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Blog June 13, 2022

Two messy kittens and a missing EDI 214

Joost Ronkes Agerbeek

I don’t blame EDI for failures in logistics any more than I blame kittens for messing up my floor. I only got Sam and Toby a day ago, but they’re the cutest balls of fuzz ever to grow legs and they jumped straight into my heart. Still, as I’m staring at the puddle on my floor, I’m convinced that there's a design flaw in their digestive system. I don’t remember their breakfast being this chunky, or this sticky. Sputter gunk kittens are a new experience for me, so I call a friend and she recommends a steam cleaner.

There’s a store that sells steam cleaners about a thirty-minute drive from here, but that means I’d have to leave the kittens alone and I don’t want to do that. After a short search, I find an online store with same-day delivery, called Howard’s House of Cleanliness—How Clean, for short. They sell steam cleaners they do not own. That’s not a scam; it’s dropshipping and it’s a marvel of online logistics.

Traditionally, How Clean would order a whole bunch of steam cleaners from Vaporware and keep them in their own warehouse. Then, if I order one, How Clean would ship it to me.

How Clean sends an order to Vaporware.Vaporware hands of a bunch of steam cleaners to Truckload.Truckload ships a bunch of steam cleaners to How Clean.How Clean stores the steam cleaners in their own warehouse.I order a steam cleaner from How Clean.How Clean hands off one steam cleaner to Last Mile.Last Mile drives the steam cleaner to me.I receive my steam cleaner.
How Clean sends an order to Vaporware.

In the case of dropshipping, the steam cleaners don’t need to go to How Clean’s warehouse.

I order a steam cleaner from How Clean.How Clean forwards the order to Vaporware.Vaporware hands over one steam cleaner to Last Mile.Last Mile drives the steam cleaner to me.I receive my steam cleaner.
I order a steam cleaner from How Clean.

This is convenient for How Clean, because they don’t have to order a bunch of steam cleaners up front in the hope of selling them. It’s convenient for Vaporware, because they don’t have to open an online shop and deal with customers. And customers don’t even notice, unless something goes wrong.

Toby is finding out that gravity doesn’t always work in his favor. A monstera is a good house plant for decoration, but not so much for climbing. It’s certainly not strong enough to carry his full weight.

My floor is now decorated with one cat, one plant, and a lot of dirt, so I check my email. Toby gets up, a little confused. He knows where the plant came from, of course, but the dirt is new to him. I hit refresh; nothing. He decides to do some digging and discovers that underneath all the dirt is more dirt. Refresh, refresh, refresh; nothing, nothing, nothing. Sam joins in. To her, the unpotted plant is more of an artwork than a research project and the carpet is her canvas. I need a drink. The steam cleaner should’ve shipped by now, but apparently How Clean can’t be bothered to send me a confirmation. It’s time to give them a call. Of course, now I’m on hold.

Somewhere, the logistics failed. There’s always quite a bit of communication going on between different parties. That doesn't happen by someone picking up the phone; it all happens electronically. The documents that are sent back and forth adhere to a specific format. EDI is that format. There are different documents involved and they each have a number and a name. For example, the document that How Clean sends to Vaporware is called an 850 Purchase Order.

How Clean sends an 850 Purchase Order to Vaporware to place an order.Vaporware sends a 216 Motor Carrier Shipment Pick-up Notification to Last Mile to request delivery.After Last Mile picks up the package, Vaporware sends an 856 Ship Notice to How Clean to let them know the order has shipped.
How Clean sends an 850 Purchase Order to Vaporware to place an order.

That’s how it should work.

Sam has found a spot near the window in the warm sunlight and starts dancing with her own shadow. Toby looks at her from across the room and is content observing the merriment, but that won’t do for Sam. She wants him to join in the fun. She runs over to him and on the way, she knocks over my drink.

“Good afternoon. Howard’s House of Cleanliness. This is Mira speaking. How may I help you?”
“Do you have kittens?”
“No sir, we don’t sell pets.”
“You sell steam cleaners, though, don’t you? I need my steam cleaner.”
Mira pulls up my record.
“That one hasn’t shipped yet.”
“It’s supposed to arrive today. Will it arrive today? I need it today.”
“Let me check. Oh, that’s odd: no delivery date. I don’t know yet. Perhaps if you ask again later.”
“How much later?”
“If you call me tomorrow, I should have an answer for you.”
“Well, tomorrow I don’t really need your help to figure out if it arrived today.”
“Oh no, sir, you’re right.”
Mira laughs. I don’t know why. I decide to make myself another drink, but then I think better off it.
“You know what, just cancel my order. I’ll get it somewhere else.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to cancel it. Maybe because it hasn’t shipped yet.”
“Wouldn’t it be more difficult to cancel it after it has shipped?”
Mira promises to keep an eye on my order and cancel it when she can.
“You’ll get your refund, sir, don’t worry.”

I don’t want a refund; I want my steam cleaner. I grab a roll of paper towels and try to get rid of the puddle. Sam grabs the end of the roll with her mouth, gives it a tug, then offers it to me. Someone messed up here and it isn’t my kittens.

How Clean’s website works, otherwise Mira wouldn’t have been able to pull up my details. Maybe they didn’t place the order with Vaporware. Or maybe the order picker at Vaporware got lost in their own warehouse. I don’t know, but someone didn’t send the document they were supposed to.

The order I placed with How Clean arrived just fine, because Mira can see it in the system.It’s possible the 850 Purchase Order from How Clean to Vaporware didn’t arrive. It would explain why How Clean didn’t receive a delivery date from Vaporware; Vaporware doesn’t know there’s anything to deliver.It’s possible the 216 Motor Carrier Shipment Pick-up Notification from Vaporware to Last Mile didn’t arrive. It would explain why the order hasn’t shipped yet; Last Mile doesn’t know there’s something for them to ship.It’s possible the 856 Ship Notice from Vaporware to How Clean didn’t arrive. It would explain why Mira can’t see the delivery date; Vaporware didn’t give one to How Clean.
The order I placed with How Clean arrived just fine, because Mira can see it in the system.

They’ll probably blame EDI; that’s what they always do. That’s wrong, though. EDI tells you what a document should look like; it’s not responsible for making sure the document arrives.

The paper towels have turned into papier mache. Enough! I put on my coat and grab my car keys. The kittens can manage for an hour, because whatever the state of my floor and my plant and my drink, Sam and Toby are just fine. Then I notice the clock and I realize: the store is closed. There’s nothing left for me to do.

I still want to know what went wrong. Maybe I can call Vaporware. No phone number, but I do have their address now. I know where that is; that’s not an industrial area. Judging from Street View, Vaporware is a pretty small business. That would explain— Is that the doorbell?

I call How Clean.
“It’s here,” I say.
“Let me check,” Mira says.
“There’s no need to check; it’s here.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It isn’t?”
“No sir, I’m looking right at my computer screen and it clearly says it isn’t.”
“And I’m looking right at my steam cleaner and it clearly is. It’s here!”
“Well, it’s not supposed to be.”
“You and I disagree on that one.”
“Are you sure it’s the steam cleaner you ordered from us?”
“It’s not like I ordered steam cleaners from five different— It doesn’t matter. Could you please just cancel the cancellation, so that you get properly paid?”
“I can’t find the button for canceling a cancellation.”
“…”
“But I’ll figure it out.”
“Thank you.”
“Before you go, sir, one more thing. Seeing that this kind of concludes your order and all that, I wanted to ask you a question.”
“Go ahead.”
“Are you satisfied with your new steam cleaner?”

All of this could’ve been prevented. I have my steam cleaner, which means Last Mile picked it up from Vaporware, which means that Vaporware sent it to me, which means How Clean did put in the order. In other words, the 850 Purchase Order from How Clean arrived at Vaporware just fine, and Last Mile did receive the 216 Motor Carrier Shipment Pick-up Notification from Vaporware, so the problem must be that the 856 Ship Notice never got back to How Clean. That’s why How Clean thinks the steam cleaner hasn’t shipped yet.

Showing the ordering process with the 856 as the point of failure.

Since Vaporware is a small vendor, they don’t have the resources to properly automate this process. They could hire a third party to do the automation for them, but chances are they’re perfectly happy filling out the occassional 856 Ship Notice manually and sending it when they get around to it. That may not be fast enough for my taste, but it makes good business sense to Vaporware. It also makes Mira’s job harder.

How Clean does have another option, though. Since they are a large retailer, dealing with many more shipments than just the ones from Vaporware, they could strike a deal with Last Mile. Every time Last Mile is asked to deliver a package to one of How Clean’s customers, they can send a message to How Clean. And yes, EDI has a template for that message as well. It’s called a 214 Transportation Carrier Shipment Status Message.

The ordering process with Last Mile sending a 214 to How Clean.

How Clean can use this message from Last Mile as a backup. It’s bound to be more reliable than the 856 Ship Notice from Vaporware, because a large carrier like Last Mile does have this process automated. As soon as a courier picks up the steam cleaner from Vaporware, they will scan its bar code and the system will generate and send the 214 Transportation Carrier Shipment Status Message. Even if Vaporware is tardy with their 856 Ship Notice, How Clean can let me know with confidence that the order has shipped and Mira will never have to deal with me.

That was yesterday. Today, I’m watching how Toby discovers that a water bowl isn't just for drinking. At the same time, Sam indulges her creativity with some paw painting. It’s fine. There’s no mess they can make that my steam cleaner can’t handle. I sit down on the couch with my drink and then the doorbell rings.

My best guess is that Mira didn’t figure out how to undo the cancellation and, to be on the safe side, she put in another order for me. EDI can’t fix a broken system, nor can it prevent human error. If you’ve enriched your life with kittens, or puppies, or gerbils and you now find yourself in the market for a top-of-the-line steam cleaner, don’t order one from Howard’s House of Cleanliness. Just drop me a line; I have a spare.

Editor: Kasia Fojucik. Illustrator: Katherine Meng.

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