The ecommerce adventure continues! In my quest to provide international shipping options and reduce my dependence on Amazon, I’ve been working on getting something set-up with the online commerce website Shopify with the order fulfillment prowess of Shipwire. My goal is to have a “turn-key” system where I don’t have to manually process orders myself; that is the great advantage of using an Amazon.com ProMerchant account with their order fullfillment service. However, Amazon does not allow you to customize the storefront experience, and they do not pass along customer information for your marketing campaigns. Also, they will not ship my products overseas, and are unlikely to ever approve them given my experiences so far in contacting their customer service.
I recently wrote about the possibility of using Shipwire + Shopify, and found that this combination would, in theory, match the automation of using Amazon while saving me an estimated 10% in costs. I’ve since discovered that I’m paying almost nothing in Amazon storage fees ($80 total over 3.5 years), but this hasn’t modified the base calculation. I’m pretty excited about deploying the new system, but I’ve run into a few snags. Read onward to see what I’m dealing with.
Shipwire needs to receive inventory from me to stock one of their warehouses. I chose Pennsylvania, since it’s on the East Coast and perhaps closer to Europe. Next, I needed to send some units to the warehouse.
Amazon has a fairly streamlined process for shipping goods into their inventory system. Every item needs to be packaged and labeled with an Amazon Stock Identifyin Number (ASIN), which they provide in the form of a downloadable sticker template. Each item is them packed in quantity into a number of cartons. Each carton has a packing list (also provided by Amazon), and then you have to ship the boxes to them. Amazon has a number of “preferred carriers” that offer huge discounts on shipping; my commercial printer has some pretty good rates, but Amazon easily is half of their rate. I always use their preferred shipping partner (UPS) to save some money. After UPS delivers the boxes to one of Amazon’s warehouses, it takes a few days for it to be scanned into their inventory; you can watch the status updates via Seller Central’s Inventory Shipping Queue.
By comparison, Shipwire is slightly more streamlined. You are required to ship a single type of item per carton, but there is no packing list requirement. You can also let them set up the carrier, and they will issue you a pre-paid shipping label just like Amazon does. Shipwire’s cost was higher at $13 for a 30-pound box of 60 notebooks, versus under $10/box for Amazon’s rate.
One gotchya I experienced with Shipwire was their order consistency checking. The weight of your product, as entered in the Products section of the admin center, has to match the total number of items times the individual weight. Since Shipwire rounds up, the actual weight of the shipped box may not match. I had to mess around with the product data’s weight field to get it close enough to match. The shipping calculator and the product weight fields seem to use a different number of significant digits; entering 0.375 pounds will display as 0.4 pounds, but the original values seems to be used in calculating weight. Or not. In any case, it was a bit of a pain in the butt. Amazon’s inventory fulfillment trusts that your box weighs what you say it will, and adjusts if you underreport the weight at pick-up time, billing you accordingly. A minor nit.
Another concept that was new to me was the idea of Shipwire “special projects”. These appear to be actions that the receiving warehouse has to take if your inventory shipment requires any kind of additional handling. I didn’t think I had any need for them, so I checked “NO”, as I’d labeled everything already. My shipment arrived at their Pennsylvania warehouse around the 5th or 6th of July, and immediately plopped into PENDING status. Apparently, the first ship-in of a product IS a special project; I guess they have to set up a place to put the stuff so they can find it. The stock is expected to be ready to ship out by July 22nd, or two weeks after receiving the goods. That seems neither good or bad; Amazon will sometimes take its sweet time processing a shipment before it’s fully available. The longest was around three or four weeks, when they had to do some kind of hazardous material scan (?) on a shipment.
So that’s where I am with Shipwire. I’m waiting for the warehouse to have the goods in place, and then I can look at setting up the other shipping settings.
I had set up a DevStore under a Shopify Partner Account, which is the way that a Shopify Developer can set up store account without actually having to pay a monthly fee during the development period. Once the store is designed and filled with product, you can then upgrade the DevStore into a paid account, which allows orders to be placed. A DevStore can do everything except accept orders.
I spent several hours experimenting with my DevStore, uploading a single product and then adding three “Apps”, which are Shopify’s version of add-ons. I added the Chimpify App, which integrates with MailChimp; this is a marketing newsletter service that I like. I also installed the Shipwire App, which integrates with my Shipwire Account.
After setting up the store, I couldn’t find any place to test the Shipwire App itself. Shipwire’s documentation on Shopify integration was last updated sometime in 2010, so it no longer matched Shopify’s recently-designed interface. I issued a tweet to @shipwire to see if it worked with Shopify version 2, and also sent a customer service email to Shipwire to see if they could illuminate my problem.
I got the Shopify site set up with a product listing, fixed a bug in the CSS template, and then tried to find the Shipwire integration controls again. It occurred to me that perhaps the Shipwire App wouldn’t work because it’s related to order fulfillment; perhaps DevStores just fail silently in this case. In the process of exploring the Shopify Account Options, I got locked into a loop where I couldn’t cancel out of an “enter your credit card information” modal dialog box to access the DevStore. I entered credit card information, expecting to have some kind of choice to upgrade, but instead the account was instantly activated and made live. This was very irritating. I then saw that real-time shipment calculation is only available if you pay $179/month to Shopify; it’s not available for their cheaper plans. Hm. That puts a huge dent in my plan for automated shipping. I might as well just set up email fulfillment to my printer, and have them do drop-shipping for me.
I deleted my Shopify store, as it had been unintentionally activated. I will have to remake it. To Shopify’s credit, I immediately got a followup email from two of their customer service representatives. The first one told me that the store had been closed, and encouraged me to contact them to save the affiliate relationship; this confused me at first since I’m the developer AND the shop owner in this case. The second email asked why I had deleted the store, inviting me to tell them why I had done it and offering to restore the data. I replied with my story, and hoped it would be OK.
I’m still not sure if Shipwire integration actually works, as I was unable to test it, and it’s unclear if it requires the $179/month Shopify pricing plan. I hope this isn’t the case. The Shopify documentation refers to Shipwire’s 2010 documentation, which is out of date.
Back to Square Two
With my DevStore deleted and Shipwire integration seemingly broken, my plans for opening the new store have been delayed. I’ll have to July 22, when my notebook stock will be “ready to ship” from Pennsylvania, to figure this out. If automatic shipping cost calculation isn’t available, I’ll have to fill-in the shipping tables manually. Tedious, but it won’t cost me $179/month when I am just getting the store off the ground.
Today was disappointing, but instructive. More updates as events warrant!
UPDATE: Looking into BigCommerce and WooCommerce
BigCommerce is another e-commerce platform, a competitor to Shopify. It’s slightly cheaper, doesn’t charge a transaction fee, and integrates with Shipwire also through a third party service called Shipiro. Worth looking into.
I just spent about 90 minutes with it setting up a test product. The experience is more polished in some ways than Shopify, but the available store themes are not as refined or nice. Shipwire integration is a kind of kluge through Shipiro. From what I gather, Shipiro scans BigCommerce for fulfillable orders twice-a-day and then generates a Shipwire order. It then generates a CSV file that can be imported back into BigCommerce order system. It’s not really as automatic as I want, and it does not use Shipwire’s shipping calculation.
WooCommerce is a plugin for WordPress that appears to be very capable. You can buy add-ons to enable Shipwire integration. The main disadvantage is that I host ecommerce on my own server, which means that I have to be more concerned about website security.
While I don’t have to worry about credit card data to be “PCI-DSS compliant” (this is handled by the payment gateway, Stripe), I would have to retain some order information on my own server. This becomes a security headache that frankly I don’t want to deal with. Plus, my server is a bit on the slow side, and I might have to upgrade it. I suppose I could hire someone for a few hundred bucks to set everything up for me on the SSL side of things. That may yet be an option!