When you start a print on demand business there are three important pillars you will have to focus on: setting up your website, getting people to visit your store and getting your orders fulfilled.
Since most new business owners will start the business as a solopreneur they tend to focus most on their website traffic. Setting up the store is often quick and dirty, and for fulfillment they pick a print on demand supplier who offers fulfillment through automation. Simply create a product and upload it to your store, and when the order comes in it will be fulfilled automatically.
The downside of automated order fulfillment
A great system when you start out, right? You focus on getting people to your store, and when someone places an order everything is handled for you.
In a perfect world that would be great. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as perfect when it comes to automation, or with print on demand suppliers in general.
Let me explain.
I’m a big fan of automating tedious processes to save precious time. I’m an even bigger fan of improving the customer experience before, during and after the sales process. These two things don’t always go hand in hand.
Let’s have a look at some examples.
What if a product or a variant goes out of stock?
The most heard response I get is ‘Then it will automatically show on the website so the customer knows and I won’t have to contact them’.
Explain to me how that improves the customer experience.
Most likely, you just lost (the opportunity to) a sale.
You made a lot of effort to get that person to your website, only to tell them your supplier cannot deliver the product right now. Does that mean that nobody can deliver that product?
There are many print on demand suppliers selling the exact same product. When the item is bought you can order it somewhere else easily. Your customer wouldn’t notice the difference.
What if your supplier’s processing time goes up?
We’ve all been there or at least heard of the Q4 processing times at print on demand suppliers.Did you know this is not a Q4 related thing? In Q1 this year we experienced issues with a POD company that took about 11 days on average to ship out a flat design apparel item.
Needless to say most customers will start to reach out to customer support and ask questions or demand refunds, no matter what you state in your FAQ and shipping policy.
And I don’t blame them. It’s not their problem our supplier has issues, it’s our problem. Fortunately we use manual fulfillment and the moment we noticed it took longer than expected we shifted the orders to another supplier.
A lot of those orders were out the door before the first ones were sent out by the original supplier. The customers never knew about our challenge, and they were happy with our fast turnaround time. Yes we got some questions from the first customers, but it could have been a lot more if our orders had been automatically processed with the original supplier.
What if your supplier does not support your product page setup?
As stated before, the customer experience is important. If you want to make changes to your product page, most likely your POD supplier’s software won’t support it.
As an example, we run a store on Shopify where we use over 100 variants. On every product page we sell one design for different apparel items, in different colors and for different sizes. As you may know, Shopify limits the number of variants to 100 per product. With 8 apparel items, 8 colors and 8 sizes we need 512 combinations.
The solution? We use an app to create the necessary variant options, and we use manual fulfillment for the orders.
This way the customer doesn’t have to switch pages when they want to look at a hoodie, a t-shirt or a tank top. They stay on the page and select the item they are interested in, and are shown a mockup product image based on their selection. This way they have a better shopping experience.
How about products with personalization?
A lot of suppliers start to understand the importance of offering automated solutions for personalized products. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t as useful as they could be.
Most automated personalization options offer an option for people to only enter a line of text. The power of personalization is to be able to well…. make it personal! By offering the same simple option to everyone, they limit the options for you as a seller. It still won’t help you to stand out, but it does add something extra to your design options.
Other suppliers created an option to automatically put your orders on hold when they are sent to the supplier so you can change the design based on the necessary personalization. This is actually more useful as it gives you an opportunity to implement it into your workflows.Beware that often there is a timeframe in which you need to change the design, or it will still automatically be processed.
But especially if you have a more complicated workflow the supplier’s solutions are pretty much useless, and you’re bound to use manual fulfillment.
For instance selling a product where you need to change the design based on a picture the customer uploaded. You need to get your designer to edit the design using the uploaded picture, and when ready send it back to you, and then you (or your assistant) have to upload that design at the supplier.
The costs of manual fulfillment
The biggest reason people decide to go for automatic order processing is to save on expenses when they start their business. The question however is if the costs they save outweigh the loss in revenue from missed orders, and the lifetime value of those new customers, assuming you keep marketing to your existing customers.
And although expenses are important to keep an eye on, solely focusing on expenses will not make your business grow. Especially when you’re a solopreneur doing almost everything yourself it’s the wrong mindset to have.
Plus every business needs expenses to be able to qualify as a business. In most countries the costs you make to hire assistants is a business expense. Consult your accountant to learn how this applies to your business as rules differ per country.
So what will a virtual assistant cost you?
According to Upwork, the average hourly wage for a virtual assistant is $12-$20+ per hour.
Yes I know you can hire people for $3 an hour as well. As I said in another article: If you pay peanuts, you attract monkeys. And monkeys have a mind of their own. But if you have time to spend on the hiring process you can find a good assistant for $8-$10 /hour.
But more important: it will save you valuable time once you have trained your assistant how to handle the orders and any issues that may occur.
Yes manual fulfillment will cost money. When done right you will cover those expenses with the increase of sales and better margins and/or conversions.
In the section about the product page setup I mentioned the improved customer experience. Just by creating this setup we saved on marketing costs, created a higher average order value and increased.our conversion rates. The costs for manual fulfillment are easily covered by the extra revenue we create.
Should you switch to manual fulfillment?
If you ask me the answer in 95% of the cases would be “yes”. And not just because we’re specialized in manually fulfilling orders.
Having the flexibility to decide when, where and how your orders are fulfilled I consider to be the most important part of order fulfillment. In case something stagnates you’ll know instantly, and not depend on how quick a supplier notifies you.
And as said many times, keeping focus on the customer experience in your sales process is more important than getting the actual product delivered to the customer.
You never get a second chance for a first impression, but you can always get a replacement product delivered if necessary and build a great second impression in the process..
Can you set this up yourself? Most likely you can. Question is if you want to set it up and manage it yourself, or if you prefer to outsource it. If that’s the case you should get in touch with me to see which way The POD Partner can help you best.
Founder of The POD Partner