29 January 2015
If this is your first time reading one of my entries about crowdfunding reward fulfillment, it’s probably better to start with these entries, which describe the process in detail. Then come back to this one to read all the mistakes I made this time around and how you can prevent them.
Shipping is a humbling experience.
I’ve now shipped over 10,000 Kickstarter rewards over the course of 4 tabletop game projects. Every time I make dumb mistakes and learn something new as a result.
I’ve spent the last few months shipping Tuscany and the Treasure Chest worldwide to over 6,000 backers. The process still isn’t completely done due to a problem in Germany (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it’s time for me to share these mistakes and insights.
- If a company fails you once, it’s not worth the risk to use them again. I learned this lesson with two different companies, 4px in China and ITG in Germany. 4px packed packages poorly for Euphoria and ITG was super slow and incompetent at transferring Euphoria from port to Amazon.de. I got assurances from both of them that they would do better. They did not, and my backers have suffered as a result. That’s on me for returning to those companies.
- Don’t ship to backers in November or December. Period. Sometimes I have to learn a lesson more than once before it sticks. Trying to ship to backers in November and December is a bad idea because it’s the season when everything goes wrong. Ports get backed up. Workers at fulfillment centers barely pad packages because they’re trying to get them out the door as soon as possible. Couriers toss boxes from their truck instead of placing them on your front door. Theft goes up. People travel and aren’t at their regular address. The list goes on. It’s simply not worth the trouble. From now on, I will never estimate or attempt fulfillment in November or December.
- Precision is incredibly important when using the Stonemaier Method. Back in November, we air freighted a bunch of products to Amazon.ca for fulfillment. Mostly this was part of a special reward level on the Treasure Chest campaign that guaranteed delivery in December. The problem is that I miscalculated the number of items (coins and stars) I needed for that delivery, and some backers had to wait another 2 months for their items. If you’re going to use the Stonemaier Method–shipping in bulk to fulfillment centers around the world–you need to be incredibly precise. The numbers must be correct, and you need add a 10-15% buffer to make up for any mistakes you make.
- Consolidated shipments save money. We finished the Tuscany campaign in April and followed it with a Treasure Chest campaign that ended in July. Even though I thought Tuscany would be ready to ship out of China in September, followed by the Treasure Chest a few months later. However, on a whim I included a question in the Treasure Chest survey asking backers if they also backed Tuscany. A few months later, the Treasure Chest was actually ready before Tuscany (1-2 weeks before), so we shipped it out in the same freight shipments as Tuscany, saving money on freight. Because of that survey question I was able to combine orders from backers and save on individual shipping too.
- Request phone numbers just in case. I almost didn’t include a phone number question on the backer surveys for Tuscany and the Treasure Chest because no fulfillment service had required it up until that point. However, I’m glad I did, because all of the non-Amazon services greatly prefer or require a phone number. I would even include the phone number for Amazon in the future, just in case it helps couriers get in touch with hard-to-find backers. I would recommend that you ask international backers not to include “+” before their phone numbers, as it turns into a formula on spreadsheets.
- Request tax IDs from backers in South America if you use Agility. I don’t really know why this is necessary, but Agility (a fulfillment service in China) required all South American backers to provide their tax ID, or “CPF.” I probably will only use Agility for shipping to Asia in the future (see list at the end of this entry), but if you’re considering them for South America, get the CPF on the backer survey so you don’t have to hunt it down later.
- If you manufacture in China, put “Made in China” on the box. We’ve included this in the past, but somehow it didn’t happen for Tuscany or the Treasure Chest. “Made in China” isn’t on the box. For customs, this is a BIG problem. Please don’t make the same mistake we did.
- Limit products per pledge based on carton size. This has been on my mind as I’ve been preparing for the Between Two Cities campaign. Bulk pledges are great for backers–they only have to pay shipping once, so they can split that cost among their friends. However, we definitely lost money on some of those orders when they expanded beyond one carton of products. Once you have more than one carton, your shipping price increases significantly. The only way to address this is to limit each pledge to the number of units that can fit into one carton. Backers can still make more than one pledge, but they will need to pay the shipping fee more than once. It’s annoying, but creators should not lose money on individual shipments. If you have retail backers, you can still sell in larger bulk quantities, but price it out and charge for shipping accordingly.
- If you ship wooden products to Australia, you MUST include a fumigation certificate. All of our games have wooden products, and we didn’t realize how strict Australia was about fumigation until the games arrived at customs and couldn’t get through for weeks. It’s a big deal there, and it’s absolutely not worth the risk to not have your wooden components fumigated before they leave the factory.
- New Zealand is not the same as Australia. In the past, I’ve grouped these two countries together for fulfillment pricing and solutions. But as you can see here, it’s much more expensive to ship to New Zealand than Australia, even from Australia. I’ve found that the best method is to ship individual packages directly from a service in China like Agility.
I use Amazon fulfillment in the US, Canada, the UK, and Germany for the bulk of our fulfillment. Here are a few points specifically about Amazon.
- Amazon fulfillment has gotten better (but see final point below). The last time I wrote one of these entries, Amazon could not ship to APO and AE addresses (US armed forces) or Puerto Rico–now they can. They also added a function to allow for multi-channel fulfillment of media items (books, CDs, and DVDs) to pretty much any country. If your products fall into those categories, you could ship to a single Amazon fulfillment center and have them take care of worldwide fulfillment. Also, I can now confirm that Amazon’s bulk order spreadsheet allows you to input multiple SKUs for a single location. So if a backer should get Game A and Book B, you enter a line item for Game A, then a separate line item for Book B (different SKU, same order number and address). You can sort your spreadsheet and do this in big chunks; however, be VERY careful that you update the SKU and the quantity.
- Specify special packaging when creating the original shipment. I shipped thousands of Tuscany Collector’s Editions through Amazon, and they hardly ever packed them well (see graphic below). I tried to get Amazon to pack them better, but I learned that the only comprehensive solution is to specify special padding and packaging ($0.37/unit) when you make the original shipment. I would highly suggest doing this for any limited edition or collector’s item.
- Check for returns on Amazon. One of my previous concerns about Amazon is that sometimes customers won’t receive their rewards, and Amazon doesn’t report this to you. Then you get an e-mail from the customer a month or two later saying that they never got their rewards. However, I’ve since found that you can generate reports through Amazon to let you know about returned packages. Click on “Reports” at the top of the page, then “Returns” in the left sidebar. Select a date range and you can see all returned items. Also, speaking of returns, let backers know that if they don’t want a package they receive, they can write “return to sender” on it and the courier will return it to Amazon.
- Amazon.co.uk has started using local couriers…and it’s bad. In the UK, Amazon has started using a service called “Amazon Logistics” for some packages. That means that Amazon delivers the product to a local courier who promptly delivers the product to the wrong address and reports that they’ve successfully delivered it. Amazon has told me they’ve experienced quite a few difficulties with these local couriers, and they’re working on fixing it. Still…I have my concerns. If you need to use Amazon.co.uk, make sure to include backers’ phone numbers on their shipments (that might cut down on the issues), and give backers this phone number to report any issues to Amazon: 0800 496 1081.
- If you use Amazon, double check your bar codes. One of the biggest problems with the Amazon shipments has been that for some reason they’ve been shipping the metal coins instead of Tuscany Prima (two very different products). I finally realized what the problem is: We accidentally use the same bar code for those two products, and Amazon’s scanners can’t tell the difference. This is a graphic design mistake, but I should have caught it. Now I know better–if you rely on barcodes (which I get from Buy a Bar Code), double check that each one is unique before you approve the soft proofs of your product.
- Amazon Fulfillment has been dethroned. Up until recently, I thought that Amazon fulfillment was by far the best option for the US, Canada, and Europe. While I’m not dissatisfied with the service, I no longer think it is the king of fulfillment. Rather, I would much rather work with a localized service like Ideaspatcher in France, Spiral Galaxy in the UK, or Good Games or Aetherworks in Australia (see details here and here). Why is this? A few reasons. One, it’s SO much easier to set up shop with these localized services. Amazon has pages and pages of required reading to get the pallets set up correctly and the labels created, and then you have to go through several pages of setup for every SKU (for every version of Amazon you’re shipping to). If you mess up along any of those steps, your products are either rejected or stuck at a massive facility. Also, I’ve learned that Amazon isn’t really there to pack things. Rather, they’re there to ship things. So if you’re shipping something that needs to arrive in mint condition, Amazon fulfillment isn’t a great service. The localized services are so much better at all of those things. They’re easy to use, they pack products well, and they’re often almost as cost-effective. See photos below to compare shipping practices between these companies.
Based on what I learned this time around below are my recommendations (based on my experience) for which services to use for various regions and countries. I haven’t used Spiral Galaxy or some of the other localized services in the EU, but they could potentially be substituted for Ideaspatcher, just as Aetherworks could be substituted for Good Games.
- Amazon.com: US (includes Puerto Rico and APO/AE)
- Amazon.ca: Canada
- Ideaspatcher: Europe
- Agility: Asia and New Zealand
- Good Games: Australia
- USPS (if you’re in the US): South America
I would like to explore fulfillment alternatives in Canada (I’ve heard good things about Starlit Citadel and Snakes and Lattes) as well as in the US (Ship Naked? Shipwire? What’s good here?), but I’m pretty happy with the above breakdown.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, please post them in the comments below so other people can benefit from the ensuing public conversation.