29 July 2016
This is part 1 of a 2-part post about fulfilling nearly 18,000 Scythe rewards. Part 2 will be rate each of the fulfillment companies; expect that post the week of August 8.
As I write this post, our fulfillment company in France should be sending the last few copies of Scythe, concluding a lengthy shipping process. It’s July 29, 2016, and our original estimated delivery month was August 2016. Not bad.
Our general method for fulfilling Kickstarter rewards is detailed here, but here’s the rough idea: We freight ship games in bulk to 5 fulfillment centers around the world, and those fulfillment centers send out the rewards. We’ve used this method with various iterations since our first Kickstarter project, Viticulture.
I tried some new things this time and learned a lot, so I thought I’d share those experiences with you in this post. These are roughly in chronological order.
Retailer-Fulfillment Hybrid Partnerships
Several of the fulfillment companies with whom we work also happen to be retailers. Seeing an opportunity to do something cool for backers and help those retailers, I proposed the following:
The retailer would create a special code that Scythe backers could use while shipping on their website (for any product, most likely not related to Scythe at all). That code would give the backer free shipping because their order would be placed in the same package as their Scythe rewards (which they had already paid us to ship).
I told the retailers to still charge Stonemaier for the full shipping amount, even though the increased weight likely cost us a few dollars per order. It seemed like a small amount to pay to provide this service to our backers.
Funagain Games and Starlit Citadel were the two retailer-fulfillment companies who opted in to this idea, and between them I think they got about 150 orders. I liked how this worked out, and I’d do it again.
A number of backers asked if we would provide the IDs for the ships carrying Scythe around the world so they could track them on sites like marinetraffic.com or vesselfinder.com. I did that, and many backers seemed to enjoy it.
There are, however, two problems with providing this information. The first problem is that the locations aren’t always accurate (sometimes by hundreds or thousands of miles).
The second problem is that the information can be a bit misleading to backers. They might see a boat about to arrive at port, and they think, “I’m going to get my game tomorrow!” In reality, the shipment has to be unloaded, processed through customs, trucked to the fulfillment center, processed, packaged, and shipped.
That said, I would provide this information again, noting those caveats up front (which I did this time too, though it didn’t always seem to matter).
When the games were on the boats, I was able to get a fairly accurate estimate as to when backers would receive their games. This is important information, particularly since we were delivering 1-2 months early, as I needed backers to give me an address where the game wouldn’t sit on their front porch for a week.
So I made a big deal out of it. I posted a project update with the word “Important” in the title. I used Kickstarter’s address update system, which sends an e-mail to every backer. I also contacted our pre-order customers via Mailchimp.
Overall, people responded well. We got about 1500 address updates, 750 of which turned out to be different than the address we already had on file (ideally we would only edit addresses that actually need updating).
However, a few weeks later, as soon as Scythe actually started to ship, we received hundreds of address updates. Backers, I gotta say, it really complicates things when I’ve already sent my final shipping spreadsheet to the fulfillment companies if we then have to edit individual addresses. It slows everything down and significantly increases the number of errors.
So please, please update your address the minute you get that address update request. If you use a different e-mail for Kickstarter than you do for daily life, either stop doing that or start checking that e-mail on a regular basis.
Winning and Losing with Macros
The last time I wrote a post about updating addresses, I mentioned that I did it manually. When people learned about this, several programmers contacted me to offer to create an address update macro for Excel. I wrote about that here.
I ran the macro, spot-checked it, and sent the final spreadsheets to our fulfillment centers. Then packages started to ship to Canada, and a backer contacted me to say that their game was going to an outdated address. I checked, and he was right.
After closer examination and a flurry of emails, I realized that the macro had a flaw. It only updated the first 100 addresses (the ones I had spot checked). So we fixed the macro, ran it again, and dealt with the consequences of a few shipments in Canada going to the wrong place.
I love the macro and would use it again, but next time I’ll spot check throughout the entire spreadsheet instead of just the beginning.
Postal Strike in Canada
One delightful surprise was the threat of a postal strike in Canada. When we learned about this, I had some great talks with Starlit about what it meant and what we could do to avoid the strike. For a number of shipments, we paid 2-3x the expected shipping fee just to get the packages to backers before the strike began.
Well, to my knowledge, the strike never happened, so we got all excited and worried about nothing. I do want to tip my cap to (a) all the patient backers who were very calm about maybe not getting their games for another month and (b) Startlit Citadel, who were absolutely awesome throughout the entire process.
Each fulfillment center followed our instructions to “pack games really well at any cost” to varying degrees of success (or lack thereof–I’ll discuss this on Part 2). But I can say that across the board, no matter how well games were packed, couriers inevitably managed to damage some of them in transit.
For any backer who needed a replacement box (which was sometimes a judgment call on my part, depending on the level of damage), I tried something new this time, as there really is no such thing as a spare box. We don’t have empty boxes laying around. To obtain a box, you have to remove it from an unopened game, which turns an expensive game into nothing but replacement parts.
First, I asked the backer not to open the game. Second, I asked the fulfillment center to send them a replacement game, along with a packing slip to return the game to the fulfillment center (or to one of our replacement parts helpers). The fulfillment center paid for shipping if it was their fault; if it was the courier’s fault, Stonemaier paid for shipping (and yes, the courier should pay for shipping, but it takes a ton of time to get compensation from a courier for even a single package).
This system worked quite well, and I’d do it again.
When a fulfillment center is shipping 5,000-10,000 orders, it takes time. Not everyone is going to receive their rewards simultaneously. Fulfillment centers try to make the shipping process go as quickly as possible by shipping similar orders all at once (i.e., all orders containing exactly 1 edition of the game and 1 bonus pack), so even if your neighbor received their game, yours might still be a week or two away.
And that’s okay.
I saw so many comments and messages from backers saying, “I know someone who got their game. Why haven’t I received mine?” Or, even worse, “I live in X state/country, so my game should be shipped to me before someone in Y state/country–it’s not fair that their game was shipped first.”
Instead of asking those questions, please just look at recent project updates to see the estimated delivery range. If the delivery range is July 2-16 and it’s July 9, do you really need to ask that question?
I wish I could end on a high note, but I have to be honest: Shipping Scythe has been exhausting, draining, and discouraging. I could not be more eager for this process to be over.
Is it because there are so many copies of Scythe to send? Sure, that’s a big part of it. It didn’t seem any harder up front because sorting a spreadsheet with 18,000 entries isn’t all that different than sorting a spreadsheet with 1,000 entries. But on the back end, the sheer amount of customer service required to handle a fulfillment this big has eaten away almost 2 months of the year.
The most discouraging part is that we worked so hard to deliver Scythe early, and aside from a few nice comments, it hasn’t seemed to matter to backers. In fact, it has somehow made things worse in terms of backer expectations. Logically, backers should be more patient because they weren’t expecting to get the game until August. But the prospect of delivery early has not brought out the best in people.
You may have sensed a more negative tone in my blog posts over the last month, and this is the source. It’s really weighed on me at a time when I should be elated–Scythe was #1 on the BGG hotness list for an entire month, many people who receive it seem very happy, and again, we delivered early! But I can’t wait for fulfillment to finally be over, and I don’t know if I’ll do it again due to the lack of control I have over fulfillment centers, the disheartening backer responses, and the impact on Stonemaier Games’ resources (time, money, etc). It has defeated me.
I’ll be back in a few weeks with a full evaluation of each of the fulfillment companies we used: Insights from Fulfilling Scythe, Part 2