Monday, March 24, 2008

Partial Order Completion, The Curse Of E-Commerce and The Great Address Problem

I got home on Thursday to find a heavy padded envelope waiting for me.

My immediate thought was that it was my passport, applied for last week1 and processed in record time. This was, of course, stupid of me. The British Embassy moved all passport processing to Washington DC in order to centralise the operation. There they have gathered a crack team with decades of experience in slowing things down to a manageable speed.

The envelope, when opened, proved to contain the smaller of the two bearings I ordered for my drill press. No paperwork accompanied the part, and no hint was given as to when I would get the chuck, which was the part I needed most and the whole reason for submitting the order to Sears's website in the first place. I only wanted the bearings to prove/disprove a former co-commuter's opinion that the reason the quill on the drill press is running out is because one of the bearings is out of true.

Friday, a midlin' large2 box awaited me. At last! The chuck had arrived and not a moment too soon!

Or not, as it turned out. The box actually contained the other bearing and the chuck key, both of which would have fitted into one of those padded envelopes. The chuck, which truly would require a box, was conspicuous by its absence.

On Saturday the chuck was still AWOL but a book I ordered from Amazon turned up. This had been "packed" in a box half as long again as the book without any sort of padding, and the box, some sort of purpose-made book mailer I've never come across before, was simply closed with flaps. No tape, glue or other stop-anyone-from-opening-the package-and-half-inching-the-contents measures taken at all. The book, a thick and therefore massive object3 with lots of inertia, had been able to slip and slide a distance of about six inches, slamming into the unglued and gradually deforming ends of the package thereby sustaining light but annoying damage. Well done that e-store.

The technical term for packing up the orders and sending them out is fulfillment. Neither of the two e-commerce orders I received was particularly fulfilling since the one is incomplete and therefore as good as not delivered at all, and the other resulted in the otherwise perfect merchandise getting "distressed" en route.

Let us pass on to the true joy of e-commerce: painless international shopping. Ha.

I spent a good deal of Friday evening and Saturday morning attempting to do e-business with an English e-store, but was stymied for the most part by a stupid and persistent problem in which my postal address was morphed into what the English-and-never-been-anywhere-else web site designer assumed was a universal format, losing the small detail of which state I lived in from the mailing label. Fortunately I was able to engage a real human being in the process and something that should have taken all of ten minutes actually took closer to two hours. During this time I felt like a fool once (for missing a microscopically-sized link, lost in the page noise, that would let me attempt to fix things) and felt vindicated once (when the nice gentleman fixed things in my profile but the software still buggered up the mailing address anyway). The real person was very kind and helpful, but even he was completely fed up with things by the time we were done. I detected a certain relish in his tone when he informed me that the shop was changing its e-commerce site soon. I offered up a couple of suggestions4 but the best idea I think is to demand some sort of certification from web-portals that guarantee that if you offer overseas shipping the site can correctly record and reproduce the small detail of the shoppers address in a format the local mail services can recognise and use. Missing off the state (which I recorded as a county, there being no other space for it) was obviously a bug - and a deal killer since there are probably several towns with the same name as mine in my state alone, let alone the rest of the country. One other oddity was that the mailing label wanted to put the zip code after the Country. I'm not sure this is even correct in England.

I've come across this many times before of course. Anyone who lives in one country and does business on the web in another has. American websites won't record a county, even though it is a vital part of a UK address. UK websites won't allow you to not have a county, even though they aren't part of a valid US address. Don't get me started on the differences in requirements and nomenclature involved in accepting a credit card.

I don't get it.

Surely by now someone has a shopping cart that can detect the country the shopper is in and present a mailing profile/credit card slip in the correct format for that locale? If you are reading this and think "Boffo idea! I'll steal it and make one myself!" please remember to include an option to change the address and therefore the profile format to another country. Counter intuitive as it seems, sometimes a person wishes to make a purchase from one country and have it delivered in another.

Even National Geographic couldn’t cope with me ordering a subscription in the US for delivery to my mum in Canada a couple of years ago. You'd think that they would be the one organisation that "got it".

So much for the Sears-Roebuck Catalogue for the New Millennium.

  1. Yesyesyes I know. I got the photographs before Christmas, but only just now overcame my Formofillophobia enough to make out the application. It's tax time. Soon I shall be filling in forms the sole purpose of which is to remove money I haven't got from a bank account sorely in need of realistic amounts of cash. This gives me the heebie-jeebies and makes me hate forms of any kind
  2. defined as a cube about six inches on a side
  3. Dealing with the Solaris computer operating system. Thick. Heavy. Boring
  4. No, clean and constructive ones. I kept the top priority, "Kill the designer before he does any more damage", to myself

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You'll be unsurprised to know that wehn I lost my UK passport (issued in Germany, which should have meant another layer of staggering red tape to go around), which should result in exhaustive inquiries with all sorts of agencies, I had the new one in my hand in 5 days.