Over the past few weeks I’ve started seeing an increase in complaints about online shops and their fulfilment of orders. Whether they take too long (in most cases: blame the postal system not the shop!), confusing shipping policies or items that have been poorly packed. In all of these posts that I’ve seen, a couple of the same store names stand out, so in those cases I will say the shop probably is a problem. One of the places in particular I’ve also received dodgy packed goods from, so I certainly am aware, as a customer, what I am expecting when I order online, so when I see these complaints, I’m certainly empathetic to the customer’s experience! The catch, for me, is that in my previous job I was actually a supervisor of an online store, so I can also understand and see how some issues happen to begin with.
I’m in no way saying that the complaints are unwarranted. In fact, I have my own complaints, which I shared with Katy at The Littlest Thistle on her post about Fabric Shop customer service. Most notably the time I received my fabric from fabric.com in a ball. Every piece I had ordered. The first time I ordered from fabric.com I was actually really impressed (this was early last year). I ordered a lot of fabric for curtains and they actually sent me a whole roll instead of it being taken off the roll and then folded. And the shipping was really quick (from memory it took less than a week from the US to Australia). The price, including shipping, was under $100, even when converted. Now though, if I try ordering the same fabric it costs a lot more because they seemed to have had a shipping policy change (also the conversion rate has changed a bit). Perhaps that change is when my bad orders came through (late last year). I’ve also since learnt the store is owned/run by Amazon and I’ve read a number of articles about how they run their business which seems similar to my experience in working in online, so where I’m not happy with getting balled up fabric, knowing how Amazon tends to treat staff based on those articles, I can see why it happens.
As with all customer service jobs, don’t be a Judgey McJudgepants unless you’ve actually worked in that position yourself to have knowledge of what it’s like and what actually happens (like this recent story of a couple offering a $100 tip to a waiter because they understood the bad service was not coming from him, but the working conditions he was under – short staffed, bad management etc.). In her reply to my comment, Katy linked me to a blog post from the bitchy stitcher about working at Jo-Ann’s. Some of the comments by ‘just customers’ were kind of astounding (but not surprising). The post itself is interesting, and if you’ve not seen it, I recommend it. Not just as an insight as to how this particular store works, but it is true of all corporate retail that I’ve experienced. Even though I’ve worked in a department store environment, and not a craft store, the points raised resonated with me from my experience in all of the retail establishments I have worked in. The payroll issue mentioned is definitely standard, even being in a different country, and with online stores as well.
In our second year of online, when we actually had previous year data to work with, management started implementing “last year you did X sales (orders), which means we anticpate you’ll make X money which means you only need X staff”. The big problem is a year into an online business means there is a year’s worth of extra awareness that the business exists so there is a much larger customer base ordering from the site so when in the first year we had 30 items daily (we counted by item, not order because one single order could just have 30 items in it), the n the next year we had 400 daily. I remember one sale they estimated 500 items. We had 2,000. With only enough staff available to fulfil the anticapted 500, we could not cope with 4x as many. The two people starting in the department were more than enough for 30 items (overkill actually), but with 400, and growing every day we needed a lot more to get through the work. I had been doing 14 hour shifts, 6 days a week, and no lunch to help everything keep up as much as I could.
We had a KPI of packing 15 items per hour. Now, this is a department store so items varied from microwaves to cosmetics and clothing, toys etc. Clothes obviously surpassed the 15 items because they’re quick, but you were slowed down when packing dinner sets and large and heavy things so 15 was a pretty good average over the day for us. One of my favourite things to pack were towels because they were so easy to fold up straight and pack in a box — this is why I don’t understand receiving balled up fabric HOWEVER I know from the set up of our packing space that some things were packed badly due to lack of space to do them in.
We worked out of an actual store, not a warehouse, which I can only assume most bricks and mortar fabric stores who venture into online do also. To acquire enough room for a packing space, means that part of the store needs to be retrofitted to create it. It’s also not just space for packing that’s needed, but storage. Boxes of all kinds. Satchels of all kinds. Bubble wrap, tissue paper, sticky tape. Keeping enough on hand you won’t run out, and having enough when you run low, that you’ll still have enough to get you by while you wait for another order to come through. (Edited to add: we also had shelves to keep the items we had actually picked, that needed packing. And then space was needed to then hold all of the packed items before they were taken into the loading area to meet the post pickup).
When we started getting 2,000 items a day, two of our other online locations in different -larger- cities were actually getting 10,000. Now, with a 15 item KPI, that’s 133 hours for ONE person to pack 2,000 items. Just packing! Obviously unrealistic, so extra team members were needed to JUST pack. Even 10 team members is 13 hours of JUST packing. To be more realistic about getting it all done on time, we ended up with up to 30 people to pack at one point. In a space that only really fits 8 people and even then it was shoulder to shoulder and hard to move. People were packing on the floor, or next to the computers on the desk. Taking over the spaces of other departments we shared our office with. So if you don’t have enough space to spread out to fold properly, then yeah it’s not going to look so neat. Remember you can’t see a) what their office looks like, b) how many orders they are actually dealing with and c) how many people are there at a time to do it. With breaks included, this roughly worked out to be an 8 hour shift for all 30 people. Can you imagine packing for 8 hours? On your feet the whole time, bending, risking cardboard cuts, trying to reach different boxes and satchels amongst a large mob of people. Don’t you think you’d be pretty knackered and over it by the end? Do you think you could nice and neatly fold up a towel or a piece of fabric by then?
Some of you may be thinking “rotate those 30 people into doing other jobs”. Well. I couldn’t. For a one-day only shift, they either pack, which required minimal training, or I buddy everyone up with one of few experienced team members to log them in and out of our system, show them where all the information is input, what all our codes mean to access different parts of our system and then therefor slow down the whole process because less people are packing. Not viable with high volumes. On top of the packers, I had the rest of my team to do the other parts of the job: we had to pick the items for a start, process that the items were in stock so they could be packed, if we were missing items we had to fill out a form to go to other stores, and contact the customer about split parcels, or occasionally to advise we were out of stock. We worked by picking items off the sales floor, and as touched upon in a Pink Castle Fabric’s blog post on missing yardage, there can be lots of reasons why items can be advertised as available but actually are not. I also spent a lot of time bitching at our company buyers and IT for making mistakes on the website.
Have you ever ordered something online that came in a box you didn’t expect? Was it a small item, like a spool of thread, and it was in a box big enough for a couple of fat quarter bundles, or a surfboard? I’ve seen people “joke” about how stupid the packer must have been for choosing such a large unnecessary receptacle. Consider this: a store only has so many small containers for packing. They run out and a new shipment has not yet arrived. Perhaps there was a spur-of-the-moment thread sale and 500 people ordered thread and there were only 300 small boxes.What is the store supposed to do with the other 200? You can’t hold the order for a couple of weeks while you wait for new stationery. I can tell you I have packed teeny tiny undies numerous times into large satchels that could fit over my head, just because that’s all we had left; not because I wanted to be a stupid, funny, jerk. I ordered our stationery and boxes, and it would take a couple of weeks to receive those shipments. Unless it was a major known sale (say Christmas time) I could anticipate our needs, but if we’re told offhandedly by head office “tomorrow we’re having a 24 hour sale on X product”, then I’m sorry but I don’t have time to order and receive enough of the ‘right size’ box (which by the way all had to be a corporate standard and not just any willy-nilly brand box)!
Most people’s first thoughts when hearing a business is short staffed, is “hire more people”. Hiring more staff is not always an option, though it’s probably more viable for a big business than a small one. It takes time to monitor your order averages and to find that happy place with scheduling. If the store is a small business to begin with, there isn’t going to be a huge surplus of extra staff members to take on extra roles and/or hours, especially if they’re running a bricks and mortar store that needs manning as well. An etsy store owner packing orders in their own home has the opportunity to stay up until midnight packing, and then getting up again at 6am to finish but actual stores can’t do this. Businesses have legalities on when they are actually open/when someone is actually in the building. There are shift times, break times, and how long between shifts you should have which also need to be considered that etsy-shop owners can overlook. Etsy store owners are also probably not paying anyone else a specific wage to do the job, so extra money on fabric profit doesn’t need to be spent on someone else.
The store also needs to buy packaging materials, and arrange some kind of courier or postal services. These cost money, and can eat up into the extra costs that could otherwise go towards another staff member. Lots of online stores have free shipping or reduced shipping. That money is coming out of someone’s pocket. And it’s not just the “stamp” that needs paying for, but the boxes, the bags, the tissue paper, the bubble wrap, the tape to hold it together. The delivery costs of having those things brought to the work area! It all costs money. If money is being eaten up into excess costs like this, then there isn’t enough money spare for more staff, regardless of whether or not the store is making profit by selling online, because that profit is being used elsewhere.
Hiring staff in general also costs money. Advertising for the position, the time spent interviewing, getting those people inducted into the business and then the training. Some people need more training than others. Some people are more diligent at working than others.
The spike of a busy period could be a one off or be very intermittent so there could be odd periods of being slow at processing. Recently I did a charm swap, and one particular online store was hit hard as the majority of members in the swap (50+) hit up the store for their swap fabrics as it had been linked in our group. Because these spikes can can come infrequently if the business hired more staff then they can end up with excess staff that can’t be provided work if they’re only needed a couple of days every couple of months or so.
People also tend to forget that there is also more to online orders than just the packing. We had databases to learn – one for customer details and orders and another for stock control and inventory, and then there was the equipment that synced with that database. To pick all of this information up takes time and repetition, especially because different actions had different words. Nothing was labelled “print out shipping labels” it was more along the lines of “create parcel product identification” which made it harder to remember which step is which. Sure it wasn’t hard but some team members picked it up quicker than others. Those that only had shifts one day a week, were slower than those available for full time hours because of the lack of exposure. Some team members gave up/quit after a couple of weeks as they decided they didn’t like the work involved and then you’re left back at square one. I learnt early on that the first job people did when starting with us was to just pack. If you could handle packing, then I knew you could be trusted with the computer stuff. Packing also gave staff exposure to the descriptions of items we were given, and the actual items themselves, and from there, I’d get people out picking because if you know what you’re actually looking for, the hard part is just finding where in the shop it actually is and then from picking, I’d go through the whole process step by step. I didn’t have time to waste to risk falling behind by training someone who would leave within a week. We weeded out a lot of people who couldn’t take the workload as packing is the worst job ever but is still necessary.
Because I worked in a department store there was luckily a whole pool of current team members to choose from, though the unfortunate thing was that during busier periods (Christmas) the best team members — ie. the ones you would actually want to work with because they were trustworthy and did a good job — were already working in their own departments. So above where I said I had 30 extra staff members? They were, to be quite honest, the dregs of the staff pool. The people who weren’t good enough to be given hours regularly and who weren’t wanted anywhere else in the store. This was also another reason why I would not rotate them into doing the other jobs I had my regular team do. Some of these staff members were also people we had “blacklisted” to never work with us again because, frankly, their work was terrible, and the fact we ended up with them again, shows how at times we were desperate. If it weren’t for us needing packers, then they wouldn’t have had a shift at all. It showed in their work while packing that they were sloppy, and didn’t try. But even despite that, if all you did for a full day was pack with all the bending and manoeuvring and cardboard cuts and the squishy area you worked in, how well could you pack?
I enjoyed the black and white description part of my job. If it weren’t for the rest of it, like all the office politics and bad management that you’re not told about when you start employment, I would have stayed in this job forever. It was fun and even though I hated the 7am starts, nothing beats being in a store ‘after hours’. It’s so quiet and peaceful! Pink Castle Fabric have also made another post about “behind the scenes” of how they fulfil actual fabric orders, so I recommend giving that a read as well!
(Edit: Another business I was reminded of that has been getting some negativity due to their slow shipping is Missouri Star Quilt Company. They actually have a blog post about their business and moving locations as they could no longer cope with the work in their space. I hope you take what I have mentioned above about online orders growing into consideration when complaining about growing companies like this. That link also shows photos of their work area so maybe it can show a little insight as to what people work with in this kind of business. There’s also another post about fulfilling fabric orders, as well).
From the start, I knew working out of an actual store was not the best idea. When dealing the 30 items we had to start, it was fine, but once it started to grow it just became unreasonable, however to set up a warehouse meant renting out a new space, providing it with all necessary stock which was more investment than the company wanted to do and they decided it was cheaper to retrofit a handful of stores across the country and run out of a shop instead.
Yes, I am wordy. And no I’m not going to apologise for it ;) feel free to ask any questions, or clarification on anything I’ve said though, if you actually read through everything hehe!