Friday, August 23, 2013

Business Woes: The Recall

I've talked about lots of perks of owning my own business -- flexible hours, working in my pajamas, being my own boss, etc.

But running a business is not always rainbows and ponies.  There are tough times that come with every business, some more difficult to deal with than others.  Repairs?  Got it.  Returns and exchanges?  No problem.  Unhappy customers threatening to take legal action against me?  I can handle it.

There is one instance I never prepared for...


I received a message from a customer in early May asking about some unusual wear that was occurring on her bag after less than a week of use.  That's weird.  No one else has mentioned this to me.  Unique situation?

I sent a note to my leather vendor, and I got a response.  And it wasn't good.

The leather was "spewing", which means that the fats and oils initially used to tan the leather were unstable and starting to migrate to the surface, causing unusual peeling of the top coat of the leather.  It's relatively common, but always detected before shipping.  This was one batch that was accidentally overlooked.  This was a one-time situation with my leather vendor.

This happened to the Chestnut Brown leather.

The Archive in Chestnut Brown is my top selling bag in my shop to date.

My heart sank.  I panicked.  Then I went into denial.  I cried.  A lot.  I told my husband.  He gave me a pep talk (as usual).  I composed myself and put back on my "business woman" suit (still in my pajamas for the record, it was just a mental attitude change).

I looked back on my order history to track who may have been affected, then contacted each and every customer, going back 6 months of orders.  I heard back from a long list of customers with camera phone photos asking to identify whether what they were seeing was the issue (many confused it to be normal wear, though it wasn't after I inspected the photos).

I tallied the damage: a lot of money in materials, 80 hours of labor.  My heart sank (and I endured the same steps I mentioned above).

I won't lie.  It took me a couple days to process all the information and understand what predicament I was in.  The gravity of the situation haunted me and I couldn't sleep.  I'm not a large scale manufacturer and it's difficult for me as a one-person handmade business to recoup the losses that happen in a recall of this scale.

My husband reminded me of this fact:  It's not a construction quality issue, it's a cosmetic issue.  This helped me greatly in regaining the confidence to resolve the situation in a way I would expect of a business if I were their customer.  It wasn't something that I did.  The bags were still usable and in great shape as far as their structural integrity.  They just didn't look very pretty at this point.

I contacted ALL of the customers affected and promised to replace their bag with a brand new bag with leather that would not have the issue.

The influx of positive feedback I received from these customers about my decision to resolve the issue gave me even more confidence in knowing that I was doing the right thing.   I am also very fortunate to work with an extremely accommodating family-run leather vendor  -- the hides were replaced and I was partially refunded to help recoup some of my financial losses.

The new hides came in two weeks later, and I was 40 hours (halfway!) into making the replacements when I received an email from my vendor bearing bad news.  The information had just come to my vendor after tracking back the source of the crusts, and they were from the same batch of crusts made in the original leather that had the issue.

Disheartened and exhausted,  I notified my customers of the situation and the delay to follow.  The amazing patience and understanding replies I received from those customers thereafter really helped me through this tough situation.  I knew I had a long road ahead of me, but I knew I was going the right way.  We experienced more delays along the way.  This lasted for a few months.  For months, I was tortured with this gray cloud of "recall" in my head and the thought of remaking all the bags again.  Like, again again.  

It hit me suddenly.  This feeling of quitting.  I suddenly stopped investing in my business.  Stopped investing money.  Stopped investing time.  My husband (the more business-minded of the two of us) gave me yet another pep talk.  This was not a time to stunt the growth of my business by holding back on innovation and improvement.  I needed to continue to invest into my business even if it meant being in the red to get back into the green.  It was a tough mental block to overcome, but with his help, we designed a new bag, found new and interesting materials to use in my shop, and tried to regain momentum on growing my business to offset the setback.

It has now been a week since I replaced all the bags and have received a wealth of feedback from those customers about the improved quality of the leather and in my construction methods (I'm always improving).

I am forever grateful for my amazing customers, my leather vendor, and especially my husband for helping me through this incredibly physically, mentally and financially taxing situation.  I've come out a stronger business woman, ready to handle anything!  Though, I would really prefer not to go through that again.


  1. You're da man now doggg. Proud of you.

  2. Wow...I'm SO sorry you had to go through this. But you handled it beautifully, a total pro and an inspiration to other indie designers like myself. Thanks for sharing your story, this could happen to any of us! Glad that the worst is over for you and that you didn't let it keep you from continuing your amazing work. And on the plus must know that after going above and beyond like you did - you now have the undying loyalty and word-of-mouth love from those customers :).

  3. Wow Jenny--I'm so sorry you went through all of that! I'm so happy you are continuing on with your creations- they are amazing! I'm with Lola- you are a pro!

    It's insane to hear that you were half way through the replacements when you got more bad news. I hope you are treating yourself to a good vacation this year- you more than deserve one!

  4. Dang, Jenny. You were my business heroine before. Now you've tripled my awe of you. (Seriously. If we ever meet, you should ask Andy about how many times I preface a sentence with, "Well, Jenny says...")

    Reading this also triples (quadruples?) my feelings about how important it is to buy from small business as much as possible.

  5. Amazing post... thank you for sharing this.

  6. Sometimes, we just have to do the right thing. Some of my packages were lost in the mail last year. USPS couldn't track them even if they were mailed with delivery confirmations. I had to refund my customers. Even with the loss, I felt it was the right thing to do.