15 January 2014
It’s been a wild ride over the last few months while shipping Euphoria to 4,765 Kickstarter backers worldwide. If you haven’t read anything else I’ve written about worldwide order fulfillment, I would recommend that you first read this entry.
Shipping Euphoria has been an amazing learning experience for me, and I want to share what I’ve learned with other Kickstarter creators. This will probably be a long post, but hopefully you find it helpful at the right time for your project.
I believe it’s a Kickstarter creator’s responsibility to find the best, most affordable way to ship their product to their backers. Period.
Ever since I posted the blog entry titled How to Provide “Free” Shipping Worldwide on Kickstarter: A Comprehensive Guide, I’ve heard grumbling from other project creators about backers who send that link to them and ask why they can’t offer better shipping rates.
I get it, I really do–if my backers didn’t like what I was doing, and they kept sending me link from some random dude’s blog to me, I might get a little annoyed too. The thing is, though, I like when my backers push me to be a better project creator, and I bet you do too. Change can be a little annoying, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
There are two points that those other project creators have said to me a number of times, so I want to address them here:
- “Shipping isn’t free, so why did you say it’s free?” Here’s the deal: Shipping is never free, not for any project–that’s why it’s in quotes in the title of my blog entry about shipping. Shipping is often included on Kickstarter. Look at my reward description on the Euphoria project page: “US, Canada, and European Union only (free shipping & customs included).” You may not believe it, but I condone charging backers for shipping. You shouldn’t subsidize shipping for certain regions and not others. Instead, level the playing field by using a variety of solutions so that backers spend as little as possible on shipping.
- “You can use Amazon fulfillment because you sold thousands of games, but most Kickstarter creators only sell a few hundred games. Your shipping solution is thus impossible for most projects.” Au contraire, my friends. Amazon fulfillment centers accept case-packed items, not just big pallets of games. So as long as you follow their very specific guidelines for packages, even if you only sell a handful of products to backers in Canada and in the EU, you can consolidate those products in a shipment to Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk and have them send out the products at a fraction of the cost. Note that this is more of a backup than anything else–hopefully you’ll be able to sell at least 100 products to backers in Europe. If you base your shipping prices on the Amazon fulfillment method from day one on your Kickstarter campaign, you have a much greater chance at attracting those 100 backers. Plus, you’ll be shipping from within the EU, which in itself is a great service to EU backers (and Canadian backers for Amazon.ca shipments).
My point is, the solutions are out there. I know it’s a little daunting. But these are the responsibilities that come with being a Kickstarter creator–from the minute you decide to launch a campaign until, well, forever, you are a business owner.
Last, let me be clear that my solution is not the only solution. There are lots of different ways to fulfill orders. Find the one that’s the best for your product and your backers and implement it.
Amazon Multi-Channel Fulfillment Tips
I discussed why we use Amazon multi-channel fulfillment in my previous post, so I won’t go into that here. But I did want to add a few tips I’ve learned from shipping Euphoria:
- Make lots of extra Kickstarter games. I made about 150 extra Kickstarter copies of Euphoria to account for missing and damaged games. Guess how many I have left of those extras? 17 (no, they’re not for sale) [UPDATE 1/19: about 45 deluxe and supreme copies mysteriously showed up at Amazon. I’m not quite sure where they came from, but I’m glad we have a little more buffer room now!] The last thing you want is to not be able to fulfill your Kickstarter rewards because you didn’t make enough games. Also, Amazon is not good at telling you when a package is returned to their fulfillment center. So you might think you’ve fulfilled all backer rewards, and a month later you get an e-mail from a backer saying that they never received their product. You track it, and sure enough, it was returned to Amazon. So you better still have a Kickstarter version to send them.
- Have replacement boxes. Amazon actually does a really good job of packaging products…for the most part. Out of the 5,300 games we shipped via Amazon fulfillment, I think I heard from about 20 backers that their games were damaged in transit. So what do you do? We didn’t have replacement boxes, so we asked backers not to ask for replacements if there was just a little ding or dent. But some boxes are completely mangled. So in the future, Panda will send us replacement game boxes packed to the brim with replacement parts (credit to Chris Matthew at Panda for thinking of that).
- The fewer versions of the game, the better. I’ve written about this before, but I want to reiterate it from the shipping perspective because fulfillment centers can mess up and send backers the wrong version of the game even if they have different bar codes. If you have 2 versions of the game, it’s rarely a big deal–maybe someone gets slightly more than what they paid for, or they get slightly less and you send them replacement parts. But what if you have 5 versions of the game? Or 10? Every little mistake creates a ripple effect on your time and your funds. Reduce the probability for error by having as few version of the product as possible.
- It’s a bit tricky to use Amazon’s bulk upload spreadsheet for orders containing multiple SKUs. If you upload a spreadsheet with two identical rows (i.e., the same address, name, order number, etc) except for different SKUs on each row, they will consolidate the two rows into one order. I’ve confirmed through a combined Tuscany/Treasure Chest shipment that this works.
- Dated order IDs are really helpful. This is a neat little trick I learned when assigning order IDs. Put the date in the order. That way when the product is shipped, you can see from the notification e-mail you get from Amazon how long they took to ship the product after you entered it. Also, when a backer asks you when you shipped their reward, you can tell right from the order ID. The order IDs are by far the best way to locate rewards you’ve shipped through Amazon, so make sure you have a good system for them. The format I use for a shipment sent on December 17, 2013 is: 1217130000 (the second order I ship that day is 1217130001 and so on).
- How to isolate and fix shipping errors. When you upload a bulk order to Amazon, there is a good chance that Amazon will report a few errors to you. You’ll download this ugly text file that doesn’t make any sense. Here’s the trick to figuring out what that file means: Select all, copy, and and paste it onto a spreadsheet. Suddenly it’ll make perfect sense. All you have to do then is fix and manually re-upload each of the orders that had errors (you don’t need to cancel them or re-enter any of the others).
- Shoplocket. It’s more profitable for me when a backer orders a game from my website via ShopLocket than from my Amazon store (due to Amazon’s fees). I continue to really like what ShopLocket is doing, and I look forward to having them incorporate an Amazon API so that orders through ShopLocket will automatically place a multi-channel fulfillment order on Amazon (right now I have to manually enter them). Unlike other payment processing systems, ShopLocket specifically focuses on post-crowdfunding sales, so their platform is catered to Kickstarter creators. If you contact Rajen at ShopLocket (email@example.com) and ask for the Stonemaier discount, he’ll give you a nice discount. (Stonemaier doesn’t get any kickbacks from this–it’s just something we asked ShopLocket to offer so that we could save money for fellow project creators.)
I didn’t write much about Amazon.co.uk in my previous shipping entry because I hadn’t used them. Now I have, so I can vouch for them.
I’ll say this: I don’t speak German, so using Amazon.de has been difficult. Google Chrome translates the site automatically, which is great, but I’m always a little worried that I’ll press the wrong button and tell Amazon.de to destroy all of my games. However, you should still use Amazon.de for games headed to Germany, because it’s really cheap to ship within Germany.
However, for all other products–Kickstarter or retail–you should send them to Amazon.co.uk. They’ve done a great job, although the did send a few supreme games to deluxe backers and vice versa (not many, but enough to make me wonder if they had a faulty bar code reader). However, they swiftly reimbursed me for any of those mistakes.
Important note: Make sure to mark your games as 14+ and include the CE symbol on them.
Here’s why you should use Amazon.co.uk instead of Amazon.de for all non-German EU shipments:
- English. You speak English, they invented English…it’s just easier this way.
- Speed. If your product is shipping directly from China, it’ll get there faster than Amazon.de (about 7 days faster).
- Retail Sales. If you intend to leave some of your product at Amazon for people in the EU to buy, Amazon.co.uk is better. I actually just learned that today from a helpful customer named Upkar who informed me that if he buys a product valued at $41 or more from them, they ship for free to most countries in the EU. Apparently Amazon.de doesn’t do that for non-German customers. [Update: Amazon.co.uk is starting to charge for some of these orders.]
- Competence. If you use the shipping company I used, Dimerco–and you should, because they’re an absolute joy to work with (contact Justin at Justin_Bergeron@dimerco.com and tell him I sent you)–for your products to get to Amazon.de, they have to go through a company called ITG in Germany that almost killed my soul in December. I’ve never experienced that level of incompetence. Dimerco was awesome throughout the entire process, but they were at the whim of ITG, and they will continue to be (they said it was an anomaly and that ITG is usually fine, but I can’t risk it. My backers come first, not ITG).
- Ireland: For some reason, copies of Euphoria shipped from Amazon.de to Ireland took nearly a month to arrive. That’s ridiculous. I shipped a package to Ireland from Amazon.co.uk the other day, and it took 4 days to arrive. Much better.
- Registration. As I discuss on the original shipping entry, registering a company in Germany is really tough, so instead you have to find an importer of record to sign for your games and pay for the taxes before you reimburse them. I’m very fortunate that a backer stepped up after the Viticulture campaign to serve in this role. In fact, another backer has stepped up to serve in this role in the UK too, which is awesome. But, there might be a better way for most other creators, at least for the UK: Register your company in the UK. It’s fast, cost-effective, and you can do it. Full credit to Phil at 5th Street Games for figuring this out, and I’ll let him explain how you can do it below:
After following the link above, click on the ‘Register for VAT’ link in the right-hand column. Just follow the prompts and you’ll be registered in about 5 – 10 minutes.
Once VAT number registration clears, you can register with Amazon.co.uk. You can then send shipments to them and utilize their Fulfilled By Amazon service for the UK and much of the EU. You need a US passport to fully activate the account.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2014: 4px has not followed my instructions for properly packaging the small shipment of Viticulture I had them handle recently, so for now I cannot recommend using this company. Agility is much better. If you have any suggestions, please contact Jamey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about this here.
For the longest time I looked for a company that would ship games directly from China to Asia and Australia. Why ship the games all the way from China to St. Louis, only to ship them back to Hong Kong or Taiwan? It didn’t make sense.
4PX is a shipping and fulfillment company in Shenzhen, China. You know what else is in Shenzhen, China? Panda Game Manufacturing. Guess who picks up packages for free from manufacturers in Shenzhen? You guessed it: 4PX.
Before I outline the costs, I want to tell you the catch: 4PX did not meet all of my expectations. It was a pleasure to work with Cindy on Euphoria (update: It’s a big company with a lot of turnover, so Cindy is no longer there, and I’ve gone through two people since then, neither of whom speak English well. There are e-mail addresses on their websites you can try to get in touch with someone who can work with you) to ship games to backers in Asia and Australia, but 4px warehouse did not follow my instructions to put padding around the games. Instead they just put them in a box (originally they were going to uses a thin plastic bag! Good thing we caught that) and dropped them in the mail. Fortunately very few games were damaged, but it could have been disastrous.
Let’s talk about costs. I created a chart to compare costs of shipping from 4PX to places where you’re likely to get backers but cannot use Amazon fulfillment centers to the cost of freight + shipping from your home in the US using USPS. I also assumed that you would use USPS packaging for all orders except when you ship the 7-game bulk package, for which I added $2 for the packing materials.
Also, if you use a fulfillment company in China, it means that you’ll be delivering to some backers over a month before US, Canadian, and EU backers get their products. That also means that those backers in Asia will get their games well before you do. Which is fine, but if they’re missing a piece in their game, you can’t replace it for quite a while. So have your manufacturer send you some replacement parts so you don’t have to tell those backers to wait a month (more on that below).
Scheduling and Timing
The Kickstarter for Euphoria ended on June 12. Panda told us that we needed to have the final files to them by June 22 if we were going to deliver games to backers by Christmas (that’s about a 6-month allocation for production, freight shipping, and individual shipping).
Overall, we came pretty darn close to meeting that goal. There was an issue with a mislabeled pallet showing up at Amazon.co.uk, which delayed the delivery of 110 games for a month. The US games got stuck at customs for a week, the Irish games took longer than they should have to arrive, and a few backers in South America still need to get their games from customs. But we got really close.
However, we really, really shouldn’t have tried to ship during the holidays. Terrible idea. Here’s why:
- The volume of incoming and outgoing shipments is exponentially higher in December than the rest of the year. This shouldn’t affect freight–your packages are fine on the ocean. But once they hit port, it’s crowded. Once they hit customs, it’s backlogged. Once they try to schedule a delivery to Amazon for fulfillment, they’re delayed. And once they ship to backers, they’re just one of a million other packages being shipped from Amazon every day.
- A lot of people travel over the holidays. That means they won’t be at their normal address to receive their package. It increases the chances the package will be stolen or not be delivered at all. Backers can update their addresses for the holidays, but then you’re constrained to a very tight window to get the game to the correct address. I suspect this might be an issue for EU backers in August as well, as that’s when many Europeans travel.
- People are counting on the games as gifts. If you say you’re going to deliver by Christmas and you’re one day late, you just missed Christmas. That’s not just for gifts, but also for retailers who back your product and expect to have it by Christmas for their customers. So if you want to deliver by Christmas, you should really aim for late November delivery so there’s no chance you’ll miss that deadline.
- You want your games in retail stores before Christmas. If you’re running a business, that’s just a fact. Thus you need to deliver games to backers well before Christmas so you can enter your games into distribution channels in mid-November–that way they’ll hit stores in early December and you can. Being a successful Kickstarter creator means having a retail plan, and Christmas should be part of it.
- End-of-year best-of lists. This is unique to games, but it’s worth mentioning. Euphoria is a 2013 game, but it didn’t reach most reviewers until 2014. Thus they’re all just now reviewing it (it’s January 15 in case you’re reading this in the future). So it’s too late for best-of-2013 lists, but Euphoria isn’t eligible for best-of-2014 lists. So it’s kind of in this dead zone for reviews, which isn’t good, because many, many gamers look to reviewers for their purchasing decisions.
Conclusion: Don’t ship in December. Ship in October, or November at the latest. You can promise December shipping, but that’s really a buffer month just in case things go wrong.
Starlit Citadel: A Solution for Canadian Shipments
One other solution that I recently learned about for Canadian shipments is Starlit Citadel. You might know that name from their series of fantastic game overviews and reviews (Euphoria’s is here), but they’re primarily a retailer in Vancouver. They’re expanding their services to include Kickstarter fulfillment. Although I haven’t used their service, I thought it would be worth sharing with you if you’re interested in a more personal level of service than you’ll get from Amazon.ca. Here’s what Kaja from Starlit Citadel has to say:
If a pallet of goods is shipped to us in Vancouver, BC, we will break it down into individual orders and ship them directly to Kickstarter backers. As all of the stock would be shipping out almost immediately, there’s not storage cost. We would charge the following rates to ship 1 simple order per backer (1-2 individual games, or a pre-made bundle containing multiple items), totaling 2kg or less, anywhere in Canada:
- Receiving cost: $20.00/hour, including unpacking all of your games, and inspecting them for damages. We can receive roughly $1000 worth of goods in 1 hour.
- Handling cost: $3.00/order, including collecting items, packing them with appropriate padding, creating a shipping label, and sending tracking details to the recipient.
- Shipping cost: $13.00/order if packed in a 13″x10″x4″ box (fits standard-sized Euro games like Pandemic, Puerto Rico), or $14.00/order if packed in a 12″x12″x4″ box (fits standard Fantasy Flight Games, and larger Euros like Dungeon Petz, Euphoria). This covers Canada Post Expedited Parcel service, which ships to Ontario/Quebec in 4-5 business days, and across the country in about 1 week. Shipping is fully insured, and we would be responsible for missing parcels, damaged goods, etc.
Other services that we can provide for an additional charge include handling cross-border shipping and brokerage for the initial shipment (we have the option of using a shipping address in Blaine, WA and bringing stock across ourselves), processing more complex orders (multiple tiers of custom backer rewards, etc), and handling backer support within Canada by sending out replacement parts for defective copies. The above is a basic estimate for our most simple service, and we’re happy to discuss every designer’s specific needs with them and providing a customized quote.
Thanks Kaja! If you’re interested in this service, you can contact Kaja at email@example.com. If you do use this service, I would recommend shipping your Canadian games directly from China to Vancouver (if applicable). You don’t want to pay customs twice by shipping the games to the US and then trucking them up to Canada.
UPDATE: James Mathe of Minion Games wrote a retrospective about the shipping process for several of his projects here. It’s definitely worth a read.