Business > Merchant Voice

Temporary setbacks have helped my business

Every online merchant dreads a phone call or email from an unhappy customer or supplier. But as unpleasant as they are, those calls and emails often present opportunities to improve an aspect of operations, merchandising, or pricing.

Here are examples from my business.

Setbacks, then improvements

Poor packaging. One of my products is an electroplated gold champagne flute. My first half-dozen sales of these, which I shipped with bubble wrap, resulted in complaints that one or more glasses were broken in transit. I had to send replacements at my cost.

Today I still wrap the flutes in bubble wrap, but I fill all possible gaps in the box with scrunched tissue paper, which is light, packs well, and, as a bonus, is environmentally friendly.

Too short delivery dates. Until recently, about 20 of my products included expected delivery within three days. The vast majority of my customers live in Melbourne (Australia), where I’m located. Thus the products arrive within three days without incident.

However as my sales have grown, I have attracted customers throughout Australia, including Cairns in far north Queensland, and Darwin in Northern Territory. Both cities take up to seven days for postal delivery.

One customer in Cairns complained that her order hadn’t arrived three days after purchase. In that instance, all of Australia experienced postal delays due to Easter, which meant no deliveries on April 19 and 22, and the national Anzac Day holiday on April 25. She was gracious about the delay. But I changed my delivery deadline to seven days.

Delivery times. I have to be specific about delivery and pickup times at event venues for rented items. Here’s why.

One customer rented marquee letters and requested that we return to the venue to collect them at midnight. My supplier duly arrived, only to be told by the venue staff that the party was continuing until 1:30 a.m. and suppliers could collect rental items at that time. The customer hadn’t paid for a 1:30 a.m. pickup. I had to pay the supplier a further $150 ($100 came from the client’s deposit) for the later-than-expected pickup time.

Now I plan for such contingencies with a higher delivery fee.

Quantity production. One of my most popular rental items is a cotton candy machine, which comes with a human operator. About three weeks ago, a customer requested to hire the machine (and operator) to serve 800 guests over a couple of hours.

Serving cotton candy to 800 guests in two hours is nearly impossible. I have since specified in the product description the operator can serve no more than 120 guests in two hours.

Venue logistics. Many customers get so excited about their event that they overlook logistics.

One customer wanted to rent a 79-inch diameter round foliage wall for her corporate event on the second floor of the venue. My supplier asked me to check on the size of the goods elevator. The foliage wall would not fit. I had to cancel the order. I’ve updated the product description to include the required size of the elevator, doors, and stairs.

Customer pickups. When possible, I allow customers to pick up purchased and rented items from my premises.

But I had to stop offering such pickup for do-it-yourself rentals for some of my fragile items. A customer came to collect the acrylic plinths with a pickup truck (called a “ute” — utility vehicle — in Australia). She was going to lay the plinths in the truck tray, which would have severely scratched or broken them in transit.

Consultation fees. Last year I eased out of the wedding market. But I continue to have brides and their fiancés, mothers, and best friends wanting to look in my showroom on evenings and weekends, often for an hour or more.

Frequently these visits were a part of the wedding merry-go-round of seeing suppliers. The brides and their guests were not serious about booking décor items.

After about five no-shows in a row, I implemented a $150 consultation fee for after-hours showroom visits. The result? No more no-shows and visitors (who now tend to be corporate event planners) make appointments to see me during business hours.

Elizabeth Hollingsworth
Elizabeth Hollingsworth
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