On-line stores pull off e-com magic

It’s not only in the world of witches and warlocks that Harry Potter is famous. Muggles (non-magical people) have also gone crazy over the scraggly-haired wizard, and this has put on-line bookstores to the test.

Toronto-based Chapters.ca started pre-selling Book IV of J.K. Rowling’s series on Feb. 2, even though the company didn’t even find out the name of the latest book in the Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, until a week before the book was available.

Chapters.ca promised to deliver the first 10,000 orders of the book on July 8, a Saturday, to about 32 different cities across Canada. Eight weeks before the launch date, Chapters.ca approached Canada Post about delivering the books on a weekend, said Warren Cable, the general manager.

Chapters started dividing the addressed packages in which the books were to ship by region four or five days before they physically received the book.

There was a lot of communications back and fourth with the customers, Cable said. Customers were asked to leave a note of where to put the book if they were going to be out. The call centre was waiting with extra staff and extra copies of the book on hand, ready to grab a cab and personally deliver copies of the book in case of a glitch.

“It went fabulously,” Cable said. “This was really a great test for e-commerce.”

Web developers, logistics planners and distribution groups at companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Borders Group Inc. and Federal Express Corp. were also planning for weeks in advance.

The book was expected to yield the largest-ever shipment of an e-commerce product and had every link of the business-to-business supply chain scrambling to ensure that demand can be met.

“As a corporation, we’ve been planning on this release for months,” said Rich Fahle, content manager at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Borders.com.

Borders had racked up more than 100,000 orders for the Rowling book, before the July 8 release.

When the book’s publisher finally revealed the title of the long-awaited book, it set off a chain of events at Seattle-based Amazon.com, which had received more than 275,000 orders for the book prior to release.

“Among other things, we had to quickly change all of the places Harry Potter IV appeared on our Web site,” said Lyn Blake, general manager of the on-line bookstore. “It sounds easy, but there’s a lot involved in making that happen.”

Amazon had been working closely with Memphis-based FedEx, which shipped the books from Amazon’s six distribution centres. Amazon offered free Saturday delivery for the first 250,000 customers who ordered the book.

To ship all the Amazon orders, FedEx used 100 flights and 9,000 delivery workers out of 700 stations. It also placed computers and FedEx information technology workers on-site at Amazon’s distribution centres. Orders for the book have been astronomical – six times more than Amazon’s former largest pre-order of 43,000 copies of John Grisham’s The Brethren.

Before the promised shipment day, FedEx and Amazon had to check the data quality to ensure they had correct shipping addresses for pre-orders.

“We e-mailed all of our pre-order customers and told them to go back and check their shipping address, since FedEx can’t ship to a PO box. Customers then came back to our Web site and confirmed their address,” said Blake.

Amazon also had to change its shipping and billing processes and systems. Usually, Amazon bills customers’ credit cards as soon as their orders are picked, packed and sent out from one of its distribution centres. But in Harry’s case, Amazon has been pre-packaging early orders at the centres, but waited to bill customers’ credit cards until the books were shipped out at precisely 12:01 a.m. on July 8.

“This has required a work-around change in our software,” Blake said.

But analyst Stacy McCullough at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said that though the Potter shipment presents certain challenges, it’s easier to prepare for than the holidays. “I think with this type of shipment, while it is very large . . . it’s easier to handle than a mad rush on all the products.”

Meanwhile, Borders is capitalizing on Pottermania to drive traffic from its Web site to its 300 brick-and-mortar stores, and vice versa.

Customers who pre-ordered the book on-line for home delivery will receive coupons for Borders’ caf