Work

Shipping Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing

I meant to post this during the week of the shipping party, but I was busy. This is the final phase of shipping the Schlock books.

Phase 1: Collecting orders
Phase 2: Sorting
Phase 3: Inventory preparation
Phase 4: Printing Postage

Phase 5: Packaging and Mailing

All of the prior phases have been organization for this phase. We plan our big packing and mailing day as a “shipping party.” We rely heavily on volunteer workers who only get paid with free food and free merchandise. Volunteer workers are notorious for being unreliable. I always plan for no shows and for people who need things simplified, but that is not what I get. We have been very fortunate. We always have lots of smart people show up. In fact many of the people who arrived at this shipping party had come to a shipping party before. This meant they already knew how things worked. I could just hand them assignments and let them run with it. For several days prior to the shipping day, we hauled inventory and supplies down to Dragon’s Keep. Among those supplies were 1000 sketched books, 300 unsketched books, 50 t-shirts, 150 sets of magnets, 50 mouse pads, 80 pins, 8 strapping tape dispensers, 12 spare rolls of tape, 2 rolls of newsprint for packing material, 5 box cutters, over 1000 cardboard boxes of various types, about 70 USPS mailing tubs acquired from the post office, and two dozen bagels purchased the morning of the party.

We do our packaging and mailing at Dragon’s Keep because they have a large space and several large tables that we can use. For this event we had four tables in use for packing and a fifth laid out with food for breaks. Each table was set up as a station. The different shipping methods sometimes require different packaging. (For example to qualify for the priority mail flat rate, the package must be inside one of the USPS Flat Rate boxes.) Each table was set up for a different kind of packaging. The flat rate boxes tended to be the large/complicated orders, so I set those up on the tables closest to where we stacked all the inventory. The other tables were set up for orders that required smaller boxes. We had to change things around as we went to meet the different requirements of the various lists. All the inventory was set out so it could be accessed easily. All the boxes with the different sketched characters were set out in rows so that the volunteers could pull the exact books they needed.

I started by setting up the volunteers in teams. One person would collect the items for an order. The other person would pack the order into a box and put the address label and the stamp label on the exterior. Later we learned that we needed an additional person who could do the strapping tape for two teams. The group doing the single book orders set themselves up in a more assembly line fashion. There were six guys, two were collecting orders, two were packaging, two were taping. Another single book per order table had each person doing their own collection, packing, labeling and taping. We frequently had a floating worker who would carry loads of packages up the stairs to await the arrival of the postman. This person also had the assignment of grabbing empty boxes and flattening them. We amassed an impressive pile of cardboard before we were done.

My job was to supervise and make sure everything ran smoothly. If there was a question about an invoice or packaging type, I was the one who answered. Questions were frequent because sometimes I write notes on invoices as people make special requests. I was the only one who touched the file boxes with the invoices and address labels. When a team finished the list they were working on, they would come to me for the next list. I tried to anticipate and have the next list ready, but sometimes it got hectic. This was particularly true at the beginning because I started with the small-but-complex lists. In hindsight, it would have helped me a lot if I had taken the time to re-organize the file boxes after printing the postage. They were organized for ease of postage printing. I needed to be able to glance at the lists and see which table a given list should go to.

The postal pick-ups were scheduled several days before the event. Scheduling a pick up is easily done using usps.com. I made sure to indicate the size of the pick-up, but I’m not sure the assigned postman believed it because early in the morning he came by to look at what we were doing. He glanced around and said “I’m going to need the big truck.” He came back with the big truck at 1 pm and then again at 3:30. We filled it up both times. When the postman comes for a pick up, all the packing work stops and everyone helps load things into the truck. This earns many good feelings from the postman. Apparently some people expect him to do all the heavy lifting.

I always schedule two days to do the shipping, but it seems that every shipping runs more efficiently than the one before. Part of that is because we know what we’re doing. A huge part of it is because many of the volunteers know what they’re doing because they’ve helped us before. This time we got it all done in one day. I will continue to schedule two days because there is always the chance that we’ll have a low volunteer turn out or that we’ll have more or more complex orders.

Once everything is packaged and ready for the post office pick-up, all the remaining supplies must be loaded back into my van for transport home. I did pretty well estimating the necessary supplies. We didn’t run out of anything and there wasn’t much to haul home. When I get back home it all has to be unloaded and set back up in my basement shipping center. And then we collapse into a heap because we are tired.

finis.

(Well, except for the fact that I will spend the next 2-4 weeks helping people with order problems. There are always things damaged in shipping, mis-packed, wrong addresses that get sent back, misprinted books, etc. So far fewer than 25 orders have needed further attention from me. That is pretty good for mailing out over 1000 packages.)

Shipping Phase 4: Printing Postage

Phase 1: Collecting orders
Phase 2: Sorting
Phase 3: Inventory preparation

Phase 4: Printing Postage

This is the point at which we start to spend serious money. We have to purchase over $10,000 of postage in order to get all the packages to their destinations. The service I use to print our postage is Stamps.com. I have to pay a monthly fee and download a program to my computer, but once that is done, I have the ability to print mailing labels and matching postage with my printer at home.

First I have to move the address data from the online store system and into the stamps.com application. Unfortunately these two pieces of software are unable to communicate with each other meaningfully. Fortunately they both are compatible with Microsoft excel. So I download the address data into a csv (comma separated value) file. Then I upload the csv into the stamps.com application. The stamps.com app automatically sorts the names into alphabetical order. This is why the final step of the sorting phase is alphabetizing by name.

I grab a list from my filebox. Lets say it is a list of people who have ordered a single book and they all want Petey as their sketch, also they’ve chosen Parcel Post as their shipping method. There are about 40 of these orders. I flip through the paper invoices, checking the boxes in the stamps.com app for the names that match the invoices. Stamps.com verifies all the addresses and sometimes suggests corrections. Most of the corrections are things like changing “Avenue” to “Ave” or adding additional digits to the postal code. I then select the appropriate shipping method and package weight. I make sure the labels are loaded into the printer, then I click print. The labels print. I clip them to the stack of invoices and put them back into their slot in the file box. Then I proceed to the next list.

As the labels are printed, the cost for each label is deducted from the credit I have on file with Stamps.com. When the balance reaches zero, I have to buy more postage. Fortunately they have a credit card on file and so I can purchase more postage with a few clicks. Again I am working with a system that is not designed for what I’m trying to do. Stamps.com will not allow me to purchase more than $250 of postage credit with them. When I am printing postage for a big shipping, I’ll purchase additional postage many times in a short space of time. Purchasing $3000 of anything in $200 increments, looks suspicious to a credit card company. Right around the $3000 mark, the company will place a hold on my card. This is a major reason why I have to start printing postage a week in advance of the shipping day. I have to leave time for the phone calls necessary to get the hold removed from the credit card. Twice. The first hold is removed by the use of an automated system. The second hold shunts me to a human being who asks me all sorts of identity verification questions. I then explain that we will be buying a huge amount of postage over the next few days and would they please stop interfering. Then they put a manager-approved “Do not hold” order on the card, which lasts for about a week. We do not carry this postage as a balance on our card. I pay off the amounts the same day I make the charges.

The other reason I start printing postage a week in advance is because of the international orders. Stamps.com has the ability to print out customs forms, but they can not be done in batches. Each form must list the contents of the package and be formated for the country to which the package is being sent. This requires me to hand enter information for each order. It is still much better than having to write customs forms by hand, which is how I used to do International orders. Each international order takes about a minute to process. There are about 300 international orders. This means a solid 5 hours of work for me to get all of them printed. International orders are not printed on stickers. They are printed on paper which then has to be folded or cut and shoved into clear sticker pouches that will be affixed to the exterior of the packages. The cutting and stuffing is another few hours. All of it must be done carefully to make sure that the right customs form stays with the right invoice.

When I am done with all the postage printing. I have two file boxes full of paper which cost me over $10,000 and yet none of it is redeemable for anything except packages going through the mail. I am extremely careful with those boxes until the next stage, Phase 5 Packaging and Mailing.

Shipping Phase 3: Inventory Preparation

Phase 1: Collecting orders
Phase 2: Sorting

Phase 3: Inventory Preparation
This phase of shipping preparation runs concurrently with phase 2 and phase 4. This is because the lion’s share of the work during this phase is done by Howard or other volunteers rather than me. It is during this phase that I make sure we have all the supplies and inventory necessary to fulfill all the orders.

This phase begins when a truck pulls into our driveway and drops of pallets of books. We make arrangements to have 3/5 of the books transported to the storage unit. Those books become our inventory for the next couple of years. The rest of the books have to be signed and sketched for shipping. We arrange a day to have a volunteer come help us. This time we shanghaied a neighbor. He would bring a box of books into the house, open it up, and put all the books into a neat stack on our kitchen counter. Howard grabs the stack and starts signing the covers. Every so often the neighbor would grab the stacks of signed books and deliver them to the kitchen table. I am sitting at the table with the sketch stamp and a tall pile of sketch papers. The papers have all be cut to be narrower than the book, but taller than the book. At the top of each sketch paper is the name of the character to be sketched in that book. I grab a stack of books and I put a stamp and a sketch paper just inside the back cover. The primary reason for the sketch papers is so that we can tell without opening the book what character has been sketched inside. This becomes critically important during the packing phase of shipping. The books get boxed back up and the exterior of each box is labeled with the character that is sketched on the books inside. I try to put only one type of sketch per box to prevent confusion during the packing phase. Because Howard and the neighbor moved faster than me, I sometimes had to box up signed but not-yet-stamped books and stack them to be stamped later. “Later” turned out to be 4 days later this time.

After signing over 1400 books, Howard’s hand had to rest before moving in the next section of work. All those boxes of signed and stamped books were hauled down to Dragon’s Keep. Then Howard opened up the boxes of books, drew a picture in each book, and boxed them back up. This time we had 1000 sketch editions. We allotted three weeks of time for Howard to do the sketching. He’s trying to do about 100 per day. Many of the signed books did not need to be stamped or sketched. These just remain in boxes waiting for the shipping day.

While Howard is doing the sketching, I take some time to double check our physical inventory against the reports generated by our store. In theory our store will only sell what we have, but anyone who has run inventory will tell you that things get lost and misplaced. In this case I made several orders to various suppliers to make sure we have the necessary inventory. As the new inventory comes in, I stack it all in boxes. It will all need to be transported down to Dragon’s Keep for the packing phase. I also make a count of the types of boxes and need and what quantities. The different shipping methods have different boxing requirements. The majority of our orders are a single book in a fold-up box. Larger orders go out in 2″, 3″, or 4″ boxes that we order through Uline.com. The flat rate orders require special boxes that I have to acquire from the post office. I place orders now, so that the packing materials will be here before the big shipping day.

Next phase: Phase 4 Printing Postage.

Shipping Phase 2: Sorting

Phase 1 of shipping is discussed here.

Once we close pre-ordering on the sketched editions it is time for me to begin sorting. By this time I have over 1000 pieces of paper stacked in my filebox. Each piece of paper represents and order. I have to make sure not to lose any papers or else that order will fail to be sent. This is why I try to do sorting when all the kids are out of the house. Before I start sorting and after I’m done sorting, finding an order to modify it is fairly simple. Trying to find an order mid-sort is tricky, so I try to plow through the sorting quickly. The sorting process is actually a series of sorts. Each one getting more refined so that I have stacks of similar orders ready for packaging. I have to do it so many different times because if I make the each sort simple, I can do it quickly. If I have to think, then the sort takes forever.

First sort: I focus just on the contents of the order. If the order contains a sketched edition, it goes in one pile. If it contains a regular edition, it goes into a different pile. If an order contains neither, then I’ve made a mistake and filed an order that should already have been sent. I send it out asap. Then I put all the non-sketched orders back into the filebox. I’m still in collection phase for non-sketched orders. I’ll sort them later.

Second sort: Now I focus on the shipping method. Parcel post, US priority mail, international priority mail, international first class, international first class Canada/Mexico, and International priority Canada/Mexico each get their own piles. Each shipping category represents a different pricing structure for the postage and different packaging requirements. I need to have them separated out both for printing postage and for the packaging. When I am done, I put each of the stacks into it’s own hanging file with a temporary label, such as “parcel post sketched”

Third sort: I take one of the stacks from the second sort (Lets say “parcel post sketched”) and I sort again. This time I am focused on whether the order contains a single book or multiple items. The orders with multiple items are set aside for a moment.

Fourth sort: I now sort my stack of orders and sort them based on which sketch the order requested. I now have stacks containing a single book, all the same sketch, all the same shipping method. I put these stacks into a file box labeled accordingly.

Fifth sort: I sort the orders containing multiple items by weight. I know the approximate weights of all our merchandise and so I do quick calculations in my head. I then label the stacks by shipping method and weight. These stacks will be more complex to handle on the packaging end, but there really isn’t much I can do to simplify orders which all contain multiple different items. These stacks are put into the filebox in labeled hanging folders.

I now repeat sorts 3-5 for all the other stacks that I made during sort 2. I also make a tally count of how many of each sketch type we need to create.

Sixth sort: I take one of the many labeled piles from it’s hanging folder. I now sort the pile alphabetically by the last name of the shipping address. This is necessary because the mailing labels will print out in alphabetical order and we need to be able to match the printed invoices to the labels. Repeat this sort for all the piles being mailed inside the US. This sort does not apply to international orders, because those require customs forms and postage can not be printed in batches.

Hurray I’m done! …Except I still have all those regular orders that are still in the collection phase. So I wait a couple of weeks and repeat sorts 2-6 for all of the non-sketched orders. Next phase will be Phase 3 Inventory Preparation

Shipping 1000 packages Phase 1: Collection of orders

I’ve decided to document the process I go through while preparing to host a shipping event where over 1000 packages get mailed out in a single day. I’m doing it because I think it might be interesting to any other small businesses out there who may need to attempt something similar. I’m also doing it for my own record. Someday, when we can afford to have other people do the shipping for us, I want to be able to remember what it was like. Also there is the chance that for some future shipping event, I will be unavailable. Then this series of entries can serve as a starting point for someone else to manage the job.

So. Here goes.

Collection of orders:
Our store is managed by volusion.com. They’ve been very good to us and their customer support has been excellent. There are many other store options available, but we’ve been happy with volusion. Like any other piece of complex software, the store has some quirks. Prior to opening orders I spend a day making sure that all the products have been entered correctly. I run test orders to make sure that postage is being calculated correctly. This time we were offering t-shirts, posters, mousepads, and magnets at the same time as books. I had to make sure that the inventory tracking functions of the store were working properly so that we don’t sell more than we have of any particular item.

Then we open orders and I have a steady flow of email from customers needing help. This shows me the weak spots in the system. I answer questions and clarify product descriptions to make sure that other people don’t have to ask the same question. Helping customers is rewarding. I love being able to solve the problems with a few clicks of my mouse.

One of the challenges of a pre-order period is that some of the orders have to be held for shipment later. Other orders do not contain a pre-ordered item and need to be shipped right away. The disadvantage of our volusion store is that it is not set up to manage mass mailings. It can handle high volume, but it is optimized for people who expect to turn around and ship out orders immediately. The best way I’ve found to keep track of which orders need to go out now and which need to be mailed, is to print out the paper invoices. These invoices have to be printed anyway because they have to be included with the orders. Fortunately the store has a batch function that lets me print a stack of invoices all at once. So each morning I print out the orders that came in the day before. I go through the stack and pull out any of the orders that do not contain pre-ordered items. Those get shipped out the same day. The remainder of the invoices get put into my file box.

Each invoice has and order number on it. I keep them in numerical order, 200 sheets per hanging folder. This allows me to pull and modify invoices as customers make requests. If two orders are to be combined, those two invoices get clipped together with a paper clip. If a person is moving, but doesn’t have the new address, I put a post-it note on the invoice detailing the situation and put the invoice in the “special handling” folder. That “special handling” folder is for all the orders that have specific instructions or need special attention. I make extensive use of post-it notes to make sure that all the customer needs are clearly labeled on the invoices. This is necessary because my brain gets too frazzled to remember everything.

Once all the sketch edition orders have come in, I begin to sort. Sorting will be the topic for the next post. Phase 2 Sorting