Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ditching the brick and mortar and for the web

Yesterday, I received a comment from a customer and I decided it would make a good topic for a post.

Today, I stopped into the store with plans to buy lobsters and have them shipped. I was disappointed when I was told that they couldn't process my order in the store and that I needed to go to the website instead. 

This is an issue with which we have struggled. Gurnet Trading Co. has been shipping lobsters pretty much since we first opened, more than 10 years ago. It has not been a huge part of our business, a few shipments here and there with an increase in volume around the holidays.

Before we moved the shipping online it was a convoluted process. We would have to haul out a thick book of shipping tables and matrices. Using the estimated shipping weight and the ship to zip code we would figure out a base shipping rate and then make sure all the applicable surcharges were added and applied correctly. The process would routinely take more than 30 minutes to fill out all the appropriate paperwork and get an accurate shipping estimate.

Many of our cashiers (particularly in the summer) are high school and college students working during their vacations. Given the complicated and expensive nature of shipping it has not made sense to train seasonal and temporary employees how to process a shipping order. Shipping has therefore been handled by three people; our owner and our two most seasoned team leaders. As Gurnet Trading has grown, our owner has spent less time in the store and more time directing operations from behind the scenes. With so few people available and capable of processing a shipping order, it was a matter of luck as to whether or not there would be someone in the store to help you place an order.

To add to an already difficult process, the store has limited spaced and can be very busy place. It is not uncommon to have a line of customers stretching to the door. Within that line there will be people who want to buy lobsters out of the lobster tank, there will be people who want haddock out of the fish case, there will be people who want a fried clam dinner, and there might be someone who wants to ship lobsters. Often we would have to ask the customer with a shipping request to wait until we had helped the other customers with their faster and easier orders. Selling fresh seafood and cooked products is our primary and business and we have always prioritized service to those customers. A customer wanting to order a five minute lobster roll shouldn't have to wait 30 minutes to order because of a shipping order.

In recent years, business has grown so much and the store has become so busy that processing a shipping order became a huge interference to our primary business. We reached a breaking point where we considered ending shipping all together. In order to continue providing the service of shipping, when I quit my 9-5 job in 2013 to take over Soper Ocean Services we decided that I would also develop a web-store and move our shipping process online.

Today, I manage the web-store; answer online inquiries and process all shipping orders. There have been some definite pros and cons to my taking over the shipping and moving the process to the internet.


  • I am off-site so I am not eating up valuable real estate in the store.  
  • I am a single point of contact to provide unified and consistent responses.
  • I am off-site so I don't get caught up and distracted by the hubbub of the store.
  • Working from home allows me to respond to customer inquiries outside of normal business hours.
  • I have low overhead costs. I am only paid for my time spend working on the website or interacting with customers. An in-store shipping manager would have to be paid full time and work regular hours in the store, regardless of whether or not there were any shipments.
  • Being online, the shipping estimator is fast and accurate.
  • Being online a customer can place an order anytime of day.

  • Being off-site means that the website does not always have the most up to date pricing or status. There is usually lag between price changes and specials.
  • Being off-site also means that I am not available in-person  to help customers.
  • My day job has me working on a mud covered barge from April to November. While I can answer general questions from the wheelhouse on my barge, I can't process an order. Our customer's have to wait until I get off the barge in the afternoon for more complicated answers and quotes. 
  • Having a website moves more of the responsibilities and effort onto the customers. Which means if they are having trouble or have questions they have to make an additional effort to contact me.


If you come into the store and want to place a shipping order, we have an IPAD set up that is linked to our website. Our team members can help walk you through the process. I also try to keep a stack of my business cards next to the IPAD, to encourage people to contact me. While my business cards only have the web address and my email address (gurnetlobsters@gmail.com) on them, the store will also give out my personal phone number for those who do not have computer access or need additional help. 

I always make an effort to answer emails or respond to voice mails within a few hours or at least by the end of the day. I can usually respond to emails faster than voice mail, because of cellphone reception problems on the water.

It's certainly not perfect and we do have some problems, but in the end we work hard to take care of you and provide the best service we can. We are always open to recommendations and always want to hear about any troubles you have had with our service.  


Here are a few tips to help us improve our service:

  • Email me at gurnetlobsters@gmail.com
  • Be specific with your comments. The more detailed and specific you are the more we can do to improve future experiences. 
  • Who? Was there a specific employee who provided good service? One who provided poor service? Or was unable to help you? Did the team member seem knowledgeable? 
  • What? What happened? Be specific. Did the website produce an error code? Were instructions confusing? Did you have problems during checkout? Did you have trouble navigating the site?
  • When? What was the date and time of the event you wish to comment on?
  • Where? Is it a website issue or store issue?

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to make the most of your order.

Shipping is expensive, especially when you are talking about shipping a live or perishable product. Shipping is at its most expensive when you are shipping Standard or Priority Overnight. If not the most expensive part of the order, shipping will usually be at least as expensive as the product being shipped. Today, I' m going provide a few tips to help reduce that ratio and make the the most of your order.

Weight vs. Volume

Shipping is calculated using two measures, weight and volume. The shippers (FEDEX and UPS) set a minimum ship weight that is based on the size box that is shipped. You want to avoid orders that are lighter than the minimum ship weight, you will just end up paying for unused weight. 

Generally speaking we have three different size boxes we use to ship. Large lobsters do not fit in our small box. We can ship up to 6 large lobsters in our medium box. when we use a medium box, the minimum weight that we get charged for is 10 pounds.

This example illustrates how shipping at least the minimum weight reduces the shipping cost per lobster. 

Fixed vs Variable Costs

Some of your shipping charges are variable. That is, as your weight increases so does your cost. Or in the case of insurance, as your value increases so does your insurance. But some of your costs are fixed. The best example is Gurnet Trading's handling fee. It is a flat $30 per order. This charge covers the expense of the box, the gel packs, my labor to process your order, and the labor to pack the box. To minimize the impact of fixed charges, order more product.

This example illustrates how ordering enough items can make the $30 handling fee almost inconsequential. 

High Value vs Low Value

When you place an order you want to get the biggest bang for your buck. You want to spend your money on the product not the shipping. You can't eat shipping. Shipping doesn't taste good. You can't even put in on a shelf to display. So the best way to reduce the impact of shipping, is by ordering high value items. 

This example illustrates how shipping a high value item like lobster meat reduces the effect of shipping charges on the overall price. Shipping 5 pounds of crab claws and 5 pounds of lobster meat costs pretty much the same (the lobster meat needs an $3 in insurance), but shipping makes up 85% of the crab claw order while it only makes up 30% of the lobster meat order. 

This examples isn't to tell you not to ship low dollar items. We want to sell crab claws and clams as much as we want to sell lobsters and chowders. But you can make the most of your order by mixing and matching high and low value items to maximize your YUMMY:SHIPPING ratio while still ordering your favorite products.

Economics vs Enjoyment

Seafood is not just food. Often it is an event. You sit around a table with friends and family picking apart food and eating in a more primal and tribal way. This is especially the case with live lobsters. There is the thrill of cooking a live creature yourself. There is a satisfaction in knowing how it was handled and treated. When intangibles like satisfaction and enjoyment enter the equation, economics get thrown out the window. It is hard to put a price on the smile of a child holding their first live lobster. What is the worth of  the rowdy laughter of a family watching a puppy bark at lobster crawling across the floor? 

When you aren't looking for an event, the economics are easy to calculate. Certain items are more efficient to ship. Live lobsters vs lobster meat is the single best example of how intended use of a product can drive cost. 

This example illustrates the difference intended use can have. It takes about 7 pounds of live lobsters (or about 5-6 small lobsters)  to make 1 pound of clear meat. Clear meat packs much smaller and lighter than live lobsters. When you ship live lobsters you are paying for the weight of shells, organs, and water. 2 pounds of meat can go into a small box while 11 lobsters has to go into a medium or large box. From an economic standpoint, we should only ever ship lobster meat. But where is the fun in that? No one wants to go to a lobster bake and eat picked meat out of a bowl. They want to crack the shell open and suck the legs. Some people want to hunt for tomalley and row. Others want to trade their tales for claws. 

The Tips
Obviously your order is going to be based on your preferences, needs, and budget. But when you can, think about these tips to help reduce your shipping cost. 

  1. Beat the dimensional weight minimum by ordering dense items that pack tightly into small boxes such as scallops, lobster meat, clams, mussels, and oysters.
  2. Reduce the impact of flat rate handling charges ordering more products.
  3. Mix high value items with low value items to reduce the impact of shipping.
  4. Consider your purpose. Is there a specific reason you need the product alive and in the shell? A processed product might ship cheaper.
  5. Do you have friends, family, neighbors or co-workers who might want to order as well? Get together and place a single order for the holidays or special event. We can put up to 50 pounds of product in a single box. A 50 pound order will have great economy of scale. On shipping alone, you will save, but we might also be able to discount product prices as well. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reconfigured Web-Store

This week I have been working on tweaking the web-store to hopefully make it more user friendly and flexible.

- Lobsters no longer have to be purchased in a pre-determined box size. You may select as many or as few as you want.

- There is now an option to choose between live and cooked lobsters.

- The number of lobster product links have been trimmed, now all you have to do is choose between Small, Medium, and Large

- The upfront product price will now better reflect the prices posted in the brick and mortar store. Packaging expenses have been moved to a flat handling charge that is applied at checkout.

- For the time being we have removed the combination packs (except for the Lobster Roll Kit). Some of them will be returning. Right now, our products are available a la carte.

Also, new this week, I got motivated and sent out an email newsletter/flyer. I have been collecting email addresses for months, I just hadn't gotten around to publishing anything yet. My goal is to send one out once a week with updates and specials. So if you haven't already joined our mailing list you can do so here.