Bits & Pieces Case Study - Picking Up the Pieces
A European adventure teaches a U.S. cataloger a few Valuable lessons
By Kevin Lavery
Most adventures have good and bad aspects. While we generally prefer to remember only the good, we can learn some valuable lessons from the mistakes. Unfortunately, when the adventure involves setting up a mail-order operation in the United Kingdom, the bad parts often can spell ruin.
Bits & Pieces, a Boston-based cataloger that sells unusual puzzles and gifts, embarked on its European adventure in 1995. It began by testing the U.K. market with a catalog mailing to select third-party lists of known mail-order buyers. The test results were encouraging enough to justify a roll out of 1.8 million 52-page books in 1996 and 1997, which in turn was reasonably successful.
The Nightmare Starts
Although Bits & Pieces experienced fulfillment problems from the beginning, such as delays in order processing and poor customer service, nothing could prepare them for the disaster about to happen. As Alan Segal, company president, says, "It really was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire." Of the 50,000 orders received in the fall of 1997, only about 10,000 were fully delivered before Christmas—even though stock was available in the country!
The systems used by the cataloger's fulfillment company were unable to effectively deal with multi-product "pick & pack," so most orders were treated as partial orders. This led to an unanticipated level of customer inquiries, which swamped the call center and, in turn, delayed the processing of new orders.
In short, the situation soon became a vicious spiral with ensuing demands for refunds as customers became anxious for the deliveries of their Christmas gift items. As all catalogers know, this is just about as close to a worst-case scenario as anyone can get. "What went through my mind then is unprintable," recalls Segal.