Saturday 20 February 2016

When Things Get Lost(?) in the Mail

NOTICE: This is going to be a bit of a melancholy rant-ish thing, so if that's not something you want to read, feel free to skip over it.

99% of the time when you ship something, everything goes perfectly how it should.

That last 1% of the time, is when things go wrong.

As a buyer, it's so frustrating to spend money on something and have it never arrive. It's one of the worst parts of buying online - just slightly behind something arriving damaged in my mind. But as a buyer, where do you draw the line? Who gets the blame if it needs to be assigned? The seller? - did they package it wrong? mess up the address? only say they sent it when they really didn't?; The postal company? Maybe the girl at the desk was new and screwed up inputting the shipping info. Maybe it got put in the wrong box and got squished in the machine, or fell behind a table and got misplaced; maybe it got delivered to your neighbour instead and they forgot about it; do you go all self-deprecating and blame yourself? If only you'd shelled out for tracking this wouldn't have happened?

But tracking - especially international tracking - can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes 3-5x more than regular shipping*. So you take a risk.

As a seller... you're thinking about all of these things... but also - what do I do if something goes wrong? You want to do right by your customers. You're careful packaging, take the time to drop everything at the post office in person because it feels safer than putting it in the drop box, double and triple check addresses, and then cross every last bit of yourself hoping the buyer will let you know their item arrived safely so you can stop worrying incessantly. But the truth of the matter is, no matter how careful you are, the moment the package is dropped at the post, everything that happens after that is completely outside your control.

And that is a really scary thing.

So what do you do when something does go wrong?

Well... first you check your mailbox to make sure it didn't get sent back (even though this would be really helpful). Then you call or visit the post office and cross your fingers that the package just fell on the floor or something. But of course it didn't, because how could you be so lucky? Then you call the central post support lines and they tell you - in a very sympathetic voice - that there's nothing they can do, maybe wait a little longer it might show up, sometimes things just get a little lost, sorry about that. Well none of that is really helpful, but hey, at least you tried?

But you know there's a (justifiably) irritated person on the other end of this exchange - and you have no idea how they're going to react if you declare the package lost. They spent money in exchange for a product that never came! That's really, REALLY frustrating as a buyer. It makes you question the seller, and sometimes internet or international shopping entirely. And you know what? That makes sense. It's totally reasonable to be frustrated and skeptical - even if you can logically realize that the seller probably didn't do anything wrong, it's still difficult not to blame them, at least a little bit.

Honestly, this is terrifying. As I've already mentioned, once an untracked package is left at the post office, I have exactly 0 control over what happens to it. But I'm constantly worried that someone is going to blow up at me over a lost package (even though it's incredibly rare) or it's going to ruin that relationship or others as a result.

You can refund their shipping (which is often what I do) because even though you did pay for the shipping, it didn't actually happen so it's a nice gesture to do that even though you're taking a hit financially.

But what to do about the item itself? Some would say just refund the whole purchase or replace the item. And for bigger businesses or those that sell cheaper or mass produced things, that's really the best way to go if you want to preserve the relationships (and your reputation, though that is a topic that makes me feel rather awkward, so I'll leave it there). But for fully custom or OOAK items, or just higher quality things that take a lot of time to produce - that's often either not possible, or really unreasonable. This could be due to a lack of materials, or even just time. A single item could represent hours and hours of work that is just lost in an instant because of a shipping issue. You're not only losing out on the money from the item itself but also the labour, skill, and time that went into designing, prototyping, material sourcing, making, marketing, packing, and shipping that item and the hours and hours of practice that came before it.

Even ignoring those other things, a tiny $30 skirt could (and in my case does) represent 12+ hours of work just to construct, and is then sold at a substantial loss because who in their right mind would pay $180+ for a doll skirt?

And so, simply writing off an item and refunding the whole amount is like voiding an entire day or two (or more) of your life. And that can be quite devastating - both financially and emotionally.
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So you come up with other options: remake the item (if possible) maybe for half price (or some other discount), give coupons for other items, refund some portion (but how much?!) - but none of them seem right... someone is still losing out and you (if you're like me) are losing A LOT. Add to that that you can never tell which option is best for a given situation. The customer may just really want that thing they bought and are okay with paying for another one, or they might just have bought it on a whim and would rather have their money back, or are just annoyed and want the whole thing to never have happened, or they might be entirely reasonable and realize this is a thing that sometimes happens and take the financial hit, but leave a lot more wary of you as a seller, or sellers in your country or any number of other things regardless.

And all of this is going on assuming that the person on the other end of the transaction is wholly honest. I take that view because otherwise I'd never bother selling anything, ever. But there's always the possibility that the item did arrive and someone is trying to scam you.

To be honest, I've had 2 packages sacrificed to the postal system (maybe... one is still within the long-term limit and customs is a bum sometimes) and I hold out hope they will still show up one day, but this weighs heavily every time I ship a thing, even domestically. I strongly regret how I handled that first lost package a few years ago because even then I had a no-refunds policy but I let myself get guilted into it anyway. I literally burst out crying at the time because I didn't know what else to do. And even though I've had that experience, and attempted to learn from it I feel the same flood of emotions and fear every time I don't know whether an item has arrived or when I hear the message tone on my phone and I have items currently being shipped.

With all these thoughts paralyzing you, all you really want is for the item to show up SOMEWHERE (anywhere?!) safe and sound because you poured yourself into that thing and having it lost is just heartbreaking for so many reasons besides disappointing a customer. But what option is ideally best for the situation, may not end up being what happens because there are so many other things influencing the decision. Yeah, you should have some kind of standard practice that works for you so you can just go off the script. Problem is, you first have to write that script.

So what do you do when something - specifically a handmade, possibly OOAK - item gets lost in the mail?

Honestly... I have no idea.


*I was once quoted $80 and $200 for tracked shipping a teensy 30 gram envelope worth $25. For reals.

1 comment:

  1. This post is exactly how I feel about lost packages.