Be careful what you wish for (or: scaling up is hard to do)

As explained in a previous post, we ran a “promotion” with a discount coupon site called DealChicken on December 19th, and the resulting flood of orders was pretty overwhelming.  We’re now back to having things more or less under control, so I have the time to tell a little more of the story, as I experienced it.

The Farmhouse and Farm Store on a snowless Christmas Eve in Putney

First, some numbers for perspective:  we’re a small family business that’s trying to grow large enough to be sustainable (i.e. profitable in the long run) selling maple syrup online.  We shipped our very first order on August 2, 2010 – about a year and a half ago.  We shipped our 1,000th order on October 21, 2011.  In short, it took us 15 months to reach the 1000-order mark.  My wife, Catherine, was our principal shipper for all of that time.  When the Christmas rush started this year, we had some days when we were shipping over 50 orders, but more typically we’ve been shipping 5-10 orders every other day or so.

This fall we finally opened our new facility for shipping and syrup “canning”, and the day after Thanksgiving we opened the retail store (our Farm Store) in the same building.  Peter proposed that it was time for a push to grow our customer base…so he struck a deal with DealChicken.
Now, we had no real idea what the response would be, though based on what we’d seen of other “deals” on the DealChicken site, we imagined we might get an additional 500 orders, give or take, to add to our normal holiday-season volume.

But our DealChicken promotion ran on December 19th and sold 5,000 coupons in one day.  Of these, approximately half were “redeemed” on our website within the first 48 hours.  So, by the end of the day on December 21st we (who had never before shipped even 100 orders in a single day) had over 2,000 orders to fulfill.


Boxes waiting by the loading dock

So, some of the things we learned – in no particular order:

  • The systems and processes that worked well when shipping 20 or 30 orders at a time don’t always work well when shipping 200 or 300 orders.
  • A major challenge is “keeping it all straight”:  which orders have been shipped, which orders are waiting for something, etc.  This is pretty straightforward when shipping 5-10 orders, more challenging when shipping 20-30 orders…and really hard at much higher volumes.
  • If you hurry too much, you make mistakes.
  • If you work too many hours, you make mistakes.
  • It takes a lot of time to find and fix mistakes.
  • It’s tempting to use the word “cluck” as a curse word.
  • We should have stocked up on the shipping supplies we need – particularly the USPS Priority Mail regional boxes we mostly use for free shipping – far more than we did.  We ran out of the regional-rate boxes and had to switch to Parcel Post, which is both slower and much more expensive.
  • We found that our customers, for the most part, were pretty patient with us when we explained the challenges we were facing.  And quite a few customers went out of their way to let us know when their syrup arrived and how much they enjoyed it.  Needless to say, this is something we love hearing!

Some of our temporary staff (local students on break) assembling half-gallon boxes

We also found that, in a small town like Putney, people notice stuff…and they care.  We decided to close the retail store on the 22nd (in part because the main floor was getting crowded with boxes of freshly-canned and labeled half-gallons from downstairs.)  But we still had a steady stream of friends and neighbors coming in through the side door, to “see how we were doing”, offer encouragement and – even with the store closed – buy syrup.

All in all, it was a memorable experience; we put in a lot of extra hours at a time of year when we would normally be relaxing a bit, but I can’t say it wasn’t fun.  And we’ve gotten a lot of people across the country to notice us, and to discover how great our maple syrup is.  Hopefully many will be buying from us again and will tell their friends.

Half-gallons taking up space in the Farm Store



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