Business Activities
  • Calculate Time-to-Mission
  • Calculate Value-to-Mission
  • Peak vs. Valley Sales Activity
  • Compare potential outsource quotations

As it goes here, we rely on outsourcing those services for which we cannot bring certain expertise, supplies, equipment and/or service provisions in-house.   For on-line merchants, the challenge is to make best use of time for marketing.  Certainly, merging the front-end and the back-end provides a level of control, but in reality, one can’t generate more revenue fulfilling an order.

Warehousing, Fulfillment and Customer Care

Every so often I catch myself long enough to test, or audit, the relationship between attending to the operation and its running efficiently and customer care.  Sometimes however, what we care about to the extent we’ve satisfied a client, may not be exactly what the client would agree as being in their best interest.  That said, it is important to check in on a regular basis.

No news is good news.  Yet in improving our operation, the client’s perspective should be incorporated.  This eliminates cookie-cutter solutions that perhaps can only serve the vendor.  Though order fulfillment is not the sizzle in sales, it can sizzle in service to complete a good consumer experience.   Simple changes to the pick ticket to support RMA’s, survey site information to have customer feedback, and the like can add to a better overall experience.  The order fulfillment operation is there to support these feedback solutions as well.

Making it possible for clients to handle marketing is actually what we do.  It can be said it is all marketing and there is truth to that statement.  It’s the time it takes to fulfill orders that prohibits many online merchants.  And not all shopping carts have adequate order management tools to handle warehousing and other backend features to service the order.  All this said, there have been a lot of improvements and integration for fulfillment but that does not mean certain volume can be handled internally.  Hence, it is of value to explore the possibilities available when outsourcing fulfillment functions.

Here’s a quick checklist to help the process of a decision:

  • Are there automatic e-mail notifications to customer regarding shipment?
  • Are there automatic e-mail notifications regarding inventory?
  • Are there RMA procedures in place?
  • Are there live customer service reps to help customers with unique situations?
  • Is there the staff to handle product kitting and/or assembly as well as returns?
  • Are there multiple carrier capabilities?

Over all, what fulfillment responsibilities are undertaken, it is prudent to list those features you are seeking for total customer service satisfaction.  While some sales situations eliminate repeat customers, word of mouth advertising still has huge advantages.  And ‘speaking’ of word of mouth, some e-commerce companies may want to investigate Needle—what has become effective for those who may not have the brand yet.

Call Center, Call Center

“Cheese Burger, Cheese Burger.”  If you can’t name that line to the actors (comedians) then you’re either too young or didn’t watch SNL in the late 70’s.  Fact is, a diner is a call center too.  The server takes a call and as does the cook.

It does not matter how well a shopping cart functions to eliminate service staff in the order cycle, but at the very least, a customer service representative should be available for post cart sales and problem solving.  And if there’s a reason to doubt whether to have available a representative take orders, then ask non-competitors who list a phone number just  how many orders they receive from the internet.  Particularly if you market to 50 something’s plus.

I have fond memories when, in the late 70’s, almost everyone one my age stopped whatever at 11:30pm Saturday nights to watch SNL.  Yet anyone can understand why infomercials still focus on the toll free number because it’s immediate and there is no need to navigate another shopping cart.  There is an advantage to a shopping cart as some might ‘feel’ they are in control.  But by golly, I like personal service with my food; and for that matter, taking any order I may place.  And I don’t mind if the rep upsells.

In closing, and knowing our clients online businesses, here’s an article that may help get you through the day.  I’ve mentioned that Practical Ecommerce is a great resource for online merchants and once again, its editorial hits the nail on the head.

Service Sykey–How a Vendor Should Operate

The range of order fulfillment services provided by one company can be full back end support:

  • Call Center
  • Order Processing
  • Storage
  • Pick, Pack & Ship
  • Inventory Control

At times too, product or materials assembly before shipments are made can be included.  And the full range of finished packaging can include shrink wrap, ploy wrap or gluing.

However, regardless if one is selling a product online or materials to be shipped to field offices, this short check list will help determine the service ‘sykey’ of a potential fulfillment vendor:

  • Will there be a live (human being) available to discuss program needs
  • Will the vendor walk through the most troubling orders
  • Will the vendor work with poorly formatted files
  • Will the vendor work without a product or item barcode

We’ve been servicing our clients since 1976 with the best of service ‘sykey’…