Boardlandia 2020 Black Friday Aftermath
2020 Black Friday. Where to begin? Below I'll go over the good, the bad, and the ugly of our Black Friday sale. I will also go over some of the plans we have to improve upon next year. This will be quite lengthy, you have been warned. Instead of just listing the issues it will be better to get a series of events as they happened. Then I can list some of the issues after you get a background on what transpired.
I would first like to thank those that made purchases with us during this crazy time. We are truly humbled by the support we received. Yes, I'm even thanking the ones that were really awful human beings who felt the need to digitally and verbally abuse our staff via email and over the phone.
If this was your first experience with us, I am sorry for any issues you may have had. Please note this is not normally how things are.
Pre-Black Friday Preparations
Let's start with some background about what we did pre-black Friday to prepare. We ran a GenCon sale on July 27th 2020 that ran for a week. It was the first sale we ran since the pandemic. It was during that sale we realized we had severely outgrown our 1,200 square foot back area of our store and we needed to find solutions fast if we were going to be able to handle Black Friday, or any future sale for that matter.
We started the search for a warehouse and signed a lease on one (Aug. 13th 2020) not too far away from our store. We took this opportunity to invest in all new shelving, tables, bins, carts, etc. We streamlined the flow of products and orders as they move about the warehouse in their different stages in the order pipeline. Additionally we engaged our shipping partners, UPS and FedEX, to try and lower our rates.
We also engaged a packing company to run tests on our packaging methods and materials to try to get our damage rate to less than 1%. It was actually a fun process to do. We shipped mock orders to the company (the fake orders had actual games in them), and they would drop them at varying heights and angles to see what the best way to package games would be to reduce or eliminate damage in shipping. The outcome was a new set of packing machines and different air cushions. We will also be getting a little stronger boxes but we were not able to get to that before the sale and it will come in 2021.
We started operating in the warehouse the day after labor day, Sept 8th 2020.
We hired 2 new people in Sept and 2 more in Oct to help with the influx of orders. Additionally we transitioned 4 employees from our store to our warehouse. (Note: all our employees except 2 are part time). We worked out some kinks and we got into a really good flow. At this point we had a receiving area, an order staging area, racks for hold orders and pre-orders, a packaging station, a labeling station, and dedicated areas for UPS, FedEX, and USPS pickups. We also trained one of our employees to handle our customer service email account which was something Karissa had been doing by herself and it was starting to take up a majority of her time.
We decided we were ready for a test run with a large number of orders. So we had a Halloween sale to test out our Black Friday plan and validate the order pipeline within the warehouse on a large number of orders. It went off without any issues and we validated and assured ourselves that we were ready for Black Friday.
Then the day arrived...
Quick lesson on pricing in our system. Our main issue that we have always had is how to display prices. We typically discount our games so they are technically always "on sale" and our platform only has fields for a regular price and a sale price. For us the regular price is normally the MSRP of a game and the sale price is our everyday price. When we have a sale we typically just use discount codes to reduce the price in the cart.
The issue is many people just see the price listed on our site and don't realize the price they see is not the final sale price. Additionally, the app we use to sync prices with our Google ads doesn't show the proper sale price when using a code. With the BF sale this year we decided to try updating the actual sale price listed in our system. This way people could see exactly the price they would pay without having to apply a discount code. Additionally, since we didn't have a discount code, it allowed people to use any rewards coupon they may have had. Something that was not possible during all our other sales because our system only allows one discount code to be used at a time. This eliminated hundreds of email to apply rewards coupons after the fact.
This was the first hiccup in our sale, though it was one that we quickly overcame. In order to update all our products in the system (8,598 products at the time of the sale) I had to upload a spreadsheet with the new prices and let the system update. The problem was the update was not an instant process which I knew going in to it and why I started the upload at 11:15 PM central time. My past updates took about 30 minutes to update all our products. Well, the update didn't finish until 12:15 AM! So during this time we had some of our products correctly discounted and some of them not and we had orders being placed in rapid succession.
I exported all the orders during this time window and calculated the number of orders that had incorrect priced games and issued refunds for the difference that night. All was well again.
We were happy to see the orders flowing in and really happy our platform (Shopify) didn't crash. However the orders kept coming and what should have been joy turned into worry. The orders didn't stop and we quickly passed a weeks worth of orders in the first hour.
Many of you may already know this but our main business model is what we call hybrid drop-shipping. Many of the products on our site are not sitting in our warehouse but sitting in our distributors warehouse. With our new warehouse this number has shrunk but we still can't stock anywhere close to what a distributor can.
When an order is placed we in turn order the game(s) from our distributor(s). Instead of our distributors shipping the games out to you (what a normal drop shipment would be) they ship them to us and we then inspect for damage and package them with more care and padding than any distributor would.
What does this mean? It means we need to be on top of our game when it comes to ordering products to secure the products. We have many tricks up our sleeves (it helps that my main occupation is in Computer Science to automate many facets of this) to assist with this process and years of experience operating like this.
The second issue we ran in to was with the shear number of orders we couldn't order the games fast enough. A solution was created on Sunday to export all the order lines and group all games together into a spreadsheet and upload them to our distributors. We didn't do this initially because we were not aware of a hidden CSV upload function for our main distributor (Asmodee).
All said and done when our sale ended on 11/30 11:59 PM Central Time we were looking at 6 months worth of orders. Not just any 6 months of orders either, it was equal to 6 months of 2020 orders which was our highest order volume ever. It was mind boggling, and still is. We prepared for an increase but no one would have been able to estimate this level of orders. Before our sale ended we add a banner to the site stating that all orders placed Dec 1st and later would not arrive by Christmas as we knew the road ahead would be a long one...
First, one piece not mentioned yet that was looming in the background. We had a large order from 11/17 (tens of thousands of dollars) for mostly Star Wars Legion product that was delayed for many weeks from Asmodee. We found out that the main reason for the delay was because they prioritized Walmart over us along with other warehouse and staff issues. The product eventually arrived lumped in with all our Black Friday orders.
One distributor stands out above the rest...GTS. They were able to pull our orders and get them shipped to us in under a week. We had all the games unpacked, accounted for, inspected for damage, and being placed with orders the day after we received them which was Dec 5th. Other distributors followed suit and by Monday Dec 7th we had all the games we ordered...except from one distributor...Asmodee. The one we ordered the most from. We had no tracking number or anything. That then started the process of calling them multiple times a day inquiring about our order. It helps when you have the direct number to one of the two Hobby Market Sales Managers which is a step up from a regular sales manager or account manager. After many calls we finally got confirmation they packed everything and we would be getting a full semi load on the 9th.
The 9th came and we hadn't received any tracking by 11 AM so it was yet another call. We were told they had issues with UPS Freight coming to pick up the pallets. It was also around this time that UPS Freight was reporting backups in delivering. We were now looking at not getting our product until the next week. The resolution was Asmodee split up our 22 pallets and repacked them to 20 pallets and hired two independent trucking companies to deliver them to us (The trucks could only fit 10 pallets each hence the condensing from 22 to 20). They loaded up and left Minnesota that day and headed to us. They arrived at our door at 5 PM on the 9th. After having to teach the drivers, one who was in flip flops in winter, how to use a pallet jack and position pallets on lift gates we finally got all the pallets off-loaded.
The next issue was we had no room left in our warehouse to unload 20 pallets all at once. To rewind a couple days. In preparation of the shipment we went out and bought all the wire shelving on wheels that our local Sam's Club and Costco had to offer. We could fit 5 large boxes of mixed games per rack which ended up being 1 pallet fitting on 2.5 wire shelves and we purchased 16 shelves. For the curious it was shelving like this: Wire Shelving.
We Need a Bigger Boat!
Back to the issue at hand. We ended up renting a 16' x 40' storage unit that we could fit the 20 pallets in so they were not sitting outside our warehouse. We strategically unpacked and picked cases of games from pallets that we knew would ship a lot of orders. So things like Star Wars Legion, Armada, X-Wing. Most of the pallets had cases of games clearly marked so we didn't have to unload all of them at once, we just took notes on what was in the storage unit if we needed a one off game we had yet to bring in to the warehouse (I'm looking at you Inis and Klask). We had the plan in motion again and things were moving. However they were moving slow. Too slow.
We operated this way for 2 days and we came to the conclusion we needed more employees. We hired 7 extra people within 2 days and had 2 family members volunteer their time after they were done with their day jobs. Hiring more people however comes with its own challenges that caused issues as well. I'll get to that later.
Even with the extra people we couldn't move as fast as we wanted. Our goal was to ship 500 orders a day. Sadly we never hit that number. Our best single day ended up being 364 orders packed. Our current bottleneck was pulling games for orders and getting them to what we call the RTS (Ready to Ship) shelves. We then devised a new strategy.
Small Orders First
We had all our orders printed and sorted by order number. The process was, someone would take the top sheet off the stack and pull all the games for that order and then move them to the RTS shelf to be packed up. The issue here was many orders had 7+ different games on them. Some were well over 20 different games. This took a considerable amount of time to find all the games and pull them. Add in the fact that all the new people we hired didn't know games so when they see something like 'The Dark Castle' listed on an order they have no clue what to look for other than the name so they spend a lot of time scanning the shelves.
The other issue we foresaw was being able to pack the orders up quickly while still maintaining our high packing standards. Packing 5+ games in a box gets complicated and takes more time. We have an average time to pack of 3 minutes per order. But with a majority of the orders being larger orders that average time was moving up past 5 minutes.
Additionally if you recall from earlier, I mentioned we had pallets of games still not touched in a storage unit. So everything just got jammed up. We couldn't get the games off the shelf fast enough to continue to unpack the pallets and we couldn't pack them fast enough.
The solution we decided to do, which may upset some of you and I apologize but it was the only way to keep things moving, was I personally went through all the paper orders we printed and I separated them in to two piles keeping them in numerical order as I went. One pile had orders with 4 and fewer games on them and the other pile had the orders with 5 and more games on them.
We were now pulling games faster and getting orders to the RTS shelves faster. As an added benefit the people we had pulling orders were told to look at all the games in the area as they were pulling to make mental notes on where things were. This paid off big as when we got to the orders that were 5+ items the new employees were able to move much quicker than before since they had time to get used to game names and what they looked like.
The shelves were being cleared faster and we could now continue to unload games from the pallets.
We now hit our final bottleneck (and one that we never truly overcame) which was packing. The RTS shelves were filling up quick and we were adding orders to them faster than they could be packed.
Pack, Pack, Pack
Packing. One of the areas we pride ourselves on being one of the best in the business. We hate damaged games in our own personal collection and try to make sure they stay undamaged on their way to you.
Hiring new people as mentioned above posed some challenges. One of those challenges is who is allowed to pack. Normally we have a new packer working side by side with a seasoned packer for a few days. They are trained by that seasoned packer until we feel they are ready to uphold our packing standards. During this time they are also taught how to create and purchase shipping labels.
2 of the 7 new hires we were able to assign to packing which brought our total to 4 people dedicated to just packing orders. We still had people in reserve when needed like myself, Karissa, our manager, our family that volunteered, and our more seasoned employees.
We initially had one packing station and we set up a temporary second to handle the sale. We then added a 3rd packing station to allow us to have 3 people packing at the same time. Though not verified I like to think I am the #1 label maker :). I could keep up labeling packages at a rate a little faster than 3 people could finish putting together said packages.
Alas it still wasn't enough, we couldn't hit our 500 packages a day goal. At our current rates we knew we wouldn't get all the orders out to arrive by Christmas. Karissa was even in tears a few times just thinking about all the people that would be let down.
It was at this time we decided to reach out to everyone asking them if they were willing to place their order on a temp hold until after Christmas in exchange for $5 from us. 500 of you said yes you could wait. This drastically reduced the number of orders we had to ship per day as many of the people wanting to wait had multiple orders. Some even had over 10 orders they said they could wait on.
With this new plan in place we were then back on track to get everything out the door in time. Or so we thought...
About a week into the madness we started getting low on boxes. We ordered 7 pallets worth of boxes before the sale and had yet to receive them. A quick call to our box supplier and we were informed they were way backed up and it would be a few more days. We do have backups in the form of larger boxes that can be cut down to size. Cutting down takes more time and thankfully we didn't have to do it long as our shipment came a day ahead of the delayed schedule.
The real issue came when our box supplier told us we couldn't get any more boxes until 2021! Our backup plan....Uline. There is a Uline warehouse 2 hours south of our warehouse. Karissa and I hooked up our 6' x 12' trailer and throughout the sale we made three round trips to Uline to pickup boxes.
We would work at the warehouse until 12 or 1 AM then drive two hours to check in to a hotel so we could wake up early, get boxes, and drive back to the warehouse. We were able to make this work for the remainder of our needs and never had any more issues getting boxes.
On a side note, one issue we had during 2019 BF was our air bubble film. We were not able to get it shipped fast enough and ran out in the middle of packing and we had to use pre-filled bubbles (which are a pain to use and take up a ton of space). This past BF, as noted above, we had new air packing machines and we purchased a year supply of the bubble film so we never ran out.
This concludes the Black Friday journey we were on. Nothing major came up that caused us to switch gears. Below I'll outline all the other issues we encountered along the way.
Issues and Delays
Here are some of the larger issues we ran into along with resolutions.
- UPS Pickups Delayed or Missed
- There were a couple times where UPS never picked up our packages. One time was because of a grumpy driver refusing to take them all because they were "already behind" and didn't want to load them all. And the other time was unknown as to why they didn't come. In both instances we were on the phone trying to get someone from our local UPS branch to help. One would think having a dedicated rep would mitigate these issues but nope.
- A fallout to the second missed pickup (the Saturday before Christmas) was we ran out of space to put the ready for pick up packages. I ended up creating 6 pallets of ready to pick up packages and moved them into a storage unit we rented. If you are following along this would now be storage unit number 2 we rented.
- Another issue was creating labels for orders, which generates a tracking number and notifies the customer the order shipped, during times when UPS and USPS were closed. This caused people concern as they thought we were just creating tracking numbers to make them happy when in reality UPS and USPS were closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the following Saturday and Sunday. So all those order sat on our shelves waiting for pickup.
- Incorrect Games Going to Orders
- With many new employees and with the speed we were trying to move, mistakes were made when pulling games and putting them to orders. An example would be 'Phase II Clone Troopers' and the 'Phase II Clone Troopers Upgrade'. These two products were titled almost exactly the same so someone would read the first few words and call it good when they should have read the entire title of the game expansion. Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn and Sid Meier's A New Dawn Terra Incognita were another example of two games that were difficult to tell apart on a quick glance.
- In this example and all incorrect games shipped the error made it past two sets of eyes. It is also the job of the person packing the order to verify all the games.
- The remedy for this was to just re-iterate to everyone to check the full titles of games. We also called out in a list all the commonly mixed up games. For those that received the wrong game(s) we either ship them the correct game or refund them the game, whichever they desire.
- Missing Games from Orders
- Similar to the issue above with incorrect games except a majority of the times this is a mistake with the packer not checking the order. Games would just get packed up without verification on the order sheet and a game would be missed. We would most of the time find the orphan game sitting on our RTS shelf with no order around it.
- The remedy here was to remind packers at the start of their shift to make sure to check over the orders while packing to make sure all the games are accounted for.
- No Room Left in the Warehouse
- I mentioned this one above a few times. Another aspect I didn't mention was all the shipments we kept receiving daily from our distributors. Because orders never stop we have to keep ordering games from our distributors. We had pallets of games arriving daily and we couldn't keep up.
- The solution was we rented storage units from our landlord. We ended up renting 4 units total and we used our 6x12 trailer to store shipments.
- We also told our distributors to hold all our orders until we gave them the green light to ship again. We were finally able to give them the green light a few days after Christmas.
- Missing Games from Distributors
- This one was brutal. Because we couldn't open all 22 pallets from Asmodee right away we couldn't verify we received everything we ordered. It wasn't until a week later we finally finished unloading everything. The end result was 1000 games missing from the shipment.
- At the time of writing this post they still have not found those missing games. We had to re-order them and wait for them to ship to us.
- Customer Service Email Response Delays
- We had way more emails than expected. Emails were coming in at a rate of 1 per minute for 3 weeks solid. A handful of people inquired on Dec 1st right away asking where their orders was!
- Before the sale we trained one of our employees on answering emails because we knew there would be an influx. This was a hard thing to give up. Being an owner of the business Karissa had all the control over what we say to a customer and control over what she could offer to fix issues as they arose.
- Since we had an employee now in-charge of the emails we had to give her templates to go off of on what do say and do in common email subjects.
- There wasn't much of a fix here other than more training on what to say and what was ok to do to fix issues and to create an automated response when someone emailed customer service letting them know of the delays we were having.
- Damaged Games and Missing Games Emails
- When we receive a damaged game from a distributor or a game was never shipped from a distributor we normally email the customer right away letting them know of the issue and what options they have.
- Since we had so many games and orders it was very difficult to look ahead and figure out which order would not get the game they ordered. This meant emails for this type of issue were delayed until we had almost finished packing up all the orders.
- USPS Not Scanning Packages
- When we moved to using the warehouse the USPS office changed. The new office doesn't require their employees to scan the packages when they pick them up. As a result many packages never got tracking updates and they look like they just had a label created and then just sat in our warehouse. When in actuality they were picked up, most of the time the very next day after the label is created.
- The software we use to purchase and print labels does generate USPS manifests which is a single piece of paper with a single bar code that when scanned will automatically update all the packages shipped. The problem is this manifest would not generate most of the time.
- The solution was working with the company that made the software to fix the issue. This wasn't resolved until after Christmas.
- Customers Not Receiving Our Email Updates
- We had many emails from people saying they didn't see we were having massive delays when in reality we were sending updates weekly.
- No fix here but we did figure out the problem was the "Accepts Marketing" checkbox on user profiles. Many of the customers that didn't get the update didn't have that box checked. We used the same template for our delay update emails as our weekly update emails which only sends emails to subscribers.
- Missed Orders
- In preparing for order fulfillment we printed physical copies of all the orders. During this process of printing, some orders were missed.
- We didn't discover this issue until after Christmas when we received emails from customers asking where their order was.
- We still do not know how this happened and the only thing we came up with was user error on our part.
- Hiring Temp Help
- Hiring is hard right now in our area. We needed more people yesterday so we essentially hired everyone that applied. No background check, no interview, basically if you applied we reached out and asked when you could start. We were lucky to get 7 good people but truth be told we could have easily used 7 more.
- There really wasn't a resolution to this. We kept the job openings up the entire time.
- Orders Sitting on Active Shelves
- I mentioned earlier (I think) we have various shelves for different stages of an orders life. An active shelf is for an order that is waiting on a game or games before it can ship. Early on in the sale we were pulling games for orders then placing them on the active shelves while we waited for our large Asmodee shipment.
- These orders were then unintentionally passed over when the shipment came. So not only did they get passed over for about a week but they were also taking up precious space when we could have used those shelves to unpack more games.
Black Friday 2021 Plans
While not final, here are some things as of 1/11 we plan to do for Black Friday this year.
- Start the BF sale one week early.
- Such a large influx of orders over a short time is a killer. Spreading out the orders will not only allow us more time to get things packed up but will also bypass distributor logistic issues by ordering when distributors are a little slower vs when we do massive orders along with everyone else in the country.
- Secure more space.
- Ideally we would upgrade our warehouse but we signed a 2 year lease on our current warehouse. (I tried to get a 1 year lease for this exact reason but the landlord wouldn't go lower than 2).
- What really helps here is we know the total square feet that we rented in storage units so we have a really good starting point when looking to lease more space somewhere.
- Depending on how the first half of 2021 goes we will know if a full warehouse upgrade is needed or if we can just lease additional space.
- Start hiring holiday help earlier
- We normally start hiring holiday help around the end of Oct so we have a month to train them and we don't have a large payroll cost.
- We will start hiring this year in early Sept so they can have a couple sales under their belt before BF.
- Better order receiving software
- Receiving an order (or orders) from a distributor and verifying all the games in the order match the invoice / packing list can be a lengthly process. Then matching that packing list against the purchase order is more work. I have started programming an app that will allow us to upload invoices and packing slips then use barcode scanners when unloading games from boxes.
- Faster communication to customers
- Our communication to customers on damaged and missing games was, to put it bluntly, awful. We will get make sure these issues get attention immediately when encountered.
- We will also email all customers who placed orders about any delays bypassing the "accepts marketing" flag to ensure everyone that should be updated is updated.
- Larger Dumpsters
- This may sound weird but there were many times we had stacks and stacks of used cardboard sitting in the warehouse because our cardboard dumpster was full. We would fill the dumpster in a day and get it emptied the next day. One time we even had it emptied then filled it immediately while the truck was still here so he could dump it again. The company also doesn't pick up on the weekend so it would pile up.
- Better packing station layout.
- The third packing station we added was further away from the stock of boxes for packing orders than we would have liked. It would take 45 seconds to a minute to walk past stations 1 and 2 to grab the needed box size and walk back.
- More shipping box stock
- We have a plan this year to consolidate our roughly 20+ different box sizes to 10 or fewer. This will allow for less work playing board game Tetris and measuring and just being able to pick a size quicker. It will also clear up more space so we can have deeper stock of our sizes. With our new rates from UPS many of our current boxes all ship for the same price anyway.
- Hire a fulltime shipping manager
- We have grown large enough where we see the need to have a dedicated person in charge of all things packing and shipping. This person should be able to relieve us of tasks like ordering supplies, checking supply levels, working with UPS and USPS, etc. We as owners will then be able to focus on more pressing matters and make sure everything continues to run smooth.
I believe that wraps things up. There is a good chance I missed something. Each facet talked about above could have its own blog as I have really scratched the surface on many areas of order fulfillment.
If you made it this far I congratulate you and just because I can, here is a discount code for 5% off :) bf2020after
Typical exclusions apply, not valid on used games, MTG booster boxes, etc. And it can only be used once per customer and expires Jan 31st.