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The International Shipping Mess

International package shipments through the US Post Office have seen major disruptions in the past months thanks to COVID-19. It’s slower than a sad mule hauling a sack of letters. The delays have caused lots of headaches for BMOW customers and for me. To be candid, it’s a mess. It’s hard to understand, because some packages still get delivered quickly, but others are delayed for months with no updates to their tracking info.

The problem seems to be that the post office uses cargo space on commercial airlines, but since COVID-19 hit, international commercial airline traffic has been reduced to almost nothing. Huge stockpiles of outbound mail are piling up in warehouses, waiting for space on an outbound flight. The US Post Office has started shipping some packages by sea again, returning to the methods used decades ago. Even after the packages reach the destination country, they face additional delays due to lack of staff and extra safety precautions.

As of today, June 23, I estimate that at least half my international shipments are still experiencing major delays, and many shipments from 2+ months ago still haven’t been delivered yet. Most people have been patient in the face of these delays, but I’m approaching a decision point regarding how to handle severely delayed orders. It’s not my fault that COVID-19 has upended the international shipping landscape, but it’s not the customers’ fault either, and I can’t expect them to wait forever. Soon I may have to look at offering tens of thousands of dollars in refunds for missing shipments, which would be disastrous. My method of self-insurance anticipates that packages will occasionally get lost and need to be refunded, but it’s based on an expected loss rate about 1%, not 50% or more. Sending replacement shipments to everybody isn’t really an option, and the replacements would likely experience similar delays.

In the face of this shipping environment, I’ve considered temporarily halting sales outside the USA. I’m very reluctant to do that, because international sales are almost half my total order volume. And many international shipments continue to arrive as quickly as before, typically in a week or two. I haven’t been able to find a pattern that explains which shipments will be delayed, except that shipments going east (mostly Europe) and south (central and South America) are more likely to be delayed than shipments to Canada and shipments going west (Asia and Australia).

Another alternative might be to require customers outside the USA to pay for a premium shipping service like FedEx or DHL. Those services are slower than before, but should still be much faster than the regular post office. But the cost would be very high, perhaps $50 shipping fee for a typical package to Europe. For many orders, that would make the cost of shipping higher than the cost of the goods themselves. The complexity and hassle for me would also increase. My current custom-made shipping solution is tightly integrated with the US Postal Service and relies on living close by a local post office. I’ve done a few experimental shipments with DHL, and the time and care needed to send a single package is much greater than with the post office. Still, this may be the best option from among the unappealing options that are available.

If you’re one of the customers who’s been impacted by this, I’m very sorry for the delay, and thank you for your continued patience.

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Sorry, Europe. International Shipping Woes

The Covid-19 virus has disrupted pretty much everything, including shipping of BMOW hardware. The impact on international shipments to Europe has been especially severe. Typical post office delivery times to Europe have exploded from roughly a week pre-virus to 1-2 months today. Shipments to Canada and Asia have also been delayed substantially. It’s very frustrating for everybody involved.

As of today (May 5), most of the Europe-bound packages that I’ve shipped since mid-March have yet to be delivered. Of all the shipments to Europe sent between March 12 and April 25, a whopping 81% are still in transit and haven’t yet been delivered. The most recent tracking information for many of them says “Processed Through Regional Facility: SAN FRANCISCO CA INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION CENTER”. Many packages have been stuck with that same status for over a month.

What’s happening? Are the packages really still in some San Francisco post office warehouse? The tracking info provided for First Class Package International mail is imperfect, and sometimes it’s not updated further after the package leaves the United States. The packages may not necessarily still be at the San Francisco distribution center. In the past I’ve had packages get stuck for several weeks in the customs inspection of the destination country, and that might be what’s happening here.

Sadly there’s no way to get additional information on delivery status. US Postal Service First Class Package International shipping is the least expensive international delivery method, and normally it’s reasonably fast, but unlike FedEx or UPS or DHL there’s nobody to call and no meaningful recourse to track a delayed package. While it’s frustrating, there’s really no option other than to wait.

If your package is one of the many stuck in this limbo, then please accept my apologies. Thank you for your patience. And know that in the worst case if your package disappears permanently, I will replace it for you.

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BMOW Store Trouble

Yesterday’s upgrade to PHP 7.1 has broken the BMOW store checkout process. You can add items to your cart and authorize your payment, but the final “confirm payment” step leads to a blank screen. The payment never gets processed, and the items remain in the shopping cart. Please bear with me while I sort this out… UPDATE: It’s working now.

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Crazy Fast PCB Manufacturing

I finished the redesign for my Apple IIc Drive Switcher PCB on Monday morning, and submitted the Gerber files to Elecrow on Monday at 11:25 am. Friday at 5:20 pm I held the finished PCBs in my hands. Only 4 days for manufacturing and delivery. From China. According to the tracking info, my package took just 17 hours to travel from Elecrow’s Shenzhen facility to my doorstep in California. Total cost for everything was a mere $29.96.

We live in a crazy world, where a completely custom and intricate item can be manufactured on the other side of the planet and delivered to my door in 4 days, for the cost of a pizza and beer. Thank you Elecrow!

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10000 More DB-19 Connectors

Oops, I did it again: another 10000 DB-19 connectors fresh from the factory! After helping to resurrect this rare retro-connector from the dead in 2016, and organizing a group of people to share the cost of creating new molds for manufacturing, I had some of the 21st century’s first newly-made DB-19s. The mating connector is found on vintage Apple, Atari, and NeXT computers from the 1980s and 1990s, so having a new source of DB-19s was great news for computer collectors.

But that was two years ago. After manufacturing, the lot of connectors was divided among the members of the group buy, leaving me with “only” a few thousand. Since then I’d used up more than half of my share in assembly of the Floppy Emu disk emulator, and I began to get nervous about the looming need for a re-order. It was such a big challenge the first time finding a Chinese manufacturer for the DB-19s, and the all-email company relationship was tenuous. What if they lost the molds? What if my contact there left the company? What if the company went out of business? Even though I didn’t absolutely need more DB-19 connectors until 2019 or 2020, I decided to lock in my future supply and order more now.

I needn’t have worried, and the transaction went smoothly. With no mold costs to pay this time, the only challenge was meeting the 10000 piece minimum order quantity. I was even able to pay via PayPal, instead of enduring the hassles and weird scrutiny of an international bank wire transfer like I did in 2016.

So now I have a near lifetime supply of DB-19 connectors. Call me strange, but it actually gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. Now to find someplace to store all these boxes…

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International Shipping Struggles

I’ve assembled some data on international shipping delivery times, for a sample of real BMOW customers over the past few months. The table shows destination countries, sorted by median delivery time. The listed time includes the shipping itself, customs inspection, and any hold time at the local destination post office waiting for the buyer to claim the package. It’s the total door-to-door delivery time. All packages are shipped via US Postal Service First Class Package International service, which is the only reasonably-priced international shipping option available to me.

As you can see, the typical delivery time varies enormously. The good news is that most countries are faster than my two-weeks generic estimate for international delivery. For the countries where BMOW has the greatest number of sales, the median delivery time is about 8 days. Poland, Mexico, and Portugal have longer delivery times, but they’re still tolerable, and I don’t have many sales in those countries anyway.

Then there’s shipping for Brazil and Italy. Ugh. Let me draw your attention to that 49-day worst case time for Brazil, and the whopping 96 DAY worst case for Italy. When a package disappears into the bowels of the postal system for 2-3 months, customers don’t blame the post office. They blame me. It’s a difficult and awkward position, and I often need to spend large amounts of time communicating with the buyer and attempting to track the package. Sometimes I have to send replacement packages or provide refunds, even though I have no control over the postal delays.

I’ve considered various ideas for the “Italy Problem”, from an express shipper option (much more expensive, and inconvenient for me), to a surcharge on orders to Italy, Brazil, and a few others (would compensate for the greater number of problem deliveries, but would be unpopular), to halting shipments to those countries completely (forcing those customers to use a 3rd-party freight forwarding service from the US).

 
Misrouted Packages

While collecting the data for this table, I discovered several instances where a package was sent to the wrong country, even the wrong continent! Eventually it was re-routed to the correct country, but the extra side-trip added several weeks to the delivery time. Check out these tracking histories. Follow the links and click the “Tracking History” tab:

Canadian package sent to Brazil
German package sent to Canada
French package sent to Mexico

In every case, the address on the package was correct. What appears to have happened is that the package was sent to the same country as another one of my international shipments made on the same day. I’m not sure how that could happen – surely the sorting process is automated?

 
Unclaimed/Refused Packages

Many countries impose an import tax or fees on merchandise purchased from another country. In such cases, typically the package will be held at the customer’s local post office, and they’ll be sent a letter informing them that the package is ready for pick-up. Then the customer will visit the local post office, pay the taxes, and claim the package.

Most local post offices will hold a package for 1 or 2 weeks. If the customer doesn’t claim the package within that time window, it will usually be returned to me. Unclaimed packages happen for a variety of reasons: the customer was away on holiday when the package arrived, or they never received the notification letter, or they forgot about it, or they declined to claim the package because they were unhappy about the taxes. Whatever the reason, unclaimed packages are always a giant pain in the ass. They usually take several months to be returned to me, if they’re returned at all. Sometimes they just disappear.

 
Worldwide Sales

Despite these hassles, I’ll keep selling to people everywhere, and looking for more ways to improve the international shipping experience. I’ll keep working on packaging changes to reduce shipping weight and costs, and improved labeling to speed customs inspection time. To the customers in the 42 countries where I’ve done business, thank you.

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