Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It’s Not Personal, It’s Proprietary

In my “day job” as a technical editor, I deal with lots and lots of information, much of it proprietary to the company, and all of it sensitive to the business at hand.

Our security manager constantly preaches “loose lips sink ships,” and non-disclosure agreements are standard practice, not only within the company, but also with partners and even customers. Email traffic is monitored, and social networking sites are banned from company computers. In short, the company goes to great lengths to ensure its “secrets” don’t end up in the hands of the competition. 

How does this apply to online selling? I’m glad you asked.

Three years ago, I spent an afternoon conversing via email with a woman who sold on Amazon.  Much to my dismay, I can’t remember who she was, but she was very open about the business, where to sell, where to buy inventory, how much to pay for inventory, etc.  I was very appreciative, and thanked her profusely.  I listed and sold my first book soon after that, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Later, I questioned a fellow seller at a local thrift store, without telling him that I also was a seller, about his business, where he sold, what he sold, etc. I started scouting heavily after than, and I’ve never seen him again. I almost felt guilty for the minor deception … almost.   After all, he was the one giving up information about his business.

While scouting for books using my PDA and scanner, I am frequently asked what I am doing.  This creates a dilemma for me.  I assume most people who ask are genuinely intrigued by the sight of me standing there scanning book after book. However, I know that a small percentage of the people, if I were to tell the truth about what I was doing, could/would take the information, and new competitors could/would be born.

So, I tell a small fib.  I tell them that I am checking my database to see if I want the book. If pressed for more information, I tell them that I am a collector, and I have so many books that I need my database to make sure that I don’t buy a duplicate copy.

Again, I almost feel guilty about telling the small fib. However, I have to remember that the information they are asking for could have a direct bearing on my ability to provide for my family in the future.

So, if you have to tell a little white lie about your activities, remember, it’s not personal, it’s proprietary.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Monday Musings

I’ve been considered many things in my admittedly short selling career … picker, dealer, etc.  But this weekend was the first time I’ve ever been considered a cheat and/or thief.

The scene of the alleged crime was a living estate sale that ran both Friday and Saturday.  My wife attended the sale on Friday while I was at work, and told me that we should go on Saturday as well since they were going to mark down the prices.  With several sales under our belts on Saturday, we decided to make it our last stop before heading home with our newfound treasure.

The sale in question had advertised a lot of stuff, but what caught my eye was that it was going to feature a Vic 20, Commodore 64, and Commodore 128, all early computers that I coveted while in my teens.  While I eventually purchased the Vic 20 way back when, I still lusted after its higher priced cousins.

My wife said she didn’t see the computers during her visit on Friday, so I assumed that they were some of the first things to be sold.  Walking through the house, I didn’t see the computers, but did find the manuals … several of them, in fact, in boxes in the garage.  I spent some time going the boxes, and picking out some books.  A gentleman working the sale noticed what I was doing, and wanted to know if I was interested in the computer that went with the books.

I hadn’t noticed it, but on a shelf behind him was the Commodore 128 in original box.  It had a price tag of $100. There also were several Commodore disc drives, and a box full of software.

Cha ching, so to speak.

I asked how much for the computer and the Commodore books.  He went inside and asked the lady running the cashbox.  He came back out and said $55.  I said, “sold,” and we started boxing up the computer, disc drives, software, and the books, and taking it to my car.

Once accomplished, I went inside to pay.   I told the lady that I was the one buying the computer, and she said that would be $100 plus tax.

Wait a minute, I said.  Her worker quoted me $55.  She then said the $100 was for all three computers (a deal, but there was only one computer).  I told her as much, but she said she had inventoried everything that morning, and that while she would honor the price that her worker quoted me, she would have to “eat” the other $45 if I didn’t pay for all the computers.

Now, of course, I wasn’t going to let this woman bully me into paying more than what was quoted, but she seemed dead set that I was trying to steal the other two computers.  I again tried to explain it to her, even summoning her worker, who verified that there was only one computer.  She still wasn’t convinced, and decided that the conversation was over.  She took my $55, and refused to talk any more about it, giving me the “evil” eye as I walked out.

I left the sale fuming, with the wife trying to calm me down. 

After thinking about it for a day or so now, though, I realized why I had become so mad.  I work hard, negotiate fairly, play by the rules, and am considerate of all the yard/garage/estate sellers that I meet on Saturday mornings. I pay appropriately, never saddling sellers with big bills, and I always buy the cookies or lemonade that their children sell. In short, I respect the process.

However, I took the altercation personally, instead of professionally, a lesson I won’t soon forget.   Once I realized that kernel of truth, my day got a little better.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Diligence (Sell Hard or Go Home)

I recently joined a gym for the first time in my mostly flabby 48 years.  Needless to say, it was a shock to my system, but I was determined to become a lean, mean, selling machine.  Walking on the treadmill gave me a lot of time to think, and as my mind wandered, I began to think how going to the gym is a lot like selling online.

To achieve their sculpted physiques, the “hard bodies” in the gym set a training schedule, honed their routines, watched their diet, and, most of all, worked hard. Once a week in aerobics class obviously wasn’t going to cut it. They had to be diligent about their workouts. As the gym owner’s T-shirt says, “Train Hard or Go Home.”

The same philosophy can be applied to online selling, and, more importantly, inventory scouting.  We all have our sources, but how often do you actually check them. Once a week? Once a month? When you have the time? Do you go to yard sales on Saturdays?  Do you visit nearby communities to scope out new sources?

Do you treat online selling as a business? Do you have business cards? Do you devote a set amount of time each day to your business? Do you keep good records? Do you set goals?

Like bodybuilding, to be truly successful at online selling, you have to view your activity as a serious endeavor, and you have to treat it the same way. A lackadaisical approach may garner you limited success, and a few sales, but in the long run, a diligent and systematic approach will ensure your success.

Ellen DeGeneres once said that “I really don’t think I need buns of steel. I’d be happy with buns of cinnamon.”

So, when it comes to online sales, do you want steel buns or cinnamon buns?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Can You Work in a Bookstore and Not Read Any of the Books?

I used to love to read. As a child, I almost lived in the library, reading volumes and volumes of not-so-fine literature, including Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (my favorite), and every book about UFOs that I could find.  As I grew older, I graduated to Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels, and my college buddy introduced to me to the Shannara series by Terry Brooks.

I always thought how fun it would be to work in a bookstore, to be surrounded by all those books, and to be able to read anything and everything.

Then, I graduated with a degree in journalism, and took a job as an editor at a small newspaper, a job that entailed reading/editing newspaper articles for eight hours per day from early afternoon to late evening.  Needless to say, by the time my shift was over, my eyes were pretty much fried, and I really didn’t feel like reading anything more. 

Upon leaving the newspaper, I took a job as a technical editor for an engineering firm, again reading for eight hours a day. I went from reading current events to reading engineering reports.  The job paid more, but reading the reports was about as exciting as watching paint dry, and again my eyes were pretty much fried by the end of the day.

Needless to say reading for pleasure wasn’t a very high priority.

Now, flash forward about 20 years, and I work in a bookstore. OK, so it’s an online bookstore, but I am surrounded by books, books, and more books. And I haven’t read any of them.

I really hadn’t thought about the irony of the situation until I culled some books, CDs, and VHS tapes, and brought them into the engineering firm to give away.  As coworkers sorted through the box, they occasionally would ask me my opinion of a certain tome.  I sheepishly had to tell them that I had not read it.  Others would question my viewing habits while looking at some of the more controversial videotapes.  I again had to admit to not watching them.  And, no, I hadn’t listened to any of the CDs in the box, either.

After all was said and done, and the books and stuff mostly given away, I looked back and realized that I was just a little embarrassed. I had always considered myself a student of the media, and here I was surrounded by all kinds of media, and I wasn’t taking advantage of the vast amount knowledge right under my nose. After all, I had access to more than 3500 titles; surely, there was something that I wanted to read, watch, or listen to.

So, I picked out a book one evening, and was determined to read it cover to cover. I was actually pleased with myself for doing so. It seemed like a step in the right direction toward being a more well-rounded bookseller who could offer up opinions about the titles in his inventory.

It sold to a customer in California during the night.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday Musings

It was a slow weekend.  Rain and the threat of severe weather kept me in on Saturday morning, even though there apparently were a couple of yard sales that said “rain or shine.”  I always regret not going to sales because of potential lost opportunities, but I must admit that I did enjoy sleeping later than usual.

When I finally dragged myself out of bed, I decided to put the time to good use by spending the day listing some of my backlog.  I made some good headway, including listing two Dungeons & Dragons sets,.  This one sold almost immediately, which made me wonder if I should have set my price higher.

I also fielded a couple of "best offers" for a lot of Nintendo games.  There are 29 games, some worth at least $15, and I have it priced at $139 or "Best Offer."   Unfortunately, the "best offers" were in the $40 range. I don't think so.

In addition, I listed several Care Bears that had been just sitting around.  My favorite listing, though, is my first edition Harry Potter book that was published in England.  It's not worth a whole lot, but it's cool.

On Sunday, I decided to spend a little time on Amazon listings.  Amazon has been my bread and butter for a while, but I had been neglecting it in favor of getting my eBay store up and running properly.  So, I listed and listed, and got two boxes (one of books, the other of toys) ready to send to Amazon's FBA program.

I also managed to sneak to Wal-Mart to scout their toy clearance.  Not much there for resellers, unfortunately.  Margins were still too slim to make any money.

I finished my weekend on Sunday night by watching the ballgame, and packing everything that had sold.

All in all, it was a decent two days.  I hope the weather is better, and the sales more plentiful next weekend, though.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Old Typing Table

It was just an old typing table, hidden in my storage locker under several boxes of books.  I vaguely remember putting it there, having moved it from my storage shed at home for some forgotten reason.  The moment I saw it, though, even though I wasn’t looking for it, I knew that it was exactly what I needed.

The table had belonged to Mom, who used it in the 1970s when she ran her own personnel service. Once the business closed, it gravitated to our house, and Mom sat her new IBM Selectric electric typewriter on it, and dutifully typed term papers for each of her kids.  In the early 80s, she was sidelined by a mild stroke, and lost her ability to type. Later, I used the Selectric until it broke, and was relegated to typewriter heaven (or the Salvation Army, I forget which); the table, however, remained, alternately serving as a general-purpose table and/or dust collector.  Mom refused to get rid of it; she was like that, refusing to part with her belongings, even when the rest of the family perceived that the usefulness had run out.  She always said that maybe someone could use it one day. 

So, the old typing table got shuffled from house to apartment to apartment to mobile home to storage shed to storage unit.

Today, Mom’s gone, having passed away in May 2011.  She suffered undiagnosed dementia/Alzheimer’s during the last years of her life, gradually then not so gradually losing her memories.  She left behind some furniture, many knick-knacks, lots of odds and ends, and a treasure trove of memories in the form of pictures, love letters between her and Dad, and 50-year-old baby clothes still folded neatly in her cedar chest. 

As for the old typing table, turns out, Mom was right.  It is now resting comfortably in my home office, holding the modern equivalent of the typewriter … my printer.  It has come full circle from Mom’s business to mine.

I’m sure Mom would be proud.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Everything I Know About Online Selling I Learned From Star Trek

My apologies to all you Trek purists out there who think The Original Series (TOS) is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I actually prefer The Next Generation (TNG).  Not only were the shows, in general, better in every conceivable way, it (along with Deep Space Nine) introduced the known galaxy to the Ferengi, a big-eared, troll-looking race whose entire society was based on the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, a set of business principles that even human eBay sellers can learn from.

Here are a couple of the rules, in no particular order, and how they can apply to our craft:

Never pay more for an acquisition than you have to. 

This is self explanatory. Buy stuff for a quarter, sell for lots more.

A wise man can hear profit in the wind.

Keep your ears open for new inventory sources.  New inventory means more profit for you.

Never confuse wisdom with luck.

There’s no substitute for experience.  While even a blind rat can find the cheese every once in a while, a truly wise seller knows his inventory, his customers, and his sources.

Good customers are as rare as latinum -- treasure them.

Latinum is the Star Trek equivalent of gold.  Always provide the best customer service that you can.

Beware of the Vulcan greed for knowledge.

You should be careful about disclosing anything about your business.  Too much information can lead to increased competition.

Enough ... is never enough.

Can we ever have enough inventory? Enough profit?

Always know what you're buying.

After two years, I’m still a novice at selling books. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pick up a book, and judge whether it will sell or not without the aid of scouting tools.  Having said that, I’ve picked up the occasional “old” book in hopes that it might be rare, only to find, usually, that I just have a worthless old book on my hands. Therefore, I stick to what I know, or what I can find out with my scouting tools. Have I passed over rare or expensive titles? Probably. But, on the other hand, I haven’t been stuck with worthless inventory. I’m learning, but for now, I’m sticking with what I know best.

Faith moves mountains ... of inventory.

It’s a cliche, but to be successful at anything, you have to have faith in yourself.  The more faith you have in yourself, the more you will be rewarded, both spiritually, and literally.

Deep down everyone's a Ferengi.

You figure it out.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Who Knew Cowboys Had Groupies?

It was a scene pulled straight from Hollywood.  Celebrities exited their limos, walked the red carpet into the hotel, and were met by the paparazzi, who shouted salutations, asked questions, and, of course, took lots of pictures.

Of course, the “celebrities” were western TV stars from 40 and 50 years ago, the “limos” were airport shuttles, and the “paparazzi” were legions of fans who had traveled from all over the country to see their aging heroes.  The red carpet, however, was real.

At the Whispering Woods Conference Center in Olive Branch, MS, just outside of Memphis, TN, organizers for the Memphis Film Festival had assembled an impressive list of former TV cowboys and cowgirls for a three-day meet and greet.  Actors and actresses from such shows as The Virginian, Laredo, and Wagon Train hobnobbed with casual admirers, as well as hard-core, well-organized, extremely vocal, and obsessed fan groups, such as Lancer’s Ladies and the Virginian Posse, who spent lots and lots of money to talk to, sit with, take pictures of, and, yes, kiss their idols from yesteryear.

Who knew cowboys had groupies?

Of course, no festival worth its salt would be without vendors who had no qualms with separating festival attendees from their hard-earned cash.  An impressive array of items were for sale, including CDs, DVDs, pictures, assorted memorabilia, and, of course, books.  Of course, anywhere there’s inventory, I’m prone to whip out my trusty scanning device and/or scour the tables for eBay/Amazon worthy items.

As all of you know, we base the our business on the premise of buying low, and selling high.  Unfortunately, the vendors at this conference had this same mentality. Lots of collectibles were for sale, but few, if any, were priced at wholesale levels, or at least at levels where an online seller can make an honest living.

Except …

OK, it was a stretch. I knew that.  I also knew the book was overpriced online.  But it registered close to $1000 on my scanner. And all for the bargain price of $21, which is much more than I normally would pay for a book to resell.

Flash forward a few months, and the price has plummeted. I mean, it has dropped like a rock.  It’s still a decent price, but a far cry from the $1000 of my initial scan.  And it’s still for sale.  Oh, well.

On the other hand, though, it always pays to “keep your head on a swivel,” as the Redneck Picker on YouTube always says.  Two of the stars from the Virginian TV show had produced a CD, and were selling it, with signatures, for a mere $20.  I shelled out my money, and listed it for $199.99.

And I was more than pleased when it actually sold on Amazon.

Consider that a "woo hoo."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Cursed Puzzle

I should have known it was a bad omen.

My new, still in shrink wrap, Halloween puzzle, All Hallow’s Eve, was completely ignored during the trick or treat season, but sold a couple of days after Christmas.

As puzzles go, it wasn’t very expensive, around $16, but, hey, a sale is a sale.

Only, I couldn’t find it. I literally searched high (upstairs in my inventory area) and low (in my guest house that doubles as Amazon/eBay storage). 

I then searched my Amazon sold listings for a prior sale (in case I duplicated the listing by mistake), then sort of, kind of, remembered having some indecision about how to list it.  My faulty memory convinced me that I had listed the puzzle, then decided to send it to Amazon (FBA) to sell instead.  However, I reasoned, I must not have delisted the book, and it sold again.

Still, not quite aware of the puzzle’s sinister intentions, I found another source for the puzzle, and had it drop shipped, expedited mail, just to avoid canceling the order.  Since I heard no complaints from the buyer, I assumed the story of the errant puzzle was over.

No such luck.  Upon watching TV in the bedroom a few days later, I spied the puzzle tucked neatly under the bed.  Huh?  Not quite believing my eyes, I retrieved the item, and verified that this was the puzzle that had sold.  But how did it get under the bed?

Perplexed, I decided to question my wife, Ella, who professed complete innocence,   I had nothing to do with it, she said, and I believed her, because she’s the organized one, and I’m, well, not the organized one.  After much consideration, though, here is how the puzzle came to be under the bed (at least until I find a more plausible explanation).

My office is not that big, and when I list items, I tend to move them out into the hallway, usually in totes.  Unfortunately, the puzzle didn’t get put in a tote, and was part of a stack of items.  The totes got stored, but Ella, not sure what the stacks were, moved the stuff into bedroom so she could clean the hallway (she has verified this).  She then proceeded to clean the bedroom, and somehow the puzzle got separated from the rest of the stack, and got pushed under the bed so she could vacuum.

Oh, well, no harm done, I thought.  So, I relisted the puzzle, and put it in the proper inventory location.  Much to my delight, it promptly sold again within a few days, which should have been the end of the story of the cursed puzzle.

Not so fast.

A week or so after the puzzle was delivered, I get an email from the buyer asking for a refund.  THE NEW, IN SHRINK WRAP, PUZZLE WAS MISSING PIECES, and the buyer sent a picture to “prove” it.  Sure enough, the picture showed a completed puzzle missing a few pieces. 

Now, I could be a cynic and think that the buyer put the puzzle together, then decided to remove a couple of pieces, and take a picture of it so she could get a refund.  But given the history of the puzzle, I don’t think so.

I think the puzzle was cursed from the beginning, and when I get it back from the buyer, provided it doesn’t get lost in the mail, I think I might burn it.    

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Cast of Characters

Big sales are few and far between during the winter months here, and a church yard sale in January was a rarity.  And given that it was the only game in town that morning, the line formed early.  Upon taking my place in line, I realized that I recognized many of the would-be buyers from other sales, even though I didn’t know their real names.

One of my favorite shows on TV now is Storage Wars.  Since I buy storage units occasionally, I can relate, sort of, to the characters.  However, when the show first started, I thought it was silly to give the characters nicknames (i.e., the Gambler, the Mogul, the Collector, etc.). While waiting in line, though, I realized that I subconsciously did the same thing with my fellow sellers.

For example, behind me was the Art Collector.  He was passing the time telling everyone in line about the latest valuable (OK, semi-valuable; we’re not talking about Van Gogh here) painting he bought from an estate sale. 

Ahead of us was the Jewelry Thief. She was telling how adroitly she plucked a small piece of jewelry from a box at the same estate sale, and had it listed for big bucks on eBay.  She and the Art Collector were swapping stories, sort of professional flirting, I guess.

At the front of the line was the Electronics Guru.  His specialty is old radios, speakers, turntables, etc. He had his green canvas bag ready to stash, well, his stash.  He was one of the first sellers I ever met, and the only one that I know that does it for a living.  While he specializes in electronics, he dabbles in just about everything else as well.

Beside me were Big and Little Enos. They were quiet the whole time, so I don’t know what their specialty is.  But I see them frequently, always together, always wearing their over-hauls.

Toward the back was the Old Camera Guy.  All this guy ever wants is old camera equipment.  I’ve seen him walk up to a sale, ask about cameras, then leave.  He doesn’t waste any time.

The rest of the line was filled with other sellers, some serious, some relaxed.  All were there to try and make a buck or two.

As for me, I’m known as the Book Guy, or the Book People, if my wife is with me. I’m fond of that title, but I have a feeling that I might give the rest of the Cast of Characters a run for their money in the near future since I learn all their secrets while listening to them talk about their exploits and secrets while waiting in line.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Successful Scouting Trip Without Buying A Thing.

I’m blessed with a steady 40 hours per week job that allows me to sell items on the side, but not depend on its income to survive.

On the other hand, I’m cursed with working 40 hours a week because there is so much that I want/need to do with my online business that just can’t be accomplished on weekends and a couple of hours per night.

On rare occasions, though, I will “waste” valuable vacation time to pursue an event related to my online business.

Case in point, I read about a huge estate sale about 60 miles from my house. It was advertised as the estate of a former “Big Game” hunter. It was supposed to have, among other things, boxes and boxes of books, and the ad on the web page even showed a few pictures of the books.  I really couldn’t tell much about them, but I was intrigued by the whole “Big Game” premise, with visions of exotic books dancing in my head. Unfortunately, it started on Friday.  After much internal debate, I took a vacation day, and off I went.

It pains me to say that the whole exotic book dream was a bust; the books were old and musty, and stored in a large workshop/garage. Disappointed, but hating to waste the trip, I walked to the actual house, grumbling to myself, hoping to find something that I could sell … something that would make the trip at least not a total waste of time, gas, and vacation hours.  Upon walking in the front door, though, I was speechless.

It truly was the home of a “Big Game” hunter, and decorated to fit the theme, with guns, photos, and real leather furniture, including tables. However, what grabbed my attention was the stuffed Kodiak black bear, in full roar, which greeted me as I walked into the living room.

I forgot all about books.

Following the bear’s stare, I walked further into the gigantic living room, and was at once surrounded by creatures of all shapes and sizes, from bobcats to birds, sitting on the floor, and hanging from tree limbs. Each had a plaque with information about the creature, and when/where it was hunted.  I examined each one, feeling both amazed at the shear majesty of the animals, and feeling a little diminished, knowing that each had been a living creature at one time, and each had been killed by the same man.

And everything was for sale, except the bear. State law prohibited it.  Of course, they said that if I wanted the bear, they would be more than happy to take it to the next state over and sell it to me.  I obviously declined.

I left the sale after paying respect to the animals one last time, but thought about them all the way home, wrestling with the mixed emotions that I had felt earlier.  In the end, I just decided to be happy, sad, and a little bit humbled, and to call the trip a success.

All without buying a single book.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Welcome to My World

It was inevitable.

After lurking and reading blog upon blog upon blog, I just couldn't resist throwing my virtual hat into the online blog arena of professional Amazon and eBay sellers.

First, though, I guess I should share a little information about myself.  I'm a 40ish technical editor for an engineering firm who yearns to escape the confines of the 8 to 5 workday.  To that end, for the last few years, I have built a decent business on Amazon (http://www.barrysbookshop.com/), and have dabbled on eBay.  However, as decent selling books became harder and hard to find, a subject I will address in a later post, I opened an eBay store (http://stores.ebay.com/barrysbookshop) and quickly achieved Power Seller and Top Rated Seller status.

Obviously, I am proud of my accomplishments, if you can call them that, but as all of you know, online selling is not easy.  It is very time consuming and energy draining. Since I do work the 8 to 5 shift daily, obviously all my online work occurs in the wee hours of the morning, prior to bed time, or, of course, weekends (and holidays).

My day starts at 4:30 a.m.  Dragging out of bed, I stumble to my office to check on overnight sales.  I usually have at least one or two Amazon items to pack and ship, and, with any luck, an eBay item or two.  So, between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m., I locate, pack, and get ready to ship all items, and shave, shower, and shine for my 8 hours in the non-online working world.  Thankfully, I have a short commute (about 10 minutes), so I am at my desk by 7 a.m.   During lunch, I drop all my packages off at the post office, and peruse the local Goodwill. Salvation Army Thrift Store, or any garage sale occuring (if it's Friday).  After lunch, I work until 4, head home, and, after spending a little quality time with the family (wife and two dogs), I retire to the office for more packing and, if I have the energy, listing other items to sell.

On Saturdays during yard sale season, I'm also up by 5:30ish, and out the door by 6:30ish.  I usually don't return home until early afternoon.  On Saturday afternoons, I try to relax, but usually end up working on something.

On Sunday, I get to sleep a little later, then its household chores, and listing what I bought on Saturday.

Monday starts it all over again.

Not glamorous, but it pays the bills, and allows my wife to be a homemaker.

Of course, I'm always searching for ways to increase my online income, and searching out new sources of inventory.  I'll comment on these topics in blogs to come.

So, for now, I'll just say hello...and welcome to my world.