All posts by Brian Kenn

Startrack doesn’t deliver

It’s kind of funny for a courier company that it seems unable to execute its main reason for existence – delivering parcels.

Now, I get it that logistically it’s a huge task to deliver huge volumes of parcels around the country every day without some inevitable problems…but why do almost all my Startrack deliveries end up in some sort of drama?

I’ve been getting fairly regular deliveries from Startrack for a couple of years now. These are fairly large shipments, not just the odd parcel or two. I had a regular driver, and there was never any problem. I live in a small unit block, and the driver would ring the bell, I’d come down and sign for the delivery. There’s always someone available, so missing a delivery isn’t really a problem.

However, something changed in the last six months, and suddenly the drivers were different, and strangely they seemed unable to make their deliveries. We’ve had excuses ranging from “couldn’t find parking” to today’s excuse of “the premises was closed”. That’s really strange as there have been two people here all day and nobody rang the bell or bothered to leave a card.

So clearly, the drivers are just lying and can’t be bothered to attempt a delivery, or they’re running late or whatever. At the end of the day, they just seem incapable of actually performing the task that I’m paying them for.

No here’s where it gets really frustrating. If you ring up to complain, the call centre person will say they can arrange for the shipment to be re-delivered the next day, but when you ask if there’ll be a re-delivery fee, you get the standard response that you need to contact the sender.

Now, let me get this straight. Startrack have failed to perform the task that they were paid to do. Their drivers lie about the reasons for failing to deliver shipments. They then want to charge you again for having to try another delivery! And to make it even more complex, they will charge the sender’s account, and it’s up to you to convince the sender to dispute the charge with their account manager. This is beyond belief.

Hey Startrack, let’s pretend that you know how to surpass your customers’ expectations and that you have a policy that if it’s your fault, you wear the cost of the re-delivery and not make your customers frustrated and angry because of your intransigent bureaucracy¬† and performance failures.

Or is this just a fantasy?

“Magic: The Gathering” Proxygate

So, the latest storm of outrage has erupted in the “Magic: The Gathering” community over the decision by Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro to ban any proxy events being run by a local game store, under threat of that store losing its accreditation to run sanctioned WOTC events.

Mmmm…so how do I feel about this?

On the one hand, I think that proxy Vintage/Legacy events are a good thing. It clearly allows players access to the older formats without needing to spend $1,000s to buy the rare and powerful cards needed to play the format. More players actively participating in events is a good thing overall and I guess the only objection that WOTC would have is that they do not directly profit from these players. I’d imagine that any active player contributes in some way to the WOTC coffers, no matter what format they play in. However, I guess that Vintage/Legacy players would contribute the least.

This argument prosecutes the idea that an active and healthy player community is good for the overall game, even if specific segments of the players may contribute less than those currently playing Standard, the current WOTC cash-cow.

The arguments that WOTC put forward for banning proxy events are somewhat ludicrous. Seriously, the idea that writing “Black Lotus” on a basic land card is a violation of International Copyright law is laughable, but then again, lawyers are not know for their sense of homour.

Yes, real counterfeit cards are a bad thing and all steps to stop their use and prosecute those who produce and trade them are to be applauded. Banning proxy events has nothing to do with this, or any sort of copyright infringement.

The bottom line is that MTG sales are stalling and maybe even falling. Trying to corral everyone into Standard won’t work, and the tactic is likely to backfire and as far as we can tell has alienated large sections of the community.

The problem is not new, and one gets used to seeing large organizations making ham-fisted decisions. It’s just the typical bureaucratic evolution of an organization. You end up with employees in the middle ranks making narrow decisions without necessarily seeing the bigger picture. What usually happens is that either the organization recognizes its failure in its decision making and reforms, or it starts to fail in the marketplace and shrinks.

I’m not entirely sure that a shrinking MTG market is all that bad. Maybe it’s time WOTC and Hasbro had a bit of a shakeup with some culling in the ranks. I was at IBM before and during the giant turnaround in the late 90s, and it’s possible for a company to emerge refreshed from a situation like this. The game has fundamental strengths which has meant that it has survived for over 22 years. I’m sure it can weather a situation like this.

What the Batman: Arkham Knight PC debacle says about software development

So last weekend I needed to buy a new PC graphics card because my old one was starting to act up. I got a brand new latest generation card for a reasonable price which is faster, smaller and uses less power. So all is good.

Along with the card, I got a coupon code for a promotional copy of the new “Batman: Arkham Knight” game, which I duly downloaded on Tuesday when it was released.

Some preliminary playing around with the game revealed that the performance wasn’t really all that great and then a couple of days later, the full story came out that there were serious problems with the PC version and the game was withdrawn from sale.

I think we’ve been here before. Software development is not easy, and takes lots of skill and time to perfect. If you give the job to mediocre developers with not enough time, this is sort of what you get. It’s happened so often in the past and will continue to happen.

My years of experience in software development have shown me that it pretty much boils down to two choices.  Skimp on quality and make it look pretty with some slick marketing or take the extra time to build something with enduring quality.

When we started Spiffy Stores, we kind of wanted to take the second approach and build something that would really meet our customers needs and would work reliably over time as their needs grew and expanded with their businesses. This benefits our customers, but also we benefit because with more reliabe software, we spend less time fighting fires and fixing bugs which is good for everyone.

I’m not so sure everyone in this business follows the same path. In fact it’s quite clear that some of our competitors skimp on product development and push the marketing side in order to recruit as many customers as possible.

At the end of the day they may end up with the biggest share of customers, but I wonder if that’s a worthy goal if you’re short-changing them in the product that you’re delivering.

It’s kind of like “Batman: Arkham Knight”. Sure, the game’s playable, but it’s not really the best it could be and maybe our customers and their businesses deserve better.


The never ending scourge of spam

We all have to deal with spam unfortunately, and it seems to be getting worse and worse every year.

At Spiffy Stores, we’ve been testing some new spam scanning and detection software, and one of the features it offers is the ability to define an email address which can be used as a spam honeypot. In other words, if someone sends anything to that email address, then it is automatically known to be spam because the address is not used for anything else and should never be used for legitimate email. So, if I mention this email address here, then maybe some bot will pick it up and add it to a spam list. I hope so, because it will help us to scan and detect new spam much more quickly. So, spammers, you scum of the earth. Please send your missives to where we’re eagerly awaiting for your messages in our inbox.

Windows Automation with Watir and Ruby 1.9.1

We love automation at Spiffy Stores, so with this in mind, I thought I’d alert anyone who uses Ruby under Windows using the Ruby Installer that there are some small bugs that you should be aware of when using Watir.

First off, if you want to interact with dialog boxes, then you will run into problems using Ruby 1.8.7. There is a bug in DL under the mingw32 code that is used to build this version of ruby and this is what Watir uses. It causes a segmentation fault.

So, finding no solution to this problem, I tried to run Watir under ruby 1.9.1, and this is where the fun starts.

If you try to run a Watir script you may get a popup saying that ‘msvcrt-ruby18.dll’ can’t be found. Strange, I thought we were running 1.9.1.

It turns out the the default gem installation of win32-api comes preconfigured for Ruby 1.8, hence the popup.

The way around this problem is to install the gem manually and specify the platform as ruby and force the gem to be rebuilt when it’s installed. You’ll need the Ruby Installer DevKit installed to do this.

gem install win32-api –platform ruby

Just one of those little quirks that keep us scratching our heads.

Spiffy Stores helps with shipping – Product Export and Import

Spiffy Stores has recently added some new features to help online shop owners improve the way they calculate shipping rates during checkout.

As part of this process, we added seven new attributes to the Product Variations so this has meant that we needed to update the product export and import CSV files.

The seven new attributes are

Variant Free Shipping
Variant Tax Free
Variant No Shipping Required
Variant Ship Separately
Variant Length
Variant Width
Varriant Height

These attributes are now part of the CSV file when you export your products.

If you are currently using an import file, it’s not essential that you update it to add these new attributes if you’re not using them. Our product import code has been written to recognize even old versions of product CSV files, so you can keep using old versions until you’re ready to update them to use the new features.

You can read more about the Product Export/Import process in the Spiffy Stores Knowledge Base.

How to create featured products with Spiffy Stores

I’ve added some documentation to our Knowledge Base on how to use the ‘Featured Product’ setting to highlight a product in your Spiffy Store ecommerce site.

I think it’s a great way to showcase your products using the ‘Featured’ setting and our Super Collections to build custom collections of your most important products.

You can find more information at

Theme Settings in Spiffy Stores Templates

After a huge development effort, I’m pleased to announce that Spiffy Stores have now announced a new feature for their theme templates…Theme Settings.

Although the Spiffy Stores Themes have always been highly configurable, this configuration necessarily required some knowledge of HTML and CSS.

Not any more.

The new Theme Settings ability means that theme designers can now create a custom settings form that allows the end-user to simply choose from basic theme configuration options such as colour scheme, custom logo configuration and design layout.

The settings are created using a simple settings configuration file which includes some industry-unique and innovative features such as colour filters which give designers the ability to create varied colour schemes from a single base colour.

More information is available in our Theme Settings Knowledge Base article.

Edit: Updated URL address

Is anybody there?

I’m so used to the Spiffy Stores features, that I kind of take some of them as granted, and forget that some of our competitors seem to ignore basic customer needs.

Take for example, the Contact Us form. Practically every ecommerce site needs one. Customers aren’t going to be very impressed if there’s no way to contact the store owners.

So with this in mind, Spiffy Stores includes a Contact Us form automatically. All you need to do is create two pages called “Contact Us” and “Contact Us Thanks”, and add the Contact Us page to a menu, and you’re done. You can add some customization and additional text and rename the pages, if you like (keeping the page handles the same).

In fact, your Spiffy Stores site is setup with this all done for you.

I can’t believe that other hosted shopping cart vendors make you sign up for an external form service just to add this simple form. I’m kind of glad that they do.