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Why Integration Matters and Matters A Lot: The Aran Sweater Tale

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Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed and so has Christmas. All over the world the e-commerce engine chugged along like the engine on the polar express. The e-commerce feeding frenzy of this past year was a little tempered from the reports I read on the internet. So in our hangover theme I felt it was appropriate, as we start the new year, that we talk about why e-commerce integration matters, and matters a great deal. What I am going to go through is a real experience; it happened and in my estimation is the result of a lack of integration and a reliance on manual processes. The etailer was aware of one of the situations, but the second event had a down stream effect on customer service of which I am sure they were totally unaware of. Before I tell you the story you can look up a blog article from 2013 we published on a similar experience with Corkcicle.

So sit down, grab a drink and  let me tell you the tale. Back in early November 2014 I ordered some wool sweaters from a company in Ireland. Aran Sweater Market. The company manufacturers and produces great quality traditional Aran wool sweaters at great price points. Check them out, I highly recommend their products.


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The First Order of Sweaters

On November 9th I placed an order for three sweaters. The web experience was of top quality, payment was easy, and within minutes I received an email confirming my order. Fast, efficient and a great experience. All seemed well, everything in the email was correct and I expected a shipment advice in short order based on the reviews I had read online. A week passed and I had heard nothing.

On the 16th of November I went online to the Aran Sweater website to inquire about the status of the order. Aran Sweater has a nice interactive chat function on their main web page so I had a  chat with Geraldine. I inquired about the order status, she indicated the order had come through missing a colour and a size for one of the sweaters which was back ordered. OK, that seemed odd given the email I received was all correct, size and colour wise. The back order I could understand given the popularity of their products. But missing size and colour? Geraldine requested I send a copy of the order confirmation email I received so they could look into it. I did exactly as instructed, explaining what had happened. I received no response. I then subsequently emailed on both the 18th and 19th, inquiring and again, and again received no response. On the 20th I went online and chatted with Liz who offered to look into it. I asked why I had received no response. She commented and I quote “We are incredibly busy at the moment and trying to get to everyone as quick as we can”. She then indicated Geraldine was off and she would have her contact me.

On November 23rd, I finally received the first email confirming the order status. The order had been updated. One of the items was back ordered and would ship in 15 days. The email was from Geraldine Conan and she apologised for the inconvenience. Things were seemingly looking up. This was the first communication I had received from Aran Sweater in 14 days – two weeks. Given that I did not want to wait another 15 days for the entire shipment I again went online and chatted with Geraldine and asked her to remove the back ordered item and credit my credit card. Geraldine indicated they could do what I asked and the order minus the back order would ship on the following Monday. Perfect.

On November 30th I received an order update indicating a refund voucher had been processed to my credit card and that my order had been shipped by DHL the same day. I did get the refund on my credit card. The parcel with the sweaters arrived a few days later with super service from DHL. So other than the issue with a missing colour and size for the back ordered product, things went fairly smoothly.

Trust in E-commerce and How Technology and Integration is Key

This experience got me thinking about the trust relationship in e-commerce. I order from an online etailer and unless that etailer is an established entity like Amazon or Zappos there is a leap of faith that is involved in making the purchase. I don’t really know if they are real or a fake or if I am about to get scammed. I did my due diligence with Aran Sweater. On Google, I found references and some videos so I was pretty sure Aran Sweater were for real.The initial experience with Aran was excellent, but the subsequent process was less than confidence building. I don’t know what was happening in the two weeks between the time I placed the order and the time I got the order confirmation, but two weeks to me makes me think the back end order entry process was overloaded and probably being completed manually. This got me thinking: I wonder what technology they use for e-commerce? So off sleuthing I went.

Aran Sweater Market use an open source platform called OpenCart produced by a Hong Kong based company. Looks like a platform in the same style as NopCommerce. Opencart doesn’t have a native API but there is an add on extension product that provides a RESTful API to allow integration with other applications. I did find a number of other API extensions for Opencart so it seems that there are choices on the API side. Not something you see often but certainly an interesting twist on open source APIs. What Aran use for their accounting I have no way of knowing. Whether their Opencart system is integrated to the accounting system I can not tell but given the disconnect between the order confirmation and the order Geraldine was looking at I suspect there is not.

I did find a reference to the use of the DHL shipping system. This leads me to believe that they use the DHL portal to enter shipment information to produce waybills and pro forma invoices for shipments. I suspect given the difference in the address information on the waybill there is no integration between the web store, accounting system and the DHL portal.

The Second Sweater Order

So lets continue the tale. The second situation happened when I placed a new order for another sweater. I placed the order on December 14th. I had the same experience as I did with my first order in terms of a quick confirmation email, but however this time I had them ship to VL’s offices directly. On the 15th I received confirmation that the sweater had been shipped. Aran used DHL again. The same day I checked on DHL’s site and saw that the parcel was on its way. Awesome!

Monday, December 15, 2014 Location Time
4 Processed at EAST MIDLANDS – UK EAST MIDLANDS – UK 23:01
3 Departed Facility in SHANNON – IRELAND, REPUBLIC OF SHANNON – IRELAND, REPUBLIC OF 20:21
2 Processed at SHANNON – IRELAND, REPUBLIC OF SHANNON – IRELAND, REPUBLIC OF 19:14
1 Shipment picked up SHANNON – IRELAND, REPUBLIC OF 14:56

By Tuesday the parcel was at Heathrow in London…

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 Location Time
9 Departed Facility in LONDON-HEATHROW – UK LONDON-HEATHROW – UK 10:21
8 Transferred through LONDON-HEATHROW – UK LONDON-HEATHROW – UK 10:19
7 Arrived at Sort Facility LONDON-HEATHROW – UK LONDON-HEATHROW – UK 09:20
6 Departed Facility in EAST MIDLANDS – UK EAST MIDLANDS – UK 05:21
5 Arrived at Sort Facility EAST MIDLANDS – UK EAST MIDLANDS – UK 03:56

And by Wednesday the parcel was in Canada. Pretty amazing service DHL and kudos to Aran for partnering with such a good logistics provider.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 Location Time
19 Address information needed; contact DHL ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 14:39
18 With delivery courier ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 11:12
17 Arrived at Delivery Facility in ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 09:21
16 Departed Facility in ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 08:00
15 Processed at ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 07:56
14 Arrived at Sort Facility ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 07:50
13 Clearance processing complete at ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 07:03
12 Clearance event ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 06:51
11 Processed for clearance at ONTARIO SERVICE AREA – CANADA ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 06:51
10 Customs status updated ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, CANADA 05:51

But when I scanned the courier entries something seemed out of place.  It was at this point that I became convinced that Aran’s ecommerce site was not integrated to their back end systems and that they were relying on manually entered data. My first order lead me to believe they were handling orders manually but I wasn’t 100% sure. So had everything been clean the parcel would have been delivered on Wednesday but instead the delivery happened on Friday Dec 19th.

Friday, December 19, 2014 Location Time
22 Delivered – Signed for by : NSR MISSISSAUGA 15:50
21 With delivery courier ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, ON – CANADA 11:45
Thursday, December 18, 2014 Location Time
20 Shipment on hold ONTARIO SERVICE AREA, ON – CANADA 06:59

On the Wednesday DHL advised me by email and by SMS to my cell phone that there was an issue. So after a couple of calls to DHL the address details were corrected and my parcel arrived at the VL offices. You are probably wondering why I know the shipment data was entered manually: take a look at the picture below. There is no unit number on the pro forma invoice and there was no unit number on the import invoice. The unit number was in the order confirmation I received from Aran when I placed the order. That was my first clue. The second clue was the phone number on the order confirmation for shipping was different. My cell phone number had been used as opposed to the office number which was with the shipping address on the original order.

Corrected_image_Address_Error

So the purpose of this article is not to complain about the Aran Sweater Market. They have awesome products, great prices and I suspect that when things are lined up everything works really well. The issue here is scalability. When you have manual processes and are overloaded you can’t scale. If someone is pounding the keyboard entering data into the shipping system software or shipping portal, mistakes will be made as in the case above.

The Need for Integration

My two experiences speak to the need for integration to allow a business to scale efficiently. I am sure that the second shipment issue was human error and the downstream impact on customer service was sufficient to irritate me. I am sure that Aran is not even aware of the problem and therefore can not correct the customer service frustration. They would eventually, if they asked, get a report from DHL on late shipments and their cause. In the case of the first order the disconnect between the order confirmation and what the customer service rep was looking at, spoke to a manual order entry process in the system the CSRs were using. I suspect that they may not have had access to the back end of the web store to check the original web order.

Ecommerce Take Aways:

The takeaways from these two orders are that scalability to handle higher order volumes doesn’t happen when data is handled manually. It’s really that simple.

  1. Islands of Technology – Webstore, Shipping software on a desktop, or shipping portal are fine when volumes are low.
  2. The islands of technology need to be integrated so that manual data entry errors are eliminated as volumes increase.
  3. Data should flow seamlessly between applications with controls on mandatory data so that errors are captured. Are the addresses valid? Do they need to be cleansed?
  4. Finally, the customer experience needs to be mapped out with the data touch points highlighted along the way. What do you want the customer to experience and how does that affect the flow of data between systems. Do the systems have the import and export touch points either via XML or CSV to allow you to integrate the systems.

In our next blog article, we will be exploring these mechanisms that cause a business to get (and stay) sick, as well as illuminating others — stay tuned or subscribe below!

Do you think your business might have experienced similar problems? Are you unsure if your business is hungover from the holiday season, or if there might be some more problematic underlying issues? Check out our self-diagnosis chart.

 

 

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