Saturday, October 26, 2013

That Was Easy - A Rant

Generally, my discussions are about seafood or at least a tangent to seafood. Today, however, is going to be a little different. Today, I am going to present the position that the "Easy Button" is a bold faced dirty lie.

First, a little background:
  • Staples is an office supply store. 
  • Their motto is "that was easy" which is expanded by the gimmick of the "easy button." 
  • They are pretty much the only full service office supply store in the Midcoast Maine region. 
  • I own and operate two small businesses that frequently require printing services (business cards, fliers, brochures), office equipment (computers, furniture, peripherals, software), and consumables (paper, envelopes, pens)
Now for my first hand anecdotal evidence supporting the statement "The is nothing easy about Staples":

Anecdote 1


My birthday was in September and my mom (Gurnet Trading Co.) hooked me up with a super cool gift to help improve my ability to support our web store. All my new little doodles and drawings for the website have been made possible by my new Surface Pro (notice I didn't link to Staples). It also allows me to process orders off site and on the fly.

It's a pretty sweet little device that has more computing power than my current lap top and fits in my purse. It runs full strength Windows 8.1, not the dumbed down tablet operating system; which means I can run standard programs, not just apps.

Back on track (we can talk more about my Surface later). For those of you who don't know my mom; she (1) loves any event that allows her to give gifts, (2) works like mad even though she is always saying "I hardly ever work anymore," (3) on account of her working like mad she doesn't make it beyond Brunswick very often, and (4) on account of her living at her store, she tends to be "behind schedule" on more personal matters.

Knowing all this about my mom, I was not at all surprised when I received my birthday gift two days late and learned it had been purchased at pretty much the only store in town (Staples). She had purchased the tablet at Staples along with a number of peripherals (including the Touch Cover and the Wedge Mouse). I opted to return both peripherals and upgrade to the Type Cover.

This is the process I went through to get my Type Cover.

Not So Easy Button:

1. Drive across town to return product.
2. Go to computer department and find that they keep their Type Covers "out back."
3. Grab a Type Cover retrieval slip from the Surface display.
4. Go to check out and hand cashier the slip and find out they are out of stock.
5. Decline offer to go place a special order on their online kiosk. Why would I spend the time now when I can do the same thing in the comfort of my own home later? (Turns out this will be the demon that bites me in the ass later).
6. Return items and receive a store gift card.
7. Go home.
8. Surf the Staples site at my leisure and pick my items.
10. Begin to check out but can't find any place to enter my gift card information.
11. Spend the better part of an hour researching and learning that Staples, owner of the Easy Button and seller of IT products, cannot redeem their gift cards online.
12. Empty online shopping cart.
13. Drive back across town.
14. Find customer service rep so they can place order at the kiosk.
15. Check-out with regular cashier (you can't checkout at the kiosk for the same reason you can't use a gift card online).
16. Wait for assistance from a manager and the kiosk service rep because there were "technical difficulties" with the slip that printed off at the kiosk.
17. Go home and wait for UPS.

Granted, I could have skipped steps 6-13 had I just used the damn kiosk in the first place, but I didn't know that I didn't really have a choice in the matter. I will not make that mistake again.

Anecdote 2


Being the thriftster that I am, I had been using a combination of Microsoft Access and Excel to track customers, invoices, and expenses. They were programs I already owned and had experience operating. While I am an Excel rockstar, I am more of an Access open-mic-nighter and found myself a little bogged down in administrivia. I bit the bullet and decided to go for purpose built small business accounting software.

Purchasing the software online was easy enough, but after it had been installed I found that it could not sync with my banking institutions, rendering a one of the key features useless.

This is the process I went through to return my software.

Not So Easy Button

1. I checked my invoice for a return policy. I click on a link titled "Return Policy" and am routed to a "Shipping and Delivery" page.

2. I wander around the website for a while looking for a Return Policy page. Eventually, I find the Returns (located under FAQ), the statement "If you're not 100% satisfied with your Staples® purchase, you can return it for any reason," and a return form.

3. I fill out the return form.

4. I wait two days and receive no response regarding the status of my return.

5. I sign on to the Staples service chat to speak with a service rep. At this time I am notified that software cannot be returned. She sends me a link to part of the return statement I had not previously seen. I ask several times if there is anything that can be done. I was willing to take a store credit or an exchange for a different product if a full refund wasn't possible. I was informed that there was NOTHING that could be done.

6. Wanting to have all my ducks in a row, I then called Staples to speak in person with a customer service rep. I told her that the software was useless to me and that I could not afford such an expensive program if it was not going to meet my needs. Again I was told that there was NOTHING that could be done.

7. Feeling frustrated and definitely not "100% satisfied with my Staples purchase," I contacted my credit card company and who immediately issued a stop payment and returned my money.

8. Three days later I received a response from the initial return request informing me Staples would not refund my money but the software manufacturer would.

Gaaaah! I spoke with two different customer service reps who told me I had no options, so I went nuclear and issued a stop payment. This is not the way I like to do business. I go out of my way to not be that girl.

Anecdote 3


Christmas is coming and we are gearing up for shipping lots of tasty seafood snacks. A majority of our shipments are purchased as gifts, so Christmas is critical. We have family members in two markets brimming with potential and we have been considering sending brochures to those family members to hand out in their communities.

I went online and drafted an instant brochure. Instant Printing is a service Staples offers that allows you to design a product online and pick it up at your local store later that day. My plan was to have it printed at my mother-in-law's local Staples.

Before I pulled the trigger, I had a few questions to ask.

Not So Easy Button

As it was after hours, I could not contact a customer service rep so I submitted my questions via their email option. I asked the following questions:
  1. Is there a way to download a proof to print off and review prior ordering?
  2. Is there a way to convert an instant brochure to a standard brochure?
  3. If I order standard brochures can I have the order split and delivered to two different locations?
I don't think these are difficult nor unreasonable questions.
  1. If I am going to spend $200+ I want to make sure it is right, and printing off a copy on my crappy color inkjet will at least give me a little bit of an idea.   
  2. While standard brochures take about a week to produce and ship, they are about half price and are printed on a higher quality paper.
  3. With standard brochures, you get a volume discount.
One day after I submitted my questions, I received an auto-reply informing me I would be contacted within 24 hours.

Three days after I received the auto-reply, I received another message informing me my request had been forwarded to the manager of my local Staples Copy Center.

That was three days ago and I have yet to hear anything else, not that it matters because I don't want to have anything printed at my local Staples anyway.

Anecdote 4

Today, I attempted to log into my Staples account to review business cards I had printed back in August. I received an error notification. I attempted to change my password but I kept getting the same error "user email not found."

This was immensely frustrating, because I get enough spam from the company to know they have my email address linked to my account. After about 30 minutes of beating my head against the wall I got to a point where it asked me the name of my high school as a security question.

At this point I knew I was in trouble. I would never select that as a security question. What would the answer be?

Mt. Ararat
mt ararat
mt. ararat
Mount Ararat
mount ararat

Definitely not. There are too many options and I am to inconsistent to use the right one. So I tried each one of those options, just in case I had used that security question, and big surprise none of them worked and I got booted out of the system.

Eventually, I followed an old link and was routed to a Copy and Print log in. I got in on my first attempt.

Those bastards have separate log-ins for their Copy and Print center. Seriously?!

If Staples is such a pain, why do you use them?

That is an excellent question. I try to purchase as little from Staples as possible. Amazon is my preferred source for electronics and since I am a Prime member the lead time is only 2 business days. I also use UPrinting for some printing needs, but the lead time is 7-10 days and the shipping is exorbitant so price analysis is required. Office supplies are cheaper at Wal-Mart but their selection is terrible.

To further by-pass Staples, I just bought a Color Laser Printer and glossy paper so I can print my own brochures. Guess where I bought the printer and paper?

So what does it come down to? Sometimes you just need stuff now without paying through the nose and having a local brick and mortar store makes that possible.

I guess at the end of the day I have to say . . that was easy.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Price of Lobster

I have a bone to pick. Or should I say, I have shell to pick? The media, who is all of a sudden an expert on lobsters, is making my job very difficult.

All summer long local and national news has been reporting on the "prices" of lobster and while they think they might be helping the industry by bringing awareness, I say they are doing more harm than good. Yes, lobster prices are the lowest they have ever been, but it is more complex than that and the reporters NEVER take the time to discuss the nuances of the lobster price.

I am going to take a moment now to point out a few of the oft overlooked points and statements I have to contend with as lobster retailer.

A. "The price of lobster is $3.00 per pound." 

The media likes to announce the price of lobster, but rarely do they explain that the price they are announcing is the "boat price."

Boat Price is the price that is paid to the fishermen. In general it contains four categories of variable costs:

1. The costs to set traps

2. The costs to haul traps

3. The cost to transport the catch to a wholesale buyer

4. Profit

In a nutshell, boat price is the cost of getting lobsters from the ocean floor to a lobster wharf. In the case of Gurnet Trading Co., it gets the lobsters to Mill Cove, Harpswell.

B. "How come you are charging me $6.00 when the reporter said lobsters are $3.00 per pound?"

Remember how I said that $3.00 gets the lobster as far as the wharf? Let's talk about what happens next. The buyer costs can be described in five general categories:

1. Boat Price (The price paid to the fishermen.)

2. Fishermen Subsidies (It is not uncommon for buyers to subsidize their fishermen in the form of free dockage, bait storage, equipment loans, and pre-payment. These costs are expensive and represent significant risk on the part of the buyer, but the incentives are necessary to maintain a reliable supply source.)

3. Product Loss (Lobsters are a living creature and if not properly cared for, they will die. Even if they are cared for, they still might die. The lobster buyer must be able to absorb the cost of every dead lobster).

4. Wharf Expenses (A commercial wharf is expensive. You have to cover costs for dock hands, water aeration pumps, coolers to keep the bait from rotting, loss from bait rotting, parking and access for fishermen).

5. Profit

So let's say the wholesale buyer can jam all those components into an extra $1.00 a pound. So now our lobster price is at $4.00 but it is still sitting at a wharf in Harpswell. Maybe the lobster dealer will offer to deliver the lobsters locally for an extra $ .20.

Our "$3.00" lobsters are now sitting in Brunswick and the retailer has paid $4.20 to get them there. So let's talk about the retailer's costs.

1. Wholesale Price (The price paid to the wholesale dealer.)

2. Product Loss (The risk of product loss is now even higher. The lobsters have been transported at least once, significantly increasing stress on the creature. And now they are being stored in a holding tank that is crowded, away from the ocean, and water quality is more difficult to maintain.)

3. Store Expenses (The operating costs of a retail location are significant. There will be more employees, generally higher rents and location costs, more regulation and consumer protections required, and other expenses to absorb such as theft and grounds maintenance for safe  public use.)

4. Profit

If our retailer adds $2.00 a pound to cover these costs, she is already at $6.20 a pound. And that my friends is why you do not pay $3.00 for lobster when you walk into a seafood market in Maine.

Since Gurnet Trading Co. is both a wholesaler and retailer, we are able to consolidate some of our costs and profit. Often we will pass the savings onto the fishermen and pay them above the local Boat Price.

Now, at the other end of the spectrum, if you walk into a seafood market outside of Maine you can expect to double that price. As a rule of thumb, there is a 1:1 relationship between the price of a lobster and the cost to ship it overnight.

If a retailer in Colorado has a direct connection to a wholesaler, in this example, he could get a salable lobster in store for maybe $8.40 (the $4.00 wholesale price plus $.20 for packing the lobsters, multiplied by 2 to for UPS or Fedex shipping charges. He then has to account for his own profit and a significantly higher rate of product loss.

If our Colorado retailer does not have a wholesale connection, he will be paying retail price and just to get his lobsters to his store will cost him more than $13.00 a pound.

C. Shedders or Hardshell?

The prices quoted by the media are always for a softshell lobster. A softshell lobster can not be reliably shipped and expected to remain alive. Generally, if we are shipping a softshell lobster it will be cooked first.

Hardshell lobsters, particularly when lobsters are cheapest, are caught less frequently than shedders. Due the lack of supply, they command a premium; further increasing the price you may see in your local fish market.

Shedders can survive the transport to a local market, but markets more than a day's drive will be selling hardshells.

D. Truck or Plane?

The media also neglects to mention transport costs. Lobsters are hardy creatures, but they do not like to be out of the water for more than a day. To get to destinations outside the "one day ground" region, lobbies have to hop a plane.

E. "Lobster is cheaper than ground beef."

Gah! I hate this statement. It makes me so angry. It is bold faced lie and only shows how little someone knows about the food they eat.

The top grade 91% lean ground Angus beef at my local Hannaford is currently priced online at $5.29 per pound. Gurnet Trading Co's current in-store price for chick lobsters is $4.99 per pound.

Yes, at first blush the price of ground beef is more expensive than the price of a whole and live lobster.

But, not withstanding the whole "Pink Slime Controversy", that pound of ground beef for $5.29 is 100% edible. It does not contain hooves, horn, hair, bone, cartilage, innards or any other inedible part of the cow. The $4.99 lobster, on the other hand, includes all of the above. $4.99 buys you about 3/4 of a pound of cartilage, shell, water, and organs.

It takes between 5 and 7 pounds of live lobsters to make 1 pound of 100% edible meat. Do the math boys and girls. That makes lobster meat worth $25.00 per pound before you have even paid anyone to actually pick, package, and store the meat. Still want to say lobster is cheaper than ground beef?

Are you trying to scare us away from eating lobster? 

Absolutely not. I want you to eat lobster for your every meal, if you can stomach it. I am, however, trying to inform you. I am trying to help you understand the true cost of a lobster. I am trying to repair the damage done to the lobster industry by the media, who only tell half the story.

I'm trying to help you understand why you might walk into our market and pay $10 for a lobster roll or $30 for a pound of lobster meat. It is not because we are raping the fishermen and realizing huge profits instead of passing on the cost savings to the customer, it is because lobster prices are more complex and much higher than people are led to believe.

One last thought.

Besides the fact that the media has made consumers think retailers are overcharging for our products, they have also harmed the wholesaler's bargaining power. Boat Price is highly proprietary. In an industry where a single nickle can make or break you, keeping your prices private is critical to making profit and being able to maintain both a customer and supplier base. We have seen fishermen leave our wharf for less than a 10 cent price difference, while we have also seen them stay for free hot dogs and soda. It is a tough business and it is not made any easier by armchair analysts and reporters.

So the next time you balk at a price in front of you, think about why you feel it should be less and consider carefully what it took to get it to the store shelf.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Small Business Big Game

A few weeks ago my mom mentioned that we should sign up for the contest to win a Superbowl commercial. I'm not a big fan of contests because the amount of work required usually outweighs the terrible odds of winning, especially in nationwide contests. So I ignored her, especially because she didn't give me any details about how to enter or who was running it.

Last week an ad popped up in my Facebook feed, normally I pay about as much attention to these as I do my mom, but this one caught my attention. It was something along the lines of "Only 2 Days Left to Win a Super Bowl Commercial." In a moment of weakness, I clicked on it and started the entry process.

The first step was pretty easy: create an account and tell us about your business in 600 characters. I skipped the usual sappy story and went for something a little more obscure in the hopes that it might pique people's interest to at least visit our website. If I was going to lose, I might as well do it with a piece of writing that pleased me.

A couple of days later I was notified that I had made it through the first round (as I'm sure everyone had). This is when the real work kicked in. I had a choice to make: throw in the towel or go to work and play the game. The second round consists of 5 parts: answer 4 questions and create a 90 second video. Oye!

The challenge of putting together clear and succinct answers to broad questions about your business is enough to lose the interest of casual entrants and slow down those serious about competing. But a 90 second video . . . that is real work.

Now I have no hopes of winning this thing. We are a small seafood market in a tiny town in a tiny state. While we think of ourselves as big shots around town with pretty strong brand recognition, we are nothing when you leave our radius of influence. So, naturally, with dismal odds and hopes of maybe selling a few boxes of lobsters, I plunged in.

Why do they love your business?

What's your best advice?

What makes your business special?

What's been your proudest moment?

This was the toughest question. We have so many proud moments. We have survived the rise and fall of the urchin industry. We forced our way into the cutthroat lobster wholesale business. The retail market made it past the dreaded first year in which most small businesses fail. We managed through theft and vandalism. We held the top seat among local restaurants on Trip Advisor. We survived the Great Recession that closed so many. We were selected for an expose by a Boston TV news. We have been included in two books: one about the best lobster shacks in New England and another about unique New England stories. We even have the 10 Year milestone is in the review mirror. How do you pick just one thing? Pick something that can never be taken from you, because it runs deeper than awards or milestones.

90 Second Pitch:

Well, I have answered the questions and submitted my video. Now all I have to do is get people to vote for me. LOL. So click on one of the links above and vote. You can vote once a day.