STL: A Month of Darkness

On Friday, November 28th, Geoff Wallace from Maranatha Christian Bookshop, Uxbridge, pointed out that it was now a whole month since STL’s IT systems upgrade turned their operations pear-shaped; and if, as STL tell us, things are improving, then — as John Duncan from Cornerstone, Finchley, asks — the question is, where?

My own experience in the bookshop at LST is similar to Geoff’s and John’s: odds & ends coming through sporadically, box contents that don’t match the invoices and random carriage charges added irrespective of the invoice value. One consignment was completely duplicated, including duplicate invoice! The whole situation reminds me of one of London Underground’s favourite sayings: “Improvement works may affect your journey.”

Geoff’s and John’s most recent comments are copied below to bring this situation back to the top of our discussions:

Geoff Wallace, November 28, 2008, 4:07pm:

It is now the 28th November. The 28th of October marked the last of the four days of closure at STL as they tranferred their system. So one month later all should be well. But is it?

I had an order arrive today (28th) that I placed on the 22nd so maybe things are better than the 10 days that it was taking.

However, we have been ringing up daily about the new Soul Survivor Live 2008. There is no sign of Kingsway’s album of the month order for 6 copies (and this is a key title). Our rep placed a top up order on the 15th for a further 6 copies – still not arrived. Finally today we have one single copy that WE placed on the 20th to try and prove that STL physically had stock and had had it for several days. Each time we rang up customer services they kept saying they had stock and this proves it.

AND YET Compassionart was dispatched all on its own to us and arrived on the 26th in a parcel sent in the post. And STL say that every order is dealt with in strict order of receipt!!!!!!! 

John Duncan, November 29, 2008, 12:33pm:

Glad you got your order placed on the 22nd, Geoff. I’m still waiting for mine. Haven’t seen a sniff off the Soul Survivor album either, A discussion I had with customer services this week established two things: that they are working towards a 48-hour despatch, but that it in fact is taking a week to send orders out. Since my experience has been that it has been taking a week (at least) for several weeks now, what exactly does ‘working towards’ mean? I have seen absolutely no progress in the last few weeks.

I also read in the new Christian Marketplace that Mark Hurley states (page 7) that ‘towards the end of the week ending 7th November, we were achieving 48 hour despatch in the main’. Really? Who to? Is there anybody out there who is getting 48 hour despatch today, let alone who was at the 7th November?

Geoff Wallace, November 29, 2008, 2:42pm:

Cloud and Cuckoos spring to mind.

STL may be sending out more parcels as the days go by but how many of them are for just one or two books that are backordered items? I think STL have a major problem with attaching back orders to a normal order. It is a very hit and miss affair and this seems to be the problem with Soul Survivor. They definately have had stock since the 20th but it keeps saying 0 copies supplied.

I had a box yesterday with just one single pocket NIV hardback in it. Another box came in with just 4 SU new publication items. This must be slowing up the whole system and is a crazy way of working.

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15 thoughts on “STL: A Month of Darkness

  1. Soul Survivor arrived in this afternoon (well 6 copies so far, no sign of the rest but it’s a start)

  2. I have every sympathy with STL in some ways. I have lived through a number of IT systems implementation- all at the ‘retail end’ of things. So things do go wrong, and issues arise. But I find it difficult to work out how things have gone so badly wrong with the ‘sharp end’ of the distribution. Some of the issues with invoicing (incorrect number on boxes, semi-duplicated invoices, half orders, mixed up back orders) surely should have been anticipated & picked up in the testing stages. And like Geoff, I find it difficult to describe the frustration of these constant minimalist boxes. Yes, the excitement of opening up that despatch pdf, hoping to find it contains that long lost customer order- alas! only to find it contains some long forgotten and irrelevant backorder. How much do these boxes cost to send out? We order three or four times a week- surely it would be more economical in any way to get these amalgamated, even manually, if the system is currently unable to cope.
    We are currently receiving deliveries that are seven days old- we received on the 1st Ddecember orders from 24th/25th November. After a number of upsets, at least we no longer seem to have any missing deliveries, and we’re grateful to Clive Doherty for tracking down and expediting a major customer order that vanished into some technological black hole…… It is getting better- but only very slowly.

  3. I’m feeling a tad bemused looking at the front cover of November’s Christian Marketplace — a huge ad boldly proclaiming, “STL Distribution: your one stop, one invoice, one delivery supplier for Christian product” and offering a reduced free carriage limit plus extended order deadline through December…

    A trifle optimistic, methinks!!

  4. I received one Soul Survivor album, all on its own, by post today (we have 10 on order). I am still waiting for my November 22nd order. I commend your efforts to discern improvement, Andrew, bit I’m struggling to see any.

  5. Ha yes!
    But I recieved a visit from my STL rep at last!
    who apologised for the missing visits, though he already had and had been forgiven, and then apologised for the STL System stuff up ( my words not Tim’s) and admitted he was copping a lot of flack and did indeed look a tad tarried.
    I also recieved last week a visit from the CPR rep who reckoned he only just found out I was selling Christian Books!! Strange that as Mr Mordue has known since 5th Feb! He then asked did I have an account with Marstons! I tell you this all worries me as it shows yet another important trade communication failure!!
    How come that some of the Publishers, wholesalers, HQ lot are not passing on important details such as new accounts and therefore new customers to their reps for them to then make contact??
    or is it the Market snobbery thing again really??

    Hmm who knows, but I do know that the reps have been – oh and I am chalking it up to this blog, Phil, and giving me a forum to moan on that maybe they do pay a bit of attention to! thank you.

    On STL well, let me say that I am rapidly loosing heart here, I too am waiting for deliveries that should have been here a while ago, am getting sick of wrong invoices, and am heartily naffed with SELECT, I am thinking they should rename the promo SELECT SOMETHING ELSE as that one ain’t in stock and even if it was it probably now won’t be here for christmas!.
    Good job for Bertram, Gardners, Publishers & Ingrams.

    Ohh having said Bertrams, it is worth pointing out that due to the woolies fiasco although they are not in the firing line directly I am reliably informed they are rapidly reducing discount levels being offered to independents to improve their own worth and increase their profits etc! So ok that only puts their discount structure in line with STL’s anyway, so not such a negative thing necessarily but if looking for an alternative back-up wholesaler it would be worth talking to Gardners to check what they are offering independents etc, and they do have a good range of Christian books by the way including Zondervan titles in stock etc.

    In a previous post to the blog I mentioned looking at getting together an Independent Christian Buyers Group and trying to negotiate better deals with suppliers – it is still something I would be interested in doing if any others were interested (and yes Phil I will join the BA as well as soon as finances permit! I agree it is a good group and this is not to detract from that at all, it is as an addition in effect!).

    Anyway as said if anyone is interested then you can email me directly if you want to: unicorntreebooks (at) aol (dot) com so as not to clutter the blog, that goes to any publishers or wholesalers etc who may be interested in working with such a group as well, should it have any teeth that it!

  6. Surprising we have an STL invoice dated 1st Dec. However, although it showed the new 15% VAT rate for a CD (Soul Survivor – yes we have had some more arrive)the cost price had been increased so that it still retailed at £14.99. We have checked with Kingsway and this is definately wrong. We have notified STL but I suggest you check invoices carefully.
    If you use the new updated STL stock data that was received on Tuesday with all the data revised for the new VAT rate this is also wrong for the Integrity and Fierce CDs that we checked (the cost price has been adjusted upwards to make the retail price still £14.99. STL have been notified.

    I blame the Chancellor for dumping this on the retail trade and feel sympathy for STL having to deal with this at a time when they are struggling to cope.

    Our 24th Nov has gone into a black hole whilst orders for the 25th and 26th are making it to the invoice stage.

    I counted up all my STL invoices today and the value is at least half or less than the equivalent invoices for November last year.

    Also be aware that no STL invoices have been uploaded to Batch for several weeks now. Don’t get caught out when they finally upload.

  7. In answer to Melanie. A number of shops across the country did get together about ten years ago and form a buyers group called INDEPTH. It worked for a while but eventually lack of involvement by many of the shops meant that all the work was done by a handful of people and we eventually wound it up. We published a magazine that had a few offers in it but once Select started there was no way we could compete.

    Personally I think that Select works well (except recently) but it has become too ambitious with far too many offers that mean that shops have to invest in a lot of stock if they do a mail out.
    (Perhaps in the New Year Phil could do a blog on how we think Select could be improved. I am grateful that as an indepedant shop I have access to the same offers as Crown and Wesley Owen)

  8. Thanks for that Geoff, I do have a very very vague recollect of indepth now you mention it – not much of one though, in SPCK shops we had the minilog at about that time, but what I am suggesting is that we get one of the wholesalers to do most of the work rather like Bertrams do with the Independent Booksellers Group.
    Yes there needs to be a core group at the heart doing the negotiations, selections etc, but the bulk of the hard work is then passed on to the wholesaler or publishers.
    Also I am not necessarily suggesting something that is akin to select -I am not suggesting an offers thing/leaflet promotion – I am suggesting a buying group that negotiates an improved discount being offered to the members of the group etc, if you then want to pass on the discount then you can, but what it should do is increase the margins achieved akin to the larger retailers and groups that as smaller individual businesses we are largely unable to do other than in a few instances.
    http://www.bertrambooks.co.uk/BertWeb/index.jsp?s=26&ss=386
    Alternatively we could speak to the leading edge buying group (http://www.leadingedgebooks.co.uk/leadingedgebooks.asp) to see if there was a benefit there, though I am much more leary of that one as it costs! – though having said that so does the Crown Initiative and Select!
    Still if you reckon it’s a non runner then fair do.
    I guess it’s just that having been working in the general independent bookshop trade for the last few years now as well as the Christian side of it I have become a little spoiled on what the General Book wholesalers etc tend to be offering to the independents! Free booktime magazines to give to my customers each month, good terms promotions regularly on good backlist and an awful lot of new titles with 45 -55% discounts regularly etc, free shop merchandising materials and posters -often tailored to my shop at my request without charge etc.
    Well it’s just that I know the advantages that gives to me as a small general independent and I would love to see that both for me and for others as small independent christian bookshops as well.

  9. John, in trying (and yes, it is trying!!) to see improvements, I am simply sharing our experience at GLO. I have just checked my despatches from STL, and we are now down to 5 working days. Still along way to go to get back to where we were though!

    It has to be said that, like all systems, we are learning to work the system as far as possible to our advantage. After we send an order, we phone to make sure it has been received & been processed into the system. Then twice a week we have been phoning to check the status of all the orders we have placed, where they are in the system, and identifying the ones that are falling into this strange parallel universe that must exist somewhere in Carlisle . I phone to check the status of individual customer orders, and re-direct them sooner rather than later to CLC or another supplier. Customer Services are probably sick of me pestering them!!! With the Merlio system, we match the order received to the orders sent, so duplicates are immediately picked up. Part orders can be married up with each other, outstanding items show up after the cancellations are done.

    So there have been improvements at our end, as well at the STL end.

    As time goes on, it seems to be blatantly obvious that the classic IT mistake seems to have been made- a system that does lots & lots very trendily & produces lots & lots of nice reports- BUT doesn’t do what it really needs to do for the end-users….. I think my worst fears were realised when Graham Sopp referred in his letter to the ‘External Project Team’. In my experience, such teams never seriously take the proposed output of their work during the development stage, and honestly ask the warehouse guy, or the goods-in worker in a shop, or the customer service people how it actually relates in practise. Look at the changes announced in invoices layout over a month after the changover- surely these should have been blindingly obvious in the trial runs?

    Anyway, we are now contacting STL to cancel backorders big time. The last thing we need is a whole load of orders left lurking in their system to descend on us on December 24th, when the warehouse realise they still have mountains of stock left!

    As they say, worse things happen at sea….. In my previous job in supermarkets when we had warehouse problems, then you were facing angry customers with no bread or milk or fags or (worse of all) lentils for making soup (no, I never understood why lentil soup aroused such passion……) Now, that really IS a situation where you have to lock yourself in the office to escape being lynched……

  10. Hey, folks, a Christmas Miracle! We have just had our FIRST 24 HOUR delivery. Yes, that’s right- emailed my order no 3518 this morning, and we have despatch email for Order no 3518 sitting there in our inbox this evening. Time for a celebration, eh? Now, is this the moment to mention I originally emailed said Order no 3518 on the 11th December, and phoned this morning to check up where it had disappeared to? No, I really shouldn’t do that- it just takes a tiny bit of the gloss of the acheivement!! So let’s just say I told the young lady on Customer Services about all the lovely customer orders that were on my order, and how upset they would be if their Joyce Meyer books didn’t arrive, and she said she would chase up the warehouse. My word, she must be effective! She’s sorted- in one fell swoop- problems a whole project team have been working on for two months……

    So I shall go to bed content with the world.

    And, because I know you’re thinking it, so I may as well confess. Yes, I do sit at home some nights and dial into the shop emails. This is technology gone mad. Or maybe just me. I really should try & get out more often….

  11. Sorry, I meant to post this here … Amazingly, I have also received a 24 hour delivery today! Is this the moment to mention that there is no invoice, only half the delivery has arrived, and that the label on the box relates to an earlier, entirely separate order that I received two days ago?

    I have also received two orders this week that came in 72 hours, with invoices, and were largely correct. This represents a big improvement on where things were … at the moment I would far rather have correct deliveries in 72 hours than chaotic ones in 24 hours.

    I would like to echo Andrew’s comment in his other post – have a good break over Christmas, STL staff (especially customer services). Thanks for all the efforts you have put in to get this sorted.

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