Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, November 05, 2010

I Fought the Web (And the Web Won)

Technology seldom beats me outright. Oh sure: constant change, complexity, and expense bedevil me as much as the next guy. I don’t understand smart phones at all, for example, or why we need to pay $110 a month for dumb cell
phones on top of $120 for normal phone/cable TV/internet. I know only the rudiments of using the DVR. I don’t own a MP3 player and I rarely take my cell phone out of my office. I haven’t been able to run a new game on my 7.5-year-old gaming PC for at least three years now. I have never seen a Blu-ray disk. I am, in short, permanently stuck circa 2005.

And yet, the years that I worked in software development equipped me with the basic skills to muddle through this whole internet thing. When I can’t solve a problem myself, I know where to seek help. Persistence and money usually bend technology to my will. Usually. Some problems can’t be solved.

The PayPal Checkout Loop goes back to at least 2007, but that’s a Sunshop bug – there’s nothing I can do about it. Turnkey can’t fix it because I can’t reproduce it, and since nobody but me has ever reported it it is likely to endure forever.

The Admin timeout bug has plagued me ever since I moved to MochaHost. It’s caused by an operating system setting on my shared server that they refuse to change – unless I upgrade to a dedicated server or change hosting companies, I must continue logging in every 24 minutes for the rest of eternity, like Desmond pushing his button. At least the island doesn’t move when I blow it off, Brother.

Now we can add USPS shipping times to that short list. Here’s the background that I wrote back in February:

In January the USPS raised rates on Priority Mail and Express Mail; First Class and Parcel Post rates stayed the same. Customers usually choose the least-expensive Parcel Post option, and I've always upgraded those orders to either UPS Ground or Priority Mail. The upgraded price is still at or below my actual cost, the customer gets better service than they paid for, and everybody’s happy.

Or was until now. Priority Mail rates went up and Parcel Post did not. That means that my shipping costs rose while the fees I collect – which come from rate table lookups -- didn’t. The advent of zoned pricing sometimes makes West Coast upgrades a losing proposition. Shrinking the small spread between fees collected and costs paid out is harming my bottom line.

To rectify that, I could:
1. Raise my handling fee. But that penalizes my First Class, UPS, and east coast customers.
2. Increase product weights. But that punishes my most desirable customers – those who buy multiple products at once.
3. Eliminate Parcel Post. But taking away the lowest-priced option would make my shipping charges visibly higher and harm a competitive advantage.
4. Leave everything unchanged and accept the smaller spread. But that makes it more difficult to reach my sales plan (which I calculate based on net sales after shipping costs) and ultimately comes out of my pocket.
5. Actually ship via Parcel Post more often. But shipments that now take 2-3 days would take 7-10 days. Customers won’t like that.

An attentive reader suggested a sixth solution: Show customers the transit times. If they see “Priority Mail: 2-3 Days” and “Parcel Post: 4-10 Days”, most will pay the incremental cost for Priority, my rate spread will be covered, and profitability will improve. Brilliant! I just need to edit the shipping method dropdown list that appears in the shipping estimator and at checkout. That’s, like, five minutes’ work at the most, right?

Yeah, about that. USPS domestic, USPS international, and UPS each have a shipping module consisting of a single small file. When I edit them in Textpad my UPS text shows up immediately. USPS text never does. So is it stored somewhere else? The independent developers in Turnkey’s Modifications forum keep referring me back to the same USPS.php file that’s not working. Turnkey itself remains silent; they’re not obliged to support user mods. In one last shot at ending the stalemate, I prevailed upon my developer to investigate. His verdict:

Usps.php has an install method that clearly writes this stuff to the database when the module is "installed" and it looks like checkout is calling a function in global.php called "get_shipping" which really looks like it's reading from the database to generate dropdown options... but I don't know how any of this stuff ties together... so I could be way off base.

I do see something that looks like it might be setting up a http call and parsing a response in usps.php as well... so maybe it's a web call. *shrug*

I'm fairly confident it's not reading values from USPS.php (that would be... extremely idiotic)

Turnkey hasn't made this very straightforward... so it’s not trivial to figure out how that's being generated.

If you want me to figure this out I will, but you're going to have to give me a few weeks to find time to do some hardcore reverse engineering and put up with me hacking up (and very likely breaking) your shipping functionality for a bit while I troubleshoot.

Higher shipping charge receipts would eventually recoup the cost of hiring Brad to reverse-engineer this function – assuming that he can “fix” it at all; if the text is being passed from the USPS server along with the rates, I’m just screwed. And “eventually” is a long time; I can’t afford any more unplanned expenses in a year that’s already been hammered by them.

So I am back to Square One. Right now I’m still absorbing the increased costs. If sales were running anywhere near plan I might remove the cheap Parcel Post option; very few other shops offer it. But sales have still not crawled out of the crapper that I plumbed last week; I can’t risk doing anything that might flush them deeper.


Speaking of last week…Forget everything I said about Facebook advertising. Turns out that I can advertise products directly, so I started with an ad for my old warhorse, Panther Vision caps. After a week my exhorbitant 75-cent bid bought 5,555 impressions without one single click. Crap. On Monday I added Switchables and Buckyballs to my campaign. On Tuesday I reordered golf balls and started advertising them. As of this morning Switchables has racked up 54 clicks, golf balls have 45, Buckyballs have only six, and Panther caps remain stuck at 0. FB’s tracking code is in beta, so I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that the $27.75 I spent this week brought in a single sale. Click-through rates are abysmal on FB, and the cost to buy impressions is very high. As nice as it is to see overall traffic spike past 300 daily visits (!), I can’t afford this for very long.

FB’s infamous intrusion on its members’ privacy is its main appeal to advertisers: I can target my ads very narrowly based on the interests that users willingly reveal. I’ve decided to cough up $50 of my own to prolong this experiment for another week; if I can figure out how to use this precise targeting to reduce my cost, it's worth flogging through Christmas.


Speaking of the crapper…Christmas is finally starting to crawl out of it. For the rest of this year I’m throwing plan out the window; I just need to match LY. At the moment sales are running 22% behind last year with a day and a half (21% of the week) left to go. It’s going to be tight, but I might just barely make my nut for this important first week of November. It’s a fairly big nut.


Now that the voting is over I can get back to being my usual level-headed, moderate self. After one parting shot at politics, that is.

After spending $250 million on midterm campaigns, corporate America has got the Congress it paid for. I’ve cut next year’s planned sales increase by 50% to reflect the two additional years of economic stagnation that voters just ratified. There will be no second stimulus package. There will be no more unemployment benefit extensions. The economy has been cut loose.

Americans did not vote the Republicans in so much as they voted the Democrats out. Republicans owe their gains to two factions (apart from the Tea Party’s billionaire backers), and the fate of their party depends on which one they reward. Their main support in 2010 came from the same independent, moderate voters who flocked to Obama in 2008. These swing voters expect them to work with the Democrats on solving this country’s real problems, and they will desert in 2012 if they don’t see tangible progress. Republicans would be wise to deliver it. The other faction -- Tea Party extremists – promised conflict and confrontation. Their uncompromising ideological purity, if indulged, will ensure that nothing gets done. Republicans certainly owe them some grand symbolic gestures, like introducing a doomed health care repeal bill, but they would be unwise to give them anything substantial. Tea Partiers have no alternative to voting Republican so the party need not kowtow to them.

This struggle for control over the Republican Party is fascinating fallout from their recent victory. I’d actually feel sorry for Republicans if the poor and middle class weren’t going to be the main casualties of this power struggle.

My home state of Massachusetts successfully fought off the Republican wave entirely. They did not win a single position of consequence here. Our Commonwealth remains solidly blue and unashamedly liberal after roundly rejecting budget cutters and tax cutters. So I’m somewhat insulated from whatever shenanigans they pull in Congress – except inasmuch as the harm that they do to the national economy drags Massachusetts down with everyone else. Nobody’s going to take away our universal health care or gut social programs or repeal our rights here, so I can be sanguine about developments that are alarming progressives elsewhere.

From Curio City’s point of view, two more years of tepid economic growth are the most chilling result of last Tuesday’s election. This business was predicated on rapid growth to bootstrap from zero to a living wage. The Great Recession already trimmed my sails; Republican-induced stagnation could ultimately sink the ship. It just depends on how much longer I’m willing to keep bailing.


  1. Michele Rasor4:41 PM

    The republicans will make things worse either by action or inaction. But the underlying problem is that neither party will stand against the oligarchs who are their patrons, and grow a spine in our dealings with China, and with the same oligarch regarding our continual wars (which we can't afford). With the situation as is, the ownership class has grown very rich indeed and China grows ever more powerful. Meanwhile, the industrial midwest is down to a skeleton of its former self (some portion of this was inevitable because of automation and efficiency gains and a massive increase in competition from outside the country)and the rest of the country has started to notice that the trade/jobs inbalance is cutting into their job availability and general income levels also...these are structural problems that the mlitary/corporate (big oil and wallstreet bankers and the war corporations) complex will not admit we have (though when we almost lost our industrial base in one stroke during the economic plunge they had to pause for thought...) They paint any effort at parity in trade practices as ignorant and misguided- but this is just more propaganda (we are always awash in oligarchic propaganda and circuses) and resist any effort to limit the continual war. By the time they are done, we will be a dried out husk, and they will fall away like a full tick, and scurry off to Dubai, or Geneva or the Grand Caymans...it will be one of your greater heists in history.

  2. Thanks for your comment Michele, nice to know that you're reading. Although this digression is really outside the usual scope of my blog, your comment brought to mind a column in today's Globe. Rather than paraphrase, I offer this link: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/11/05/cheap_money_wont_fix_this_economy/

    The juicy bit:

    The cure for the Great Depression was World War II — a massive fiscal and technological stimulus. Annual wartime deficits peaked at about 28 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The government went on a hiring binge, both for war production and via the military draft. The economy blasted out of depression.

    Today, however, both parties are wringing their hands over much smaller deficits, projected this year at about 9 percent of GDP. Republicans just took back the House with a campaign against big government.

    So there is no political appetite for the civilian equivalent of World War II — a public campaign to rebuild rotting bridges, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, and to invest in 21st century infrastructure such as a smart electric grid and clean energy technology that would make the economy more productive as well as creating millions of jobs.

    The implication is that without the peacetime equivalent of war footing, we're going to need a good old-fashioned total war to get out of this -- these picayune wars that the Republicans like to fight as a sideline aren't going to do the trick.

  3. Michele12:53 PM

    we will be stimulating china's economy rather than our own with those big stimuli, unless we claw back some of those jobs...turns out, those politicians (McCain was one) who loved to come to the Detroit Economic Club and say, 'Those jobs are gone, and they aren't coming back' (line from a Springsteen song as well, but he wasn't the first who said it) were threatening, rather than stating fact...they can come back if we decide that that is important. the fact that the oligarchy was so eager to send so many jobs away (and do such a good propaganda job of making it seem inevitable) reflects, first, their desire of moremoremore profits and therefore power, and second, their hatred of the unions, which are one of the few forces that threaten them. The only other thing they really have to be afraid of is the guillotine or something like it. If income inequality keeps spreading ever wider, with no break on the power of the oligarchy, we will need those guillotines.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

Google Search