Outsourcing Fulfilment

It’s absolutely fatal to voice satisfaction with the status quo, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s a mistake even to consciously form the thought that everything seems to be going swimmingly. It positively invites disaster. Hubris begets nemesis. One moment we’re fondly dwelling in this newsletter on the advantages of our new office and studio space – so light, so leafy, so quiet! And with a new coffee machine! What creative times we have ahead of us! And the next thing we know calamity has struck and our fulfilment bites the dust.

That sentence may make no sense to you. Let me explain. Back in the mists of time, when we still occupied our mouldy old studio space in Christ’s College and the business had only just got going, we spent a small portion of each day packing the orders that, somewhat to our astonishment, were steadily trickling in from our website and by email. There were days when the trickle dried up entirely, and there were days when there was a positive flood of orders – say three! or even four! We had a lovely time wrapping parcels and going up and down the fantastically inconvenient spiral fire escape that led to the studio, on our way to and from the King Street Post Office just across the road. It was challenging (in a good way) to find the best way to pack products to ensure safety in transit and a satisfying experience for the customer when they opened the parcel. We enjoyed messing about with brown paper and tape. We wrote out the addresses ourselves in a black marker pen in our best handwriting.  The technical business jargon for what we were doing was that we were ‘handling our own fulfilment’.

Cambridge Imprint A4 Portfolio covered in Wave Patterned Paper

Gradually the studio and our own homes filled up with stock. We couldn’t have deliveries at the studio, so everything had to be delivered to someone’s home, then ferried in by car and up the aforementioned spiral staircase. Sometimes moving things again just seemed like too much bother. When you have one beautifully patterned prototype box in your hand it’s quite difficult to visualise what 300 boxes will look like. It doesn’t sound like that many. Several weeks later the doorbell rings and outside is a huge lorry, from the back of which the driver is unloading his forklift, the better to deliver his giant payload. All the neighbours are looking on with interest. For the next two hours you scurry backwards and forwards, until the sitting room is filled – filled – with cartons. It remains in this state for the next year or so.

Over time the gentle trickle of orders became a steadier stream, with the occasional hard-to-predict flood. We still relished every one, but packing them was no longer a fun half hour first thing in the morning, but instead a couple of hours a day, plus half of Monday because of all the weekend orders building up. Instead of volunteering to pack orders with alacrity we started taking it in turns so that everyone got a couple of days off a week. One’s heart sank slightly at those orders where someone seemed to have gone out of their way to choose two mutually incompatible items guaranteed to destroy each other in transit given the chance: a single sheet of patterned paper and a mug, for example. Everyone fully internalised the baroque complexities of the Royal Mail parcel pricing schedule plus those of various other couriers (they’re all different) and there was a giant decision-making flowchart on the wall summarising our years of arcane experience in sending differently-shaped parcels of varying weights to unusual destinations. (What service would you use to send a parcel under 45 cm in its largest dimension and weighing just under 2 kilograms, which must arrive within 48 hours because it’s for someone’s birthday (the customer has sent a sweet email explaining the urgency) to the Outer Hebrides? What if the time frame doesn’t matter? But now what if it’s over 2kg? What if it’s under 2kg but over 45 cm long? Is it worth unpacking the parcel you just packed and repacking it into a squarer box with shorter sides? Yes it is.)

There came a point when we had to acknowledge that we weren’t really enjoying the parcels any more. In fact, that our hearts lifted with relief when we came in in the morning to discover that business had been a bit slow the day before and that the pile of orders to do was small or non-existent. That’s not a good state of mind for a merchant. Christmas was approaching, and business was in fact brisk, occasionally rising to gale force. There were a couple of months in which Claerwen and Jane packed parcels as fast as they could go, carried them in great teetering piles down the spiral stairs to the Post Office, then came back upstairs looking forward to ten minutes off and a cup of tea to find a new pile of orders waiting. (We saw a lot of Deepak and Jyoti in the Post Office at this time and that is why ever since you have been able to find a very generous display of our cards in their compact premises in King Street. They also sell a fine range of loose teas and freshly roasted coffee beans. Worth a visit.) When that Christmas was over we were merely the shrivelled husks of our former selves. No-one had picked up a paintbrush or a pot of ink for months. We acknowledged the time had come to turn the sending of parcels over to a professional parcel-sender: in the creepy dystopian business jargon which we were reluctantly learning to speak, we needed to Outsource Our Fulfilment.

There was nothing remotely creepy or dystopian about the relationship which then sprang up between our small business and our ‘logistics partner’, a similarly modestly sized family firm operating out of some old farm buildings in Wyboston. For every futuristic Amazon warehouse operated by slaves or robots there must be hundreds of these small storage and distribution companies, staffed by enterprising humans, quietly taking on unexpectedly complicated tasks at a moment’s notice with an extraordinarily game can-do attitude. All our stock departed from the studio, and our living rooms, and our parents’ living rooms, and the various other corridors, attics and outbuildings it had been lurking in, and took up residence in Wyboston. Since that day John, Lee, Claire, Kayley, Dawn, Tereza and Nikola’s have been the careful hands that have packed all your parcels so beautifully. After a couple of years we had grown sufficiently that they were forced to move into bigger premises: a bona fide warehouse in Kempston. They accomplished the move so smoothly that we didn’t even know about it until it was done. The two companies grew together and depended on one another, and we thanked the powers that be daily, and fervently, for these guardian angels who had removed from us a task far beyond our powers and left us in peace to accomplish jobs that we were much better at, namely drawing, painting, cutting, sticking, mixing and splodging. Mucking about and fooling around.

Alas for us, the days of our fulfilment company are numbered and their demise will be swift. We must find a new warehouse and expert parcel-sender this summer. Don’t worry — we will continue to trade on through, and all our new autumn things are in the pipeline now. The summer is our busiest design time. But we are sad at this forced parting from our excellent packing team, and dismayed by the prospect of moving. We’ve just helped a friend move house. It took a good five weeks to pack. It was notable that by the end of this time beloved possessions of enormous sentimental value had become white elephants that they were prepared to give away to perfect strangers, burn, or take to the dump. With that lesson in mind we have launched a preemptive online sale.We want to clear the decks of all sorts of precious items that are orphaned or otherwise surplus to requirements, so as to not have to move them, or hurl them into a skip in despair at the eleventh hour. Everything you see pictured here is in the sale and a lot more besides, and at a very good price: the last remnants of our patterned linens of a few summers ago, the final boxes of last year’s hand-made Christmas crackers in their gorgeous box, all sorts of box files, portfolios, pen boxes and pen pots, letter trays and ring binders in discontinued patterns are available now, mostly at 50% off. Over the years we have had some mournful emails from far-flung customers who are unable to get to Cambridge for our annual clear-out in December. They asked couldn’t we have an online version? Here it is folks: it all has to go.

Tereza and Nikola will be packing the orders you place for the next couple of months, right up until the move. Thank you to them, for their patience, calm, and attention to detail these past years. And thank you to all of you, for keeping us, and them, busy doing the things we do best.