Categories: Founder's Blog


Sam Bayer


Sorting out distribution

Last week I posted on a problem that I had uncovered with the Thule Distribution Channel.  I was desperately in need of finding a replacement key for my car top carrier before the long Memorial Day holiday weekend.  What I found was that Thule had set up an intermediary service called Shopatron that in the name of preserving the integrity of their distribution channel, was actually standing in the way of a timely delivery of that key.

Today I want to update my experience and give a very loud shout out to Steve D. who is Thule’s Internet Manager!  He not only found, and professionally responded to my blog post, but he personally expedited my key order.  I hope Thule knows how wonderful an employee Steve D. is.  In my experience, he is a rare find and Thule is truly lucky to have him in their employ!

To begin with, I want to put a face on the very definition of awesome customer service.  Great customer service, as is poor customer service, is not an abstract concept, it is very real.



Pictured here are my daughter, son-in-law and grandson, with their Thule outfitted SUV at the end of a glorious Memorial Day weekend.  Thanks to Steve D., my grandson’s jogging stroller is securely packed atop the car for their 8 hour drive home, as opposed to squishing Josie (the family dog not pictured here) in the back of the car.

In addition to the expedited key order, here are a few other insights that Steve D. was kind enough to share with me:

With respect to why they don’t offer overnight shipping on the Thule website, here is what Steve D. observed:

“Our Oracle ERP system has had issues with getting these important orders into the system on time, and instead of giving customers false hopes of getting an item on time, we have taken down express shipping and hope to relaunch it (after full testing) in June.  Having an external e-commerce site passing data into our ERP is not ideal, but it has worked (with overnight shipping) and we hope to retain that level of service when resources are available.”

This is the problem with batch integrations in between ecommerce websites and ERP systems.  50% of every potential client that we’re speaking with is looking to replace their existing ecommerce website because of the complexities…and innacuracies…introduced by these batch interfaces. 

Complicated architectures beget operational complications.  Real time integrations don’t.

With respect to why Thule uses the Shopatron service:

“The main reason we continue to use Shopatron is our ability to fill customer orders while also allowing customers the ability to utilize dealers close to their homes.  On $10 key orders, this is difficult and takes longer than we would like.  Our issue is most online and brick and mortar dealers do not stock these parts and we force all these spare orders back to Thule.” 

This is one of those paradoxes of trying to integrate disparate systems. 

You integrate systems to try and reduce the friction between them…which works for the targeted business processes, but worsens the “special (unexpected) cases”.  In this case, the integration is designed to process “normal” new Thule product orders which should save customers shipping cost and time if they can be fulfilled by a local dealer.  That actually makes a lot of sense to me.  However, the paradox is that “exception conditions”, those that require expedited handling, get delayed.  They fall through the cracks and pay the price…unless you have a person like Steve D. monitoring the social networks or every order placed (not a scalable solution).

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard “don’t check expedited shipping because it forces the order into a slower manual review and processing queue”.

Steve D. summarizes his email correspondences with me with his vision of Thule Distribution 3.0:

“…if all of our dealers had the same quality of service and shipping. I actually think a preferred dealer network that the customer could either pickup the product at, or Thule would ship directly to for installation would work the best – Thule distribution 3.0?”

Now we’re talking!

Steve D. gets to the heart of the design challenges of his distribution network when he observes…IF all of our dealers had the same quality of service and shipping.  They don’t, yet Thule doesn’t want to offend any of them and that’s why they went with the Shopatron network.

The better answer would be to cultivate a few “Class A” key dealers in the territory, and then do the following:

  1. Refer the consumer to the geographically correct dealer website to check location, price and inventory.  If the consumer is satisfied with what they learned, they place the order right then and there.
  2. If the consumer isn’t satisfied (delivery times too long etc.), than they order directly from Thule.  Thule informs the dealer that product is being shipped into their territory (either dropshipped to the consumer or direct to the dealer)…pays the appropriate commission…and the dealer picks up the customer from there.

You really don’t want to put an intermediary like Shopatron in between you and your dealers and customers.  That’s such an outdated dot com era solution to a modern day “we want it now” expectation.

Thanks again Steve D. for being our Memorial Day hero!


P.S. – If Thule were an SAP customer, they could have a solution to their problem today ;-).

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