When Keith Spear first started selling bowling balls on the Internet back in 1996, getting product out to customers was a tedious, time-consuming, error-prone business. Today, Spear's Bowlingball.com operation, a classic e-commerce success story, is totally automated. Much of the technology involved for automating shipping, notification and supply chain management came free, supplied by UPS, which the company uses exclusively for shipping.
UPS, like other courier companies, long ago identified e-commerce as a key to future growth. It was a no-brainer: e-commerce, after all, is absolutely reliant on efficient, economical shipping for its success. Also like other couriers, UPS offers a variety of technology-based solutions to help e-commerce customers streamline their operations and lock them in.
The Early Days
T he company has come a long way in seven years. Spear, a one-time professional bowler who also operates seven bowling pro shops, saw the potential of the Internet early on and started experimenting with selling online on bulletin boards even before the World Wide Web emerged. He later discovered eBay and still uses it. One breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Spear took a chance and bought 3,000 end-of-line balls. He sold them in less than 60 days on eBay.
At that point, there were no off-the-shelf e-commerce tools, no ready-made shopping cart programs, so Spear learned programming and developed them himself. Most sales now come from the Bowlingball.com Web site he originally designed and built.
"I wish I could say I had a great vision for this from the start," he says, "but if I said that I'd be lying. In the beginning, I thought if I could sell an extra five-to-ten bowling balls a month [over what he was selling in the pro shops], that would be great. But it just grew and grew."
And then some. This year the company expects to hit the $10 million mark in sales. That's up from $1.2 million as recently as 2002. Bowlingball.com maintains a 15,000 square foot warehouse in Daytona Beach, Florida, with $8 million in inventory. It can supply virtually any available bowling ball, as well as shoes and other products, to any customer anywhere in the world. Its Oracle-based e-commerce systems are located at a secure site in nearby Fort Lauderdale, with back-up facilities in Texas and California. The privately held company employs 27 people now, including a chief information officer (CIO), chief financial officer (CFO) and even an actuary.
As any e-commerce entrepreneur knows, shipping and customer service are crucially important and crucially interrelated. In the very beginning, Spear tried using the U.S. Postal service to ship orders. "We found out that the postal service did a great job with letters and small packages, but you really don't want to use it for a bowling ball," he says. When he first switched over to UPS, shipping was still a tedious, manual process, ending with Spear putting a few balls in his car and driving them over to the local UPS depot.
Bowlingball.com employees had to manually transcribe the order from the Internet, carry it to the warehouse, find the product, fill out a shipping bill. "It took a tremendous amount of time," Spear says. Worse, the process generated errors that could result in orders being delayed or shipped to the wrong address. Not good for customer service. "It's amazing how many mistakes you're going to make doing it manually like that," he says.
Today, the company uses UPS WorldShip, integrated with its e-commerce systems. Orders are automatically transmitted to the shipping department and the shipping label printed from information filled in online by the customer. "If it's entered properly by the consumer, there aren't going to be any mistakes," Spear points out. "It would take us five to ten minutes to process an order [for shipping] before. Now it's just done. It takes seconds."
Besides automating the standard order shipping process, WorldShip can also generate international export documents. It lets you automatically receive and print proof-of-delivery information, including time of delivery and name, address and signature of recipient. This can speed invoice processing in cases where shipments aren't prepaid. WorldShip integrates with Quantum View Notify to automatically generate e-mails to notify customers of shipment status something Bowlingball.com does. And it lets call center agents quickly access up-to-the-minute tracking status when it's needed.
Keeping an Eye on the Ball
The tracking and notification functions are critical for good customer service. "If you tell people something will be delivered on Thursday, that's when they want it," Spear says. "If anything, we try to under promise and over deliver, and UPS does a good job to help us look better with our customers."
Quite aside from anything else, UPS delivers Bowlingball.com orders on time in 99 percent of cases, he says. But it's in the 1 percent of cases where the order isn't delivered on time that the UPS technology really pays dividends. "When people call us and want to know why their ball is late arriving, the UPS tracking tools can quickly show what their order status is and the agent can say, 'The package is in Omaha, Nebraska, with an expected delivery date of today.'"
Even though it maintains a huge inventory compared to the pro shop in your local bowling alley, Bowlingball.com doesn't stock everything at its warehouse. With WorldShip, it doesn't have to stock everything because the software can can also automate "drop shipments." It can send orders over the Internet to regular suppliers, also set up with WorldShip, who then ship the order directly to Bowlingball.com's customer. As far as the customer is concerned, the package came directly from Bowlingball.com.
If the customer orders two products and both have to be drop shipped from different suppliers, Quantum View Notify will even generate two separate e-mails to the customer informing him of how and when the packages will arrive. That's service.
Spear tried other shipping companies before settling on UPS. "It was obvious really quickly who was going to work for us," he says. "The customer service to our customers is the most important thing." The technology, much of which UPS pioneered in the courier industry, is a good part of how it helps Bowlingball.com and other e-commerce sites provide superb customer service.
Rolling a Perfect Game
The price, at least for the technology, was right. UPS provides the software tools at no charge. And when you become an important enough customer, which Bowlingball.com clearly has, even visits from UPS technology experts to help with configuration and technology planning are free. "UPS has just been there all along the way to help us grow," Spear says.
It's a very savvy strategy on UPS's part. The shipper has a customer for life, and in the case of Bowlingball.com, it's a customer that continues to grow and do more business with UPS every year. For small e-commerce businesses that lack technology expertise, relying on a UPS also makes good sense. They get to take advantage of all the software development and process management best practices UPS has developed for bigger customers. It's the very definition of a win-win situation.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.
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