It is the holiday season and there is lots of shipping going on. Online retailers should be at their best. But my experience with two sites show huge differences between what should be two successful businesses. Zappos was its usual stellar self. Chapters, the Indigo bookstore, failed to meet even my low expectations.
This is not a Christmas shipping story. It just happened that I had two things I wanted to purchase and both were to be purchased and shipped in December. The failure, for me, is the process of fulfilling orders.
Chapter’s: Slower than Molasses in Winter
The first purchase was a Moleskine notebook. I found it online with Chapter’s but I long ago lost any faith that they would ship properly. I figured their in-store approach might be better. Instead of having it shipped to me, the notebook would be sent to my nearby store for me to pickup. When I checked out, though, I was notified that it would take 9 to 11 business days. That meant, best case, I would have it on December 21. Canada is on a 5 day holiday then, so the next business day would be December 27.
It is hard for me to get my head around shipping or movement of goods in Canada. If something is in stock, there is no good reason for it to take 9 days to get anywhere in the country. I received a confirmation that the order had been received 2 days later and decided that I’d just cancel the order and head to the physical bricks-and-mortar store. I did that the next day.
Why not just go to the store in the first place? I don’t enjoy crowds, the experience of shopping, the upsells, the disorder of stores. So I went, found the notebook, bought it, and left. Another lunch break used up.
But Chapters doesn’t automatically cancel orders. Two days later, I received an e-mail that the package had shipped. Now the 9 to 11 business day count was tolled, meaning it would be January before it turned up. I laughed out loud, though, when the next day I received an e-mail that the cancellation couldn’t be completed. Duh.
Zappos: Speed of Light
The next day, I decided to send a package to a family member in the US. Again, no specific deadline and, like my Chapter’s order, I used the standard free shipping option. I received an e-mail confirming the order the same day. Naturally.
The package was shipped the next day. It was received the day after that.
What’s Going On?
I have lived in Canada for 5 years now. The shipping is, for the most part, terrible. It is expensive and slow. The postal system sets the stage. We have had postal carriers stick slips on the door for packages even though we’re home. We’ve stopped the carrier and they hadn’t actually brought the package, but assumed people weren’t home.
So the shipping system can’t really be blamed on Chapters. Even Zappos gave up trying and closed it’s Canadian online store. We used to borrow DVD’s from Zip.ca and they shifted their return process to allow customers to indicate when they posted the DVD back. Otherwise customers had to wait for Canada Post to deliver the DVD, which wasn’t reliable.
The fulfillment process for Chapter’s seems to be out of date. My guess is that it’s probably predominantly a manual process. So e-mails are processed during typical business hours, even when they might be put into an automated process.
But I can’t wrap my head around the “in-store” function. If you purchase something from Best Buy‘s Canadian Web site, you can have it delivered in-store. Someone walks out onto the floor, and pulls it off the shelf for you to pick up later.
I can understand if a particular Chapter’s store doesn’t have a given book but I was able to pick one up the next day from a store less than an hour from my house. I would expect shipments of books and other merchandise are arriving daily. It would seem to me that there would be a way – like public libraries that share books between branches – for inventory to shift between stores. I’m sure there is but that perhaps Chapters doesn’t do it.
It may just be that Canadians have lowered expectations for e-commerce. If you go to Home Hardware, for example, you can’t buy anything on their site. You can create a shopping list to print out and take with you. But your Home Hardware store may or may not have the item. They have all of the elements of a good e-commerce site except integration and the commerce part.
Lowes.ca, Walmart.ca, and Amazon.ca are good examples of U.S. retailers who have Canadian-style e-commerce sites. Bestbuy.ca has rocketed forward in a usable Web site in the last 12 months and is one of my favorite Canadian online stores. Amazon.ca’s content seems somewhat better – it’s mostly just an eBay-like “not sold here” store – but it’s fulfillment is very good. More and more, I’m finding books there at prices that are competitive with U.S. booksellers. If I can find it on the Canadian site, shipping is very fast. For Lowes and Walmart, I go to the dot-com site to do my research and then head to the physical store if I need to get something.
Bad Product Metadata
Poor shipping options. Lackluster e-commerce options. The last thing that seems common is the terrible search and use of metadata and facets. I didn’t notice this until I started to see faceted search on the Canadian e-commerce sites. It may also be a problem with the US but I have less experience in recent years.
The poor use of search facets – “narrow by” options often on the left side of search results – has meant that I no longer use them. What I was finding was that I could scroll through 100 items and find 20 that met a particular facet. But if I activated the facet, and narrowed by search results, I’d only end up with 5 or 10. Whoever was inputting the inventory into the product management system wasn’t consistently applying the metadata. There have even been times when the facet was in the product’s name – “hard drive” for example – and it didn’t appear when the facet was selected.
I’m even less likely to check Chapter’s Web site – and I’d never visit a store off the cuff – than I was before. It was already a last option for finding information online. It’s not clear to my why some large companies can do e-commerce so well and others so poorly. It’s not a Canadian / U.S. thing, although the banking system, customs, and regulatory issues certainly contribute to the weak showing of U.S. companies in the Canadian online market. Maybe it just means that companies like Chapters are not very effective and, like weak competitors, will eventually fix their problems or be bought by a company that knows what they’re doing.