Order Fulfillment

As a photographer, I have regularly struggled with the decision of whether to do “self fulfillment” or host my photographs on a web site that offers “managed” order fulfillment.

For the past several years, I was doing order fulfillment myself. We had a very nice system (“Photo Cart” from Pictures Pro [opens in new window]) that I was able to customize to fit the look and feel of our web site. This system served its purposes well and gave me a very high degree of control over the ordering process when a client would order prints or products from our site.

However, what also comes with a system like that is a high amount of configuration and maintenance. If I wanted to offer a new item (a coffee cup or other similar photo product) to our clients, it would take me quite a bit of time to configure the system to offer those items in the shopping cart. In addition, this high degree of control meant a high degree of hands-on work on each order. And not to go unmentioned, in addition to the amount of time I would spend on each order, I still had plenty of component costs involved in each one, as well (print costs, credit card processing fees, etc.).

Perhaps most important, the image files that we would upload to our site were resized to manage space on the web site server. Most standard web hosting arrangements (at a reasonable monthly cost) do impose some limits on space. Even the ones that say “Unlimited Storage” don’t often mean that literally. So, in an effort to manage the amount of disk space we consumed, we would resize the images before uploading them. Of course, we always kept all of our original files locally, but we did not upload those to the site.

Recently, we encountered a rather serious outage on our web site. A disk drive on the server that hosted our site experienced an unexpected and catastrophic (in relative terms) failure. Our entire site was gone. All images, resized or not, were gone. When we checked in with the web host, they informed us that our site was not being backed up because we had gone over their “limit” for automatic backups. Based on the size that they indicated was their “limit”, I’m sure we were not being backed up for quite some time. They had not contacted us to let us know that. So… we were off line for a little while.

As a result of this experience, I was back to deciding if I should continue the self-fulfillment strategy or consider allowing a service provider to take over some of this work for me. After doing a fair amount of research (albeit in a short period of time), I decided to move to a service provider model. The chosen service provider (click on any of our “Galleries” menu choices to visit the new shopping cart site) has a robust platform for hosting our original (high resolution) images as well as selling them at a cost that is affordable when compared to the time and costs we were incurring using the self-fulfillment model.

The costs of a service provider model are typically the print (or product) costs plus a fee which is intended to cover their credit card processing and hosting/technology/storage costs. Doing this cut our own costs for credit card processing to near zero (we only use it now for session fees and in-studio purchases) and took my labor from 15+ minutes per order to less than one minute per order. The costs are (only very) slightly higher under this model, but the peace of mind is substantially higher.

The chosen service provider also offers a large number of photo products via the shopping cart including cups, magnets, greeting cards, clothing, canvas wraps, and more. Doing this in a fully integrated shopping experience should prove to be rewarding for the customer experience, too.

There are a few minor downsides… I don’t have a means of offering my clients a “Customer Pickup” option. I may have to work on that as some of our local clients really prefer that to paying for shipping. On the other hand, since the service provider incurs a shipping cost either way (just as we used to), it is hard to justify not charging anything if we’re incurring a shipping cost of some sort anyway. In addition, the ability to offer other items that are not already in the list (though the service provider product list is comprehensive) is a little clumsy.

But… by and large, this studio has flipped sides. From self-fulfillment to service provider fulfillment. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But we’re very happy with the switch at this point. Let’s see how we’re feeling about it in another three months or so.


  1. I like the theme you are using on your blog…

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