In 2017, Eagan Heath bought Splendid Beast. They sell custom art online. Very custom.
Eagan knew the business because he’d done their PR for a few years. What he didn’t know was how much time he was about to lose.
“The order fulfillment was killing me,” Eagan remembers. “I was in Google Sheets and Dropbox and email for hours every day.”
Customers and Competition Drive Shipping and Fulfillment Innovation
Shipping and fulfillment has changed more in the past 10 years than it did in the previous 100. What’s driving innovation in shipping and fulfillment today? Two key constituencies: customers and the competition.
“The consumer has expectations that are put out there by Amazon,” says Robert Gilbreath of Shipstation, an e-commerce shipping automation platform. “People don’t care if you’re just a husband and wife selling T-shirts—they expect quick delivery, sometimes same-day delivery; and they expect on-time delivery.”
If you’re shipping the same basic product over and over, fulfillment is a brute force problem. But what’s your competition doing while you’re at Office Depot buying more packing tape? And what if your shipping process is more complex, or involves custom orders or personalization, or multiple vendors?
“Once they get their logistics side figured out,” says Gilbreath, “[store owners] can reinvest in the front-end, product development, looking for another place to sell, or launching a new brand.”
The time you spend on shipping & fulfillment is time you could have been spending on business development.
How Splendid Beast Used WooCommerce to Automate a 30-Step Shipping and Fulfillment Process
Eagan knew he couldn’t grow Splendid Beast’s business without automating the fulfillment process. But it wasn’t going to be easy. As with any custom product, Splendid Beast’s pet oil paintings require multiple touchpoints.
Eagan remembers going through his options: “I could probably have figured something out in Zapier myself. I could have hired someone (to do the existing process), but that’s an ongoing cost.”
His final decision? He hired Damon Schopen of Port Light Technology, a local Madison, Wisconsin-based software development company, to create a custom process in WooCommerce. “It was a big one-time cost,” Eagan says, “but to me it made sense.”
Eagan and Damon started working on the process in the summer of 2017. Job one was to develop a plan to get out of Google Sheets and email as quickly as possible.
“Information and images were everywhere,” remembers Damon. “We took that process, mapped it out and streamlined it—eliminating many steps. The remaining process was built into WooCommerce.”
Eagan and Damon took a 30-step process and got it down to 16 largely automated steps. The different people in the process—customers, graphic designers, artists—all have unique user permissions and workflows.
One of the biggest challenges was automating the process with their oil painters in Southeast Asia. They get the painting mockups in batches. Each mockup is not just a unique painting but also a unique size and style.
“It used to be time-consuming in Dropbox/Spreadsheet world,” says Eagan. “We had to rename every single file so it had an order number, whether to gallery wrap it, the last name, the size of canvas…”. In the automated world, all that information lives in WooCommerce.
Having all the information in one place not only cuts down on fulfillment time, it cuts down on customer service calls. Customers can check their order and see where it is the process. And if they are holding things up, they’ll get an alert.
Says Eagan: “I’m really trying to automate the process and wouldn’t be able to do it without WooCommerce.”
“I wouldn’t say any one step was challenging or complicated,” says Damon. “Creating a screen where you can upload images and/or download images is fairly simple. The challenge was making all the different steps work together and automatically flow through the entire process.”
Eagan signed off on the project plan in September and says it was mostly complete in March. He estimates total cost at around $10K—but it’s saving him around 10-20 hours a week. And during their busy season, he’ll be able to get by without hiring a part-time worker.
Automation builds in “logic and knowledge that a line worker in a warehouse doesn’t need to even know is there,” says Robert Gilbreath of Shipstation. “Trying to teach each new employee every layer of logic isn’t feasible. They are able to lean back on that automation—all those rules can tell them what box to use and automatically has that assigned to the package.”
For a custom piece of art Eagan knows his customer is willing to invest in a 16-step process that unfolds over a period of months. Getting things right is more important than speed.
Of course, not every store owner is creating a custom 16-step order fulfillment process. In that case, speed is the more important factor. When fulfillment isn’t complex, what counts is how fast a product arrives on a customer’s doorstep.
How Teespring Brings Cloud Computing Techniques to the Print Room Floor
Teespring sells T-shirts and other limited-run products on behalf of designers, celebrities, and YouTube stars.
Their best-selling designs are unique and current. Many reference memes in politics and pop culture. By their very nature, memes are short-lived. A T-shirt that makes you look hip on a Sunday might make you look hopelessly behind the times by the end of the week.
“The way people are purchasing products is changing dynamically,” says Chris Lamontagne, VP Commercial at Teespring. “The way they’re manufactured needs to change, too.”
Teespring now manufactures everything they sell. Their printing facility in Kentucky operates 24/7/365. Their ultimate goal? Same-day delivery.
They don’t pretend that they can predict which of their thousands of designs customers will want to buy. For their business to work, they can’t assume a shirt will sell at all. Here’s a live look at their inventory room:
Once a customer hits buy, the race is on. How does this look in real life?
Last February, designer Matt Rudinski used Teespring for the first time, after seeing that the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted” was trending on Twitter.
Matt published his design incorporating the phrase just before 10 p.m. from his home in Brooklyn.
As the night wore on, Teespring’s Kentucky factory started buzzing. Customers were placing order after order after order—for a T-shirt that hadn’t existed hours before.
Teespring’s digital printers can print one design on a tee, then a different design on a different tee. But the printer has to recalibrate after every job. To keep up with demand for Matt’s design, Teespring’s automated system dedicated one printer to “Nevertheless, she persisted” tees.
Just like a cloud-computing service activates extra servers to absorb traffic spikes, Teespring’s printers can shift capacity to meet sales spikes. Says Chris: “It’s a perfect combination of big data meeting this very old-school technology of printing.”
Teespring’s shipping partners were automatically alerted, too—bring an extra truck!
Matt didn’t have to request the extra printing capacity, nor did anyone on Teespring’s leadership team. The customers decided.
By the time Matt woke up, this design—the first he’d ever submitted to Teespring—had sold more than 3,000 times.
Customer demand isn’t the only factor driving Teespring’s need for fulfillment speed. Designers like Matt want their ideas out fast, too. If another company can ship faster and more reliably, they’ll switch.
Another factor? Amazon.
Prime members—there’s more than 100 million of them now—prefer to see that little Prime icon on everything they buy. As a result, some store owners report sales increases of 50% or more once certified through Seller Fulfilled Prime.
However, staying Prime requires hitting some daunting performance metrics. Prime shippers must achieve 96% on-time delivery and fewer than 1% cancellations.
“Prime keeps us honest in a good way—we know what the customer wants,” says Chris. “As volumes go up, you have to make sure everything’s getting out at the same time.”
Teespring’s innovative approach to fulfillment helped cinch a new deal with YouTube. Content creators can now sell merchandise directly from their YouTube page. That merchandise is produced and shipped by Teespring. One creator, Joshua Slice, of the animated series Lucas the Spider, sold 60,000 plush spiders in 18 days. Slice’s profit? More than $1 million.
Whether you’re shipping a few products a day or hundreds an hour, the main challenges of shipping and fulfillment are the same—speed and automation. For a small business like Splendid Beast, automation means Eagan Heath has the bandwidth to grow his business. For a large player like Teespring, speed keeps them ahead of the competition and leads to lucrative partnerships.
What aspects of the shipping and fulfillment process can you speed up or optimize?