Learn from United By Blue Founder/CEO Brian Linton About the Challenges of Handling eCommerce Growth and Moving Distribution Centers
There’s few experiences more frustrating for a customer than receiving an online order that’s wrong or late. Knowing this, retailers put a lot of effort and sweat behind making sure that every order is delivered correctly.
Despite their best efforts though, retailers can make mistakes. It’s even easier to make those mistakes when you’re experiencing rapid growth and trying to catch up your operations.
If you’ve found yourself in a similar spot, then you’ll want to hear all about United By Blue’s recent experience with moving distribution centers halfway across the country and how they dealt with its challenges. It’s a story that many growing merchants can relate to (and learn from)!
How United By Blue Overcame their Fulfillment Challenges Brought on by Growth
As a frequent buyer of United By Blue (seriously, check out their stuff), I’ve always been impressed by their mission towards waterway conservation and sustainable outdoor apparel and bags. So when they ran a summer sale, I couldn’t pass it up. However, this sale was a little different than others. Even though I received my order without any issues, I did notice I didn’t receive any shipping/tracking emails as usual.
Then a few days later, there was email in my inbox from United By Blue Founder/CEO Brian Linton. It explained how UBB recently moved distribution centers from Philadelphia to St. Louis, resulting in order fulfillment that didn’t go as smooth as usual for customers. He explained what happened, told you what to expect next, and gave customers a chance to provide feedback about their experience.
Being both a UBB fan and marketer, I reached out to their team after receiving the apology email to get a little more insight into the challenges of moving distribution centers. Check out the interview below with Brian Linton to learn more about how UBB met their fulfillment challenges head on, while always adhering to their brand’s mission.
What were the main drivers that led to the decision to move your distribution center from Philadelphia to St. Louis?
We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people trust us and buy into this idea of sustainable apparel and waterway conservation. As we’ve grown over the last few years, we want to make sure we are providing our customers with the best experience possible. We decided that by teaming up with a professional fulfillment center, this would be the best way for us to handle that growth and maintain that high level of experience.
What were your biggest challenges of moving the center from Philadelphia to St. Louis? Were there any that surprised you the most?
Logistically, moving all of our current inventory halfway across the country while maintaining proper inventory required some strategizing. Organizationally and procedurally, we had to make sure those who would be handling and shipping our product were following the checklists and protocols we outlined. Maintaining a superior customer experience is important both for presentation and sustainability. For example, as part of our waste reduction efforts, we remove all polybags pre-shipment to have them properly recycled (as otherwise upon receiving a package, most people throw them out). Clearly, we had some growing pains that we are working extremely hard to rectify.
Did the switch in distribution centers cause any specific software challenges that you had to overcome?
New integrations into the 3PLs software had to be developed in order for the data to flow to and from our sales channels and inventory management software.
You ran a big end-of-season sale and had some fulfillment issues. What did you learn from the experience?
Expect there to be complications and for things to go wrong. You can spend as much time preparing for an influx of orders but until thousands of orders are coming in and packing slips are actually being printed, you can only do so much. Going forward, we will have dedicated staff on site at all times to mitigate future mistakes.
Despite some issues with order fulfillment after the sale, I was very impressed with how you responded to your affected customers. How did you respond to customers?
Our public image (our site experience, emails, social media, waterway cleanups, retail stores, even our packaging and shipping experiences) all work to tell a cohesive brand story that we are proud to stand behind. When this issue arose, we let down our valued customers who trusted us with their money. We know companies make mistakes (sometimes unavoidable ones), but rebuilding that trust and those relationships is of paramount importance. In this digital age, a plain-text letter from me, UBB’s founder, was the most straightforward way to own up and apologize for our miscues. We encourage customer feedback. Whether that is in store, via social, or in the form of a handwritten letter, offering our customers a way to provide us with feedback is something we wholeheartedly embrace.
We added a no-strings attached coupon to that email as an additional way of saying thank you and rebuilding that relationship.
Were than any specific software solutions that were helpful through this experience?
The most helpful and important aspect of moving distribution centers is not the software, but the people behind the process. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled team that has been able to address most of our issues head on. And even though there have been hiccups, I believe we are well on our way to operational excellence with our new setup.
What’s next for United by Blue? Any exciting future plans you’d like to share?
We’re continuing to build out a strong team here in Philadelphia to expand on domestic growth opportunities. Additionally, in the coming weeks we’ll be launching a small pop-up shop in France in collaboration with one of Europe’s largest outdoor retailers. We’re planning to use that to kickstart more of our international expansion.
Key Takeaways from United By Blue
United By Blue’s experience isn’t uncommon as many merchants face their own similar fulfillment challenges. Here are some key takeaways when it comes to managing growth and fulfillment expansion.
Always Have Staff Ready
It doesn’t matter how well you prepare, thousands of orders going through a new distribution center are bound to have hiccups here and there. The only thing going forward that Linton would change is always having dedicated staff available to help with any issues.
Integrate Your eCommerce and Inventory Management Systems
If you’re processing thousands of orders, you can’t possibly rely on hand-keying order data between your inventory management, 3PL and eCommerce systems. It’s important to have integration software that you can trust to automate order processing between those systems. This ensures that orders are processed quickly and correctly without any errors.
Be Transparent with Customers
What led me to reach out to UBB was their sincere transparency and communication with customers. Mistakes are bound to happen and sometimes you have to own up to them. By doing so, you’ll be able to gain customer’s trust back.
Stay True to Your Brand
An underlying message from Linton was that UBB always made decisions with keeping their brand’s integrity in mind. You’ll notice that in their decision to remove polybags pre-shipment, their simple-text letter from Linton himself to customers, and staff’s interaction with frustrated customers. You’ll make far better decisions when you let your company’s mission guide you.
Based out of Philadelphia, PA, United By Blue is an outdoor lifestyle brand that focuses on sustainable products including apparel, bags, and accessories. Their company is also deeply rooted in waterway conservation, UBB removes one pound of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways for every product sold. They currently sell globally in 1000 retail stores, online at unitedbyblue.com , and in their own brick-and-mortar locations in Philadelphia and New York City.