An interesting thing happened at the Gordian Project this Christmas. We had Christmas shoppers! This may not sound too startling, considering Christmas just passed, but this year's Christmas crowd was different from years passed. In March of 2008, Gordian Project launched OutdoorPros.com. This Christmas, with OutdoorPros.com, we've uncovered some really great opportunities for good solutions.
For a few years, with PlumberSurplus.com, we had successfully navigated Christmas shopping without too much disruption to normal work and without the need to significantly augment our staffing or resources in customer service. With the addition of OutdoorPros.com, however, we were facing an entirely new animal. I have worked in retail before. I remember the days when I worked at the Gateway Country store selling computers to people who lined up like cows at Christmas. It was busy, it was crazy, and gifts flew out the door. But customers that came into our store at least knew that when our door was closed, we couldn't be much help to them. Even though Gateway was, at the time, a multichannel retailer, I didn't see much in the way of integration of the different customer bases (online vs. walk-in traffic). The customers’ expectations were, I'm sure, very different about how Christmas gift orders should be handled. This year, with OutdoorPros.com, we learned about the customer expectation during a busy holiday on a site that offers more gift-oriented wares.
PlumberSurplus.com gets busier in November and December with folks dressing up their homes to be ready for Christmas. We also sell some items that could be gift items, like a nice shower head, a towel warmer or a nice drill/saw combo. But, for some reason, PlumberSurplus.com customers seem to plan really well for the holiday. OutdoorPros.com customers, on the other hand, have a very different up front expectation. Customers want a really great deal, they want to know what is in stock or what the lead time is going to be. They want to know when it will ship and how long it will take to get to them, they want tracking information when it ships, or a backorder update when it doesn't ship. They want it to be guaranteed because it's a Christmas gift. These are completely reasonable expectations and, for us, really great opportunities to improve. If you control 100% of your inventory and fulfillment, envisioning solutions to these customer needs are easily in focus. If, however, you control only some or none of your inventory and fulfillment and rely on strategic partners, and you haven't worked out solutions to the above customer pains, you may be due for some lumps around Christmas.
Also, our volume of inquiries for our OutdoorPros.com property easily quadrupled for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. It was not unexpected that our volume would balloon, but we didn't expect the kind of volume we were getting in terms of customer inquiries. It's a week into January 2009 and I can see our inquiry volume back at October levels. Concurrent with our unexpected explosion of the volume of inquiries were some staffing issues. We had some personnel changes for various reasons. A number of factors contributed to a poor staffing situation and we ended up providing a poor customer experience to a number of customers who had to wait extra time for a reply to voicemails and emails (this is my public apology... I am truly sorry to any and all that were forced to wait.). We did come together as a team and even pulled some resources from other departments to get the job done, but it's no excuse for not properly resourcing the customer service department during the busiest time of year. It's not easy to find and train qualified reps in a short amount of time, so we should have done this long before.
We found that when working with customers whose orders were filled by one of our strategic partners, we hadn't planned well enough for meeting the above customer needs on those orders. This coupled with our poor resourcing of the customer service department and we had not prepared well for a busier-than-expected Christmas season. I will chalk it up to "lesson learned" and plan for the extreme rush for our next Christmas season. This is going to be especially important as we expand our offering and even launch new sites with more gift-oriented products.