The online journal to Offscreen Magazine — for all the things that don't fit into the magazine. We also regularly publish behind the scenes info about the making of Offscreen. Why not follow along and grab the RSS feed?
Managing incoming orders was one of the many challenges I was facing when I launched Offscreen. With the help of my developer friend Simon Watson, we just this week launched the beta of the internal order management system that will power the backend of the Offscreen website from now on. Since I like to share things that happen behind the scenes with all of you regularly, here a few of the thoughts and challenges that went into building this system.
After many hours of research, I concluded that there’s no ready-made e-commerce tool with the flexibility necessary to manage subscriptions—the bloodline of any magazine. There are various problems such a system needs to tackle—some of which are:
If a customer orders a subscription—say issue #1, #2 and #3—she pays for it once today. Since only issue #1 is available now, I will have to re-process this existing order every time a new issue is released, up to issue #3. This means that the system needs to be smart enough to let specific items re-appear in the shipping list as they become available.
My fulfillment company in Berlin requires a weekly CSV file with all the necessary shipping information for each order. Compiling and exporting this database needs to adhere to the exact format set out by the shipper, otherwise sending out the weekly batch to the wrong addresses can become pretty expensive—not to mention embarrassing.
Optimising shipping costs
Even though customers only pay a low flat shipping fee, sending out the magazines at the best possible rate isn’t as easy as it seems. If a customer orders more than one item, our system needs to understand what issues are currently available for shipping, what country it’s delivered to and then make a decision whether to box these items or send them separately in single envelopes in order to get the best possible shipping rate.
Being able to change shipping addresses, payment and shipping status etc. are all “standard” but still important features of any order management system—especially considering that some people might move in between issues being released.
Simon and I decided to take advantage of PayPal’s IPN tool which is a notification service that provides an on-going feed of all the transactions occurring on a PayPal account. Connecting our order management system to the IPN service meant that the system was automatically being updated with the latest transaction info. As straight forward as it seemed at the time, it was not without its challenges. Things like second guessing the undocumented quirks of the system (something I refer to as “FailPal”), building some sensible rules around how to handle the different notifications and even just changing the PayPal default language encoding to support international characters all added to the “richness” of the experience.
The system seems to work smoothly so far and I can’t wait to put it to the (real) test when the second issue goes on sale in a couple of weeks. Since I still have not come across any piece of software that allows smart magazine subscription management and other complex exporting features, I’m wondering how all the other indie mags are managing their orders and their fulfillment process. If you are running an indie mag, I invite you to share your process too. :)