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TaxJar.com Brings Compassion to Sales Tax Pain

TaxmanIsWatchingAs I start this post I am on the phone with the IRS…AGAIN. I nearly choke on my derision when the canned voice tells me for the millionth time how all their “representatives” are helping other “customers.” Yeah, right. I guess “indentured slaves” sounded bad.

If they really believed in customer service they would have called me back when we got disconnected like Amazon does. But NOooo. I get to sit on hold another 20 minutes because they are not allowed to make outgoing calls from the call centers.

Also if they really believed in customer service they wouldn’t ask me “verification” questions that are really about trying to find new sources of income to take from me and to determine if they should flag my return.

If I were a customer, they wouldn’t send an agent to my house to intimidate me for no reason (two years ago), and they might even give me the benefit of the doubt since they tend to make mistakes themselves from time to time like losing hard drives with private taxpayer data on it.

Now we all get that the IRS is not our friend, but most people don’t really get how much our enemy they are until something goes wrong. I’ve had the IRS make so many mistakes over the years that I no longer raise an eyebrow when I get certified letters from them. They’ve threatened my house and business numerous times with scary letters. I know they are wrong because I know myself. They are bullies who think we are all deadbeats.

Today it took nearly an hour to get their mistake fixed and even then I didn’t get a “we’re sorry” or even an acknowledgement that the mistake was their fault. When I talked about the documentation that I had, the agent said, “Well I don’t know about any letter you may have received…” and I said “it’s the IRS’ letter! Why don’t you know about it?!?”

They charged me $50 to fix their error. I’m welcome to send a copy of my proof/letter to them to get this fee waived. Not corrected, not returned, but waived. Like they are doing me a big, fat favor.

OK, so all this impotent rage makes me really appreciate good customer service and it made me think about why people are so afraid of taxes. It is complicated. It is adversarial. You are by default wrong and a liar which is disheartening.

I’d like to tell you that state taxes and state sales taxes are easier and that state collections agencies are nicer…but they aren’t. They can be nastier and they tend to move faster than the IRS. Whereas the IRS allows for negotiations and installment payments, many states do not. Timely compliance is in your best interest.

salestax nightmareState sales tax is a growth industry – one that has states redistricting just so new tax areas can be created.  Federal with its 1 million+ lines of tax code is bad enough, but the States are a contradictory mess of rules and exceptions…and we are responsible for knowing each state’s lingo and quirks.  When other sellers tell me they are waiting to set up their sales taxes in other states, I know where they are coming from. They are praying that the federal government streamlines the process for us online sellers. You know things are bad when we are praying for congress to help us pay our taxes. But I digress.

What the tax collectors nationwide need and don’t have is TaxJar.com helping to make taxes more friendly and easy to comply with. Most business owners are trying to do the right thing but they need help at a price they can afford. Mark Faggiano is a real sweetheart of a CEO who takes phone calls and really listens to his (gasp!) customers. That would be us, online sellers.

Almost every feature we’ve asked for in the past has been integrated into the current version of TaxJar:TaxJar logo

  • Integrate with the platforms we sell on from Amazon, eBay, Square, PayPal, Bigcommerce, to Shopify and more
  • See how much sales tax you’ve collected from all platforms at a glance
  • See how much sales tax you actually collected vs. how much you should have collected
  • Allow us to tell TaxJar our start dates having sales tax nexus in a state so we don’t remit too much sales tax to any given state
  • Remind us when our sales tax filings are due
  • Detailed but easy-to-read reports with all the information we need to fill out sales tax returns. Even in those pesky destination-based states!
  • Historical data that allows us to go back and add previous months’ or years’ sales tax numbers so everything is in one place
  • Keep track of Amazon nexus states for us

In fact, they do just about everything for us except set us up in each state and file our taxes for us. But wait! That’s not true anymore. As of today, TaxJar.com will now file your sales tax returns for you in 26 states…and counting!

Their new AutoFile from TaxJar service includes:

  • Regular emails telling you how much you owe
  • File your state sales tax return for you
  • Pay what you owe directly from your bank account
  • Record payment in TaxJar for you
  • Confirm when your AutoFile is complete

staple-easybuttonTalk about an Easy button! This makes compliance a heck of a lot easier. It is $19.95 per filing. Regular TaxJar is $9.95 for most sellers (unless you are really big). You can decide on a month-by-month, state-by-state basis if you want them to file for you or if you want to file for yourself. There are 26 states set up for this service already – including all the Amazon nexus states except Arizona – with plans to ultimately cover all 50 states.

If you are already filing sales tax in multiple states, I don’t have to tell you what a pain it is and how much of a difference TaxJar already makes with that painful process. With this new service, a lot of online sellers can do something crazy like focus on their businesses instead of trying to interpret each state’s weird online forms and legalistic “instructions” that were not written for humans.

If you have a state where you pay annually, AutoFile is once a year. If you have a state that requires filing monthly, then it would be a monthly charge of $19.95 for that state.

I have a mixture of quarterly, monthly and annually so January is a $%#@ pain when it comes to filing. Every state wants me to file and I’m still in the post-holiday retail dumps. Have they no compassion? Next January we can all have TaxJar do it for us instead. At least TaxJar understands our pain.

no mon no fun
Occasionally I use affiliate links to help me monetize the time I spend on this blog. If you click on the TaxJar links above I will make a small commission. You can also go directly to their site at http://www.taxjar.com with no affiliate link. I don’t recommend products or services that I’ve not investigated myself. I write about TaxJar because I think their product helps Amazon FBA sellers.
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Repricing Wisdom from Nathan Holmquist

Nathan HolmquistI had the delight of speaking with Nathan Holmquist recently about his business. Nathan’s “Selling on Amazon’s FBA Program” was the first book I read about FBA years ago (click here for free copy) and what it did for me was clearly demonstrate how FBA works. I understood how Nathan could buy books and sell them for $4 and make money. You could see the light bulb above my head!

Nathan’s book is newly updated so if you read the old version, be sure to get your copy of the new one. It is years later and Nathan is still making a living selling books. I read his blog regularly and especially appreciate his running data updates where he shows you what he spent on a sale, when the books sold and how much money he made. Real numbers from a real seller doing it every day.

If you read my blog post last week, then you know I am using his new ScanLister software to help clear thousands of books I have in a storage unit. Acquiring and listing books is only part of the story of making a living selling books. Repricing is also critically important. I’m the first to admit I don’t reprice as often as I should and I do a lot of it manually (which makes me dread the whole process). Nathan’s success story depends heavily on repricing and I was inspired by our conversation to segment my books and focus on clearing out those lower value books. In addition to repricing my inventory this week (hooray!), I also created a Repricing Step-by-Step chart that shows the features of the major repricing software providers so you can find a solution that best fits your needs as an online seller.

Cynthia: How do you shop for books?

Nathan: Generally, I’m looking for books I can get for around $1. I go to a lot of different kinds of book sales all around the country. I love to use a book sale to pay for my travel.

Cynthia: Are there particular books you look for when scanning?

Nathan: Mostly non-fiction such as Art, Science, Religion, Self Help, etc.

Cynthia: What tools do you use to scan?

Nathan: I use ASellerTool on my Android phone with a small attached scanner. (See his video here of his set-up) The latest version lets you download the book database like a PDA, but it is on your phone. Because I have the database, I get accurate, fast data when scanning. I also don’t need a 3G or 4G internet connection while scouting which is really helpful in some of those library basements. I can also click through to get data real time if I want. It is a hybrid system.

Cynthia: When I used ASellerTool it used to take hours to download the database to my PDA. Does it still take a long time to do that?

Nathan: No. I can download in less than 20 minutes which means I can take fresh data with me on every shopping trip.

Cynthia: With Amazon limiting its FBA seller information to what it considers “competitive,” the information we get on our scanners is not always comprehensive any more. How do you know what books to buy?

Nathan: I don’t rely on the FBA data to make my decisions.

Cynthia: Really?!?

Nathan: What I’ve discovered for me is that the merchant sellers are a better indicator of whether I can sell my books for my minimum of $9.95.surprise eyes

Cynthia: Wha???

Nathan: Penny books – books that merchants sell for one cent and that cost the buyer $4 after shipping – are not profitable any more. They are usually glutted with other sellers and selling at $4 or less by FBA sellers. If the book is selling for a penny by the merchants there will likely be tons of FBA sellers as well. For the past year I’ve been running an ongoing experiment with my books where I don’t even look at the other FBA sellers. Instead, I look at merchant sellers. Where I am today is that the lowest used merchant seller is selling the book for $4.48. That is, the merchant is selling the book for 49 cents and then there is the $3.99 shipping cost. Since ASellerTool gives me a choice with how I want to see the offers, I choose to see them without the shipping included ̶ I’m looking for $.49 or better. That tells me that I’ll be able to price the book for $9.95 at a minimum and likely sell it. It shaves a lot of time from the scouting process and is accurate enough that I can make a good living.

Cynthia: That’s astounding! Do you have any parameters for rank?

Nathan: Most of my books are two million or under, but I have gone up to 10 million and sold the book. You have to be patient, but if the payoff is right it is worth it. It only costs 2-3 cents a month to store a book at Amazon and I’m getting my books very cheaply. A lot of times I’m buying on $10 bag day. I started a sales rank experiment this year in April to get a feel for how long it takes books to sell at various ranks. In the first three months of my experiment I sold 38 books with a rank over 1 million of which two were much higher – 5 million and 10 million respectively. I will be updating that experiment throughout the year.

Cynthia: It sounds like you’ve really winnowed the book business down to its most efficient components – fast scanning, fast listing, outsource labels to Amazon and automated repricing.

Nathan: Yes, for what I call the “commodity” books. These are books that are generally sellable between $10-$15. To work within my system, a commodity book needs a barcode so I can scan quickly and send to Amazon to apply my labels. Books without barcodes are only worth my trouble if they look valuable like textbooks, art books, etc., which are NOT commodity books and I scan and list them separately. Rather than set a price for my commodity books, I set a floor. I let my repricer set the price based on that floor and some other rules. This makes listing much faster because I don’t have to price and I don’t have to put on labels. I can get several hundred books out the door in a couple of hours. This works particularly well when I’m traveling and don’t want to spend all my time processing books!

Cynthia: For those commodity books, how do you reprice them?

Nathan: I use ScanLister to list them and then Repricit to reprice them. With ScanLister, I use one fixed price for everything. Since I reprice every day, I know they’ll be quickly re-set to an appropriate price. I have a set of rules for Repricit for the various types of inventory I sell. I can control my floor – critical to my strategy – whether to match the lowest FBA seller, the Buy Box owner and how much below Amazon I want to stay. I have rules for whether or not there are FBA sellers. If not, for example, then I match the lowest merchant price, plus shipping and an additional 20%. If there are FBA sellers, I can set it up so I match rather than go below the lowest FBA price. I can reprice by segment. Repricit knows how long my books have been at Amazon, for example. Books that have been in my inventory for less than 90 days are priced with a floor of $9.95.

From any given book sale, I generally sell about 50% of my books in 90 days and 67% in six months and 70% in a year. Those that don’t sell in 90 days are repriced with a new floor of $8.95. After another three months, I’ll drop that to $7.95. After a year the returns diminish significantly. I might lower them more or get rid of them. Again, these are the inexpensive books. My strategy for high value books is different. I’ll hold on to them for years if it makes sense.

Cynthia: How do you keep from repricing your high-value textbooks, art books and similar books at these low prices?

Nathan: I can exclude certain MSKUs from the repricing with Repricit. You actually taught me a fast way to do it in one of your blog posts. You sorted an inventory spreadsheet downloaded from Amazon to show the most expensive inventory items at the top so you knew which products required the most personal attention. I used my spreadsheet to help me quickly pull out the high-value MSKUs and exclude them from my daily repricing rules.

cropped logoCynthia: Do you sell exclusively on Amazon or do you sell on eBay and other marketplaces, too?

Nathan: I sell almost of my items on Amazon FBA. Occasionally, I will sell something obscure on eBay.

Cynthia: Are there particular categories that you scan at a book sale or will you scan any section?

Nathan: Mostly non-fiction such as Art, Science, Religion, Self Help, etc.

Cynthia: With ScanLister you don’t have the option to replenish. Does this mean you have multiple MSKUs for the same book/condition for sale at a time?

Nathan: Yes, I suppose.   I’ve never had an issue with that.

Cynthia: How do you list and reprice your high-value books?

Nathan: Many times I will list my high value books with Inventory Lab and price it myself. I will then put that MSKU number in the “exclude items” section on my Repriceit account.

Cynthia: What is your ratio of commodity to high value books?

Nathan: 70% of my sales are books priced at $9.95 at lower.

I think it is important to note that while I’m primarily searching for these low end books, I will inevitably stumble across books that are worth $20, $40, and $100.   That is one of the benefits of scanning so many books.

Cynthia: Do you sell books without bar codes?

Nathan: Absolutely! I put those in a separate pile for processing. I have found many of those have value. Plus, many sellers don’t take the time to manually type in the ISBN number at book sales. There are many valuable books without bar codes that are left behind at book sales which creates an opportunity for me.

Cynthia: How many books do you send in to Amazon per month on average?

Nathan: To be honest, I don’t really keep track. I’m not as big as a seller as I used to be. I think at one point I had 20,000 books in Amazon’s warehouses. These days, I have around 4,000 books for sale.

Cynthia: Do you sell retail arbitrage also?

Nathan: I’m starting to get into online retail arbitrage. Right now, I’m getting one item for $6 with shipping included.   I’m consistently selling it for $25-$35 on FBA. The best part is that I’m the only seller selling that item. I can definitely see the appeal for that business model.

Cynthia: How are your rules for repricing different for new, non-book items vs. books?

Nathan: I don’t have enough new, non-book items to set a repricing rule. I just exclude those from my repricer and price them myself.

Cynthia: You said you reprice every day. How long does that take you? Or does it take you any time? Is it all pre-scheduled? If so, how much time a month would you say you spend repricing?

Nathan: It’s all automated so it doesn’t take any time at all. It’s all done on the “back-end” so I don’t see any of it.

I have it set to reprice every day at 10am. So at around 10:15, I will get an email with all the price changes. That way, I can go over the changes if I want to.

One thing that really appeals to me about Nathan’s business model is his laser focus. He started with books, understands papersculpture man relaxing in boat whilst fishing with rod and fish jumpingbooks and is selling books. Anyone who is having trouble finding inventory to sell on Amazon, needs to re-read his story. I often tell my private clients to focus and drill deep rather than cast wide when they are struggling to find inventory to sell. Learn one category really well and in a short time it will seem like inventory is suddenly everywhere. It would be fun to scan a book sale with Nathan. It would look like books were jumping into his arms!

Nathan uses Repricit and is very happy with it. I use ScanPower’s repricing program which I’m happy with. It comes for free with ScanPower List. For this week’s blog I prepared a chart of all the major inventory repricers out there for FBA sellers. While it is tiny below, you can see the full PDF with live hyperlinks in the FBA Library HERE under “Bonuses,” and “Step by Step Guides.” If I missed one you think is a significant repricer, or if I made a mistake it is all on me. I used information on various websites to pull this together in one place. Please let me know so I can adjust the chart!

Repricers Step By Step_001

Interested to learn more about Nathan’s book sale experiment results? Check out his blog at www.booktothefuture.com and search for “Book Sale Experiment” to see all the posts. Want to know more about ScanLister? Check out last week’s blog post.

In my blog I write about my experiences and sometimes I do accept affiliate links as a way to monetize the time I spend preparing the blog – but not today. Nathan’s book is free. The other companies offer free trials if you are interested in trying them out.
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How to Go Big in Books with Amazon FBA

I started my Amazon FBA business with books and I continue to sell books every single day. I love books because of the great margins, they don’t expire and I rarely incur long-term storage fees with books. There are a few things that I don’t like about books including how long it seems to take to process them. When Nathan Holmquist contacted me about his new ScanLister program, I eagerly signed up to be an early tester because I have tens of thousands of books to process in a storage unit and it is taking a long time to get through them all. In this week’s post I talk about why/how I bought these books and what I’m doing to get them to Amazon.

curiositykillcatIt started with that mother of all cat killers – curiosity. As a registered dealer with a large local public library book sale, I got a notice inviting me to bid on the remainders of the book sale. What a great idea! This sale was so huge I knew there would be many, many books left over that were still sellable on Amazon through FBA. I also loved the idea of being able to work through the boxes of books in the comfort of my home and at my own pace.

I worked this sale regularly and never even completed all my desirable categories so I knew there was a lot of money buried in those book stacks. I contacted the person in charge and asked how the auction worked, who normally bid, how much was regularly bid and everything I could think of. She was very nice. Naturally we danced a bit around the “how much was regularly bid” because she wanted to get the biggest bang for her library’s buck. I found out that there was a professional company that had bought their remainders in the past and I learned that I would be responsible for removing ALL the books the day after the sale. The volunteers would help box up, but they would not lift or transport.

The winner of the auction would be determined part-way through the sale so I also planned to work the sale vigorously. I joined up with two other sellers and we decided to bid a total of $300 for the remainders. We didn’t know if that was high or low, but we felt confident that if we won we would be able to make back our money pretty easily even with truck rental and storage unit costs. We knew we were buying tens of thousands of books and thought that we probably wouldn’t win with such a low bid but we were curious to see how it all worked and to ultimately learn the winning bid. It was an experiment.

Boy, were we stunned when we won. Thank goodness I had partners because I had a huge meeting for my day job the next daydogcatchcar and could not be present to help with the book removal and transport. They took care of everything. It was a bear to move that many books even though they hired a truck and strong men to help. It was a daunting task (and I am SO grateful to my hard working partners!).

We were the dog that caught the car. Now what? In the beginning we thought we’d scan and sort at the storage unit. Immediately that turned out to be a problem. We had originally hoped to process at the storage unit by using ScanPower and I bought Clearwire service to give us internet at the storage unit. Unfortunately, we were in a Clearwire dead zone. We scanned and sorted books into piles at the warehouse for a while ($7-$11, $11-$15, $15-$25, $25+) so that we could distribute the high value books fairly among the three of us. It was slow because we were apparently far from a cell tour as well and lost signal often. We spent days doing this but were thwarted by the weather and synching up schedules to get all of us there.

Discards were given to charity by the truckload and we were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the book stacks – it seemed like we were barely making a dent. Then we switched gears, we would each take boxes of books to our homes and work them there at our own pace. I took about 100 boxes and filled my garage and the stacks still were barely touched. (We have a BIG storage unit).

I tried to use the ScanPower Mobile ability to click on “Buy” and create a buy list that was then imported into my ScanPower List program, but I had a lot of technical difficulties (there were bugs early on) and it didn’t really save me much time because I still had to condition, price and sticker each book. The piles on my floor did not match the list on the screen because I sorted by condition as I went along. Thus, I stopped using the “Buy List” function for books altogether. It works great for new stuff, but not books.

This was a disappointment, too, because so many of my good books didn’t have barcodes and/or were pre-1972 without ISBN#’s. All the research I had to do to decide if it was a good book to sell had to be done again when it came time to list which meant I needed to do my research in front of my computer (vs. my TV where I did a lot of late-night sorting and scanning).

What I did instead was to create a “Research” pile to be looked at later and focused on books with a barcode. I had a Half-Price Book pile and a charity pile for my rejects. Half-Price Books won’t pay you for library books so I donate those to my favorite charity thrift store instead (I never scan that particular store for books). I went through the trouble of taking my reject boxes to Half-Price Books because I usually make enough a month to pay for the storage unit. They pay very little, but I have such a huge volume of rejects that it was worth my trouble. One of my partners sells her rejects through CraigsList by the box which works for her. I have recently found an independent book store that gives me trade in value for my books which is much more valuable than the few bucks I was making at Half Price.

Now I have boxes and boxes of research plus tens of thousands of books gathering dust and spiders at the storage unit. What I do is go and get books when I don’t have money for inventory. In the past two years, we’ve processed a lot of boxes and we are not even half-way through the unit. ScanPower and InventoryLab are great programs but they are much more efficient for retail arbitrage than used books. I wanted something faster but not too expensive.

What have I learned? The books have become a Sword of Damocles over my head. I feel guilty buying other books when I havesword-of-damocles so many available to me. While we have tons of books for less than a penny a book, they are not always great sellers. We tend to send in all the long-tail books since we already own the books, but they can take a very long time to sell. In addition, they take our time to process. For this reason, I still scan book sales and send up low-rank, high-return books to help make sure I’m selling lots of books per month. It is ironic.

When Nathan Holmquist contacted me about his new ScanLister program I jumped at the chance to be an early tester. I dove right in with about 300 books that I had from the Plano Public Library sale and I’m pleased to say that it works great for books and has streamlined my process a lot.

Here’s my new book process:

  1. Scan and sort by:
    • No barcode (goes into my “Research/ScanPower” pile)
    • Donate to charity (rejected library books)
    • Take to book buyer (Half-Price Books or Independent Book store)
    • Condition
  1. Clean up books
  2. Place valuable, very large and Like New books into poly bags
  3. Turn on scanner to continuous scan.
  4. Scan into ScanLister at a rate of about 4-6 per minute (sometimes it is even faster)
  5. Place into box and send to Amazon
  6. Amazon stickers my inventory for 20 cents a book
    • OR sticker myself
  7. Reprice my inventory to adjust to correct price

While this may seem like a lot of steps, it is actually a lot faster than any other method of processing I have tried. I use ScanLister with barcode-only books so it goes fast. Since you don’t need internet until you are done, there is no delay after each scan. If a book needs research then I might as well use ScanPower or InventoryLab because, as I also learned, Amazon won’t sticker a book that doesn’t have a barcode. If I have to sticker it myself, then ScanPower (or InventoryLab if you use that) is the way to go because ScanLister doesn’t currently allow you to print labels as you go.

When I’m conditioning the Used Good and Used Acceptable books I’ll subdivide them by notes like “former library book, expect typical stickers and markings.” This way, when I’m scanning into ScanLister I can use the “sticky-note” function to put the same note(s) on each book in a group without having to slow down. I use one price for everything – $50.

I have a scanner on a stand which makes it easy to scan books. If I’m going to label my books myself, then I have to put my books in piles exactly as I scanned them. If I’m going to use Amazon’s label service then I can just place them in a box. Be sure to wait until you go through the Amazon process to put in a box since the warehouse sorting occurs later in the process. You have a choice during the shipping queue process to print labels on sheets if you want to do them yourself.

After I send off the books, then I run my auto-repricer to set the prices.

Toppling booksAnother new thing I did this past month is I hired part-time help to process my inventory. I highly recommend this approach and wish I’d done it from the beginning. I’m finally plowing through these books and I can see a day when the storage unit is empty – hooray! I might consider buying book sale remainders again, but not until I have a much larger operation with full-time staff. It is too much otherwise.

ScanLister is a bare-bones program that focuses on one thing – books. It is also a one-time fee vs. a subscription which is appealing. Nathan designed it to supplement rather than compete with programs like ScanPower and InventoryLab (which he uses).

Pros:

  • Fast
  • Easy to use
  • Optimized for books
  • Can use off-line. You don’t need internet until it is time to upload to Amazon.
  • One-time fee vs. monthly subscription

Cons:

  • Only for books
  • Minimal features – you can’t add the cost you paid, your floor/ceiling for price or print labels from the program
  • Can’t replenish – you are always creating new MSKUs
  • New – there are bound to be some bugs for early users

Nathan created a quick video showing how fast you can process 50 books that is very impressive. Just so you know,  I am NOT an affiliate for this program – just a customer.

Next week I’ll talk more about auto repricing as part of a longer interview I had with Nathan Holmquist.

Happy selling!

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Reverse Inventory Blindness in 10 Steps!

blindfold sayingI love teaching classes not only because I get to meet my readers in person, but because I learn something too. I find it so interesting how people think and how they approach their businesses. We are all doing the same basic things yet everyone’s business is so very different.

A lot of folks over the years have said to me, “I can’t find any inventory.” I’ve learned that they mean a lot of different things by that. It may be that they can’t find inventory according to a certain criteria which means I look at their criteria with them. Or it might mean that all the opportunities they are finding are saturated with other sellers which means I look at other places for them to find inventory. It might also mean that they have limited themselves to only a few categories and that if they stretch themselves they will find lots of new opportunities in the same stores. It may also mean that they are not scanning enough or spending enough time in a store. The list goes on and on which is why it can be helpful to have someone from the outside look at what you are doing.

During my last book sale class, I realized that there was something else going on as well. Before entering the big sale we had all discussed criteria, condition, the need to scan all kinds of books, etc., and yet some of the students were still having trouble. They were all working the same big table (spread apart) and should have been picking up roughly the same amount of books, but they weren’t. When I would come to help them individually, I would pull books and say “did you try this one?” and many of those cherry picks turned out to be good books.

Obviously I have a lot more experience which helps, but I realized they were also suffering from inventory blindness. The opportunities were right in front of them. As I helped them see the inventory around them, it dawned on me that the problem many sellers have isn’t finding inventory, it is seeing it. It doesn’t matter if you are looking for used books, groceries or toys, inventory blindness can cripple your business if not corrected.

Inventory blindness is about not being able to see the possibilities with something you scan. Even if you have very high criteria you should be able to find good inventory to sell. One of the most successful online sellers I know won’t send up something unless she can price it for $25 and up. It is not worth her time and she has plenty of inventory that fits her criteria. A major online bookseller only sends up books he can sell for $10 and up and still walks away with hundreds of books from most book sales. So how do you reverse inventory blindness?

  1. Scan everything
  2. Discount the lowest price
  3. Go where the other sellers aren’t
  4. Don’t compete against merchant sellers
  5. Carve out a specialty
  6. Replenish
  7. Don’t let your technology think for you
  8. Know when to break your own rules
  9. Stop thinking about yourself
  10. Understand your customer

Scan Everything

As I watch people scan during my classes I see them cherry pick. While certainly some items are obviously not good candidates (tatty old books, appliances with damaged boxes for example), many that they are passing up are. When you are a new seller you must scan a lot! If you only scan 50 or 100 items, don’t be shocked if you only find 5 or 10 items to sell…if that many. Some sellers are very methodical about it. They work their way through a certain section of a store or book sale diligently over time until they’ve scanned nearly everything there. This helps them shorten their scanning time in the future as they avoid past losers and focus on the new stuff. There is NO WAY to shorten this particular learning curve. While be-on-the-lookouts (BOLOs) and tips from Facebook groups can be fun and helpful, you can’t build a business on them. There is no substitute for personal experience. Scan a lot.scan head

Discount the Lowest Price

A lot of emphasis is placed on the Amazon Buyer’s Box. And while it is true that 70% of buyers purchase directly from the buyer’s box, the fact is the buyer’s box changes minute-by-minute. If you put down an item because there is some nut selling it for $4, you may be missing out on a great opportunity. In the week or two that it will likely take you to get your item to the Amazon warehouse, that lowballer’s item may well be gone. Now the buy box may be much higher again. What I do is look and see if I would be happy with the second or third price on list (or somewhere in between). If so, then I’ll consider buying it.

Notice I said “consider.” Now I have to think about how quickly I think the item will sell and how long I’m willing to wait. For books that cost me 2 cents a month to store at Amazon, I’m much more patient than a huge, heavy toy. In addition, I have to consider the category. A 100,000 in books is very different than a 100,000 in grocery in terms of sales velocity and total numbers sold per day (100,000 in books is faster). Lastly, I have to think about the quantity that lowballer might have. With used books I can be reasonably certain that another seller only has 1 or 2 units and I don’t worry about it. With toys, it could be hundreds. If I think the item is worth the trouble, I might try testing a bit. I start to make a pretend purchase of 100 units of the lowballer’s stuff. Amazon will tell me right away if that seller has enough units or not. This is for something that is worth the trouble. Some little $5 action figure I’m flipping for $15 is not usually worth that kind of trouble and I’ll walk away if there are more than one or two other FBA sellers.

What if there are multiple lowball sellers? I will usually pass if there are more than two lowballers unless the rank is super-low and I know they are selling lots of units a day. If the rank is high (around 1 million or higher in books), then I may not tolerate any lowballers. These are my personal criteria. While yours may be different, just realize that one or two lowball sellers aren’t necessarily a reason to turn away inventory.

Go Where the Other Sellers Aren’t

I sell very few new toys at Christmas time anymore. It isn’t because I can’t find good inventory, it is because it is such a competitive category. Something that looks great when you buy it can be a loser by the time it gets to the warehouse. If I sell toys now they are either collectibles which means – like books – the other sellers only have one or two units or no one else is selling them FBA. Even then I might not buy them. There are other sellers who love toys and do very well by them (like my Dad), but I prefer to go where others aren’t. There are lots of non-toy items that sell at Xmas that aren’t so saturated with other FBA sellers. Also, while I like to train people at Target, BigLots and Walmart, the fact is my best sources of new inventory tend to be smaller, regional discount stores. Or, I shop the big boys but a different section that many others do. When I go to a book sale, I have certain sections that I like and I’ll start where there are fewer other shoppers. It is fine to compete against other FBA sellers and I do it every day, but if your inventory isn’t selling as well as you like, you may want to look around for less competitive items/categories. Don’t buy a toy that already has 20 FBA sellers, for example.

Don’t Compete Against Merchant Sellers

I see this problem often. You are not competing directly against merchant sellers. You are competing against other FBA sellers and Amazon itself. Remember that. Your customer wants free 2-day shipping and the guarantee of Amazon’s customer service behind their purchase. In addition, they want an easy exchange after Christmas if the person doesn’t like the gift. With a merchant seller all your gift-ee gets is either a refund or the opportunity to exchange for something else the merchant sells. With FBA, they can exchange their gift for anything sold by Amazon (or us). So, if the merchant is selling for $19.99 and you want to charge $25…charge $25. If there is one lowball merchant and a bunch of higher priced ones, ignore the lowballer. Does this mean you should never look at the merchant sellers? No, there is some common sense required. If there is a huge difference between your price and the merchant’s, potential customers might be willing to wait a few extra days after all for their stuff. However, if Amazon is charging higher and the other FBA sellers are charging higher, that’s what you should look at first. They are your real competition. If you are looking at an item to sell and there are no FBA sellers then the merchant price can be a starting point, but don’t be limited by their price. If the merchant is selling a book for $5.00, for example, you can easily charge $9.99 for the same book – and get it.

Carve Out a Specialty

With retail arbitrage almost anything that fits your margin criteria can be sold which is both wonderful and exhausting. It can lead to the idea that you have to scan the whole store which is daunting and can take a long time. What I suggest you do in the beginning is think about areas where you already have expertise or at least an interest and focus on them. Really get to know the categories you choose. It will make your shopping easier and easier over time and it will broaden your mind to the possibilities. The first time I sold a 25-cent paperback for $65.00 I knew books were going to be part of my business for the long haul. Naturally, I wanted to duplicate that experience so I examined other books by the same publisher to see if they were valuable too…and they were. So now I keep an eye out for these particular books when I shop. I’m the same way about cookbooks, textbooks, self-help and religion. I have several great performers in these categories that I can pick up at nearly any book sale and I search them out right away. Knowing a particular area well means you can see opportunities that others may not realize and jump on them. I’ve been doing this a while so I have several specialty categories in books and retail arbitrage. As you get more experienced, it will seem as if inventory is falling into your cart by itself. Your pattern recognition of what makes a good deal will be highly refined and shopping will easier, I swear. By going deep rather than wide, you can shorten that learning curve.

Replenish

There are two seller behaviors that really make me scratch my head – those who only buy a few of a really good deal and those who won’t replenish when something sells. I’m often asked “how many should I buy?” when we find something good during a class. I tell them “all you can afford.” There are several reasons for this: 1) you remove the inventory from the shelves stopping others from buying it; 2) it may not be here later; 3) if it sells well you want all of it; and 4) you can usually return it. Just because you buy 20 doesn’t mean you have to send them all in at once, either. You can send in some and then replenish when they sell. If they don’t sell or there are suddenly a lot of lowballers, then return the items and buy something else. If what you are buying is something that is a regularly stocked item (vs a sale or a one-time overstock), then hot dog! You’ve got a replenishable. When you run low, go to the store and buy more. Very quickly you’ll get a sense for often the item sells and how many you’ll want to send in for a one-month supply. Your goal as a seller is to fill your product portfolio with replenishables so you don’t have to work so hard searching for new stuff all the time.

Even if you are a used book seller you have replenishables. As I noted earlier, I always take a quick scan through some of my favorite categories of books at a book sale and pick up my regular sellers even if I don’t have time to scan deeply. Then I go to the category I want to scan deeply first.

Don’t Let Your Technology Think For You

I used to be an ASellerTool customer and while it had its advantages, the biggest problem I saw with it was that it created dependency on the technology instead of thinking for myself. The idea is you program your criteria in and scan like a lunatic. The program tells you when you hit something that fits your criteria. You fly through the shelves. Awesome, right? The problem is there isn’t any way to truly program in all your criteria. You could miss out on good books because of one lowball seller. If you set your criteria at 500,000 and a book scans at 500,001 then it is ignored by the technology which means you might miss out on a great deal because of a fairly arbitrary line in the sand. The database was limited by the memory in the PDA (at that time) so sometimes you missed out on stuff because it wasn’t in the database. I could go on and on*.

One student of mine used ProfitBandit and loved how she could put in what she was going to pay and see what her profit is. Not a bad thing at all except she was doing this for every item she scanned! It took her forever to find inventory because her process is so slow. Ideally, you would only go into depth for a product that is a hot candidate and quickly eliminate the rest without a lot of key strokes. You want to get to the “no” as quickly as possible so you can race through to the “yes.”

Some folks don’t use a Scanfob or other Bluetooth scanner for scanning and instead rely on their phone cameras. If that is all you can afford at the moment, fine, but then you must be committed to spending a lot more time scanning until you sell enough to afford a Bluetooth scanner. In short, if your technology is slowing you down, find something that makes you faster. It makes a real difference in your ability to find sellable inventory.

Whatever solution you use, you have to be able to make a quick but effective decision. Let it be a tool but not the thinker in your relationship. When I find a strong candidate, I will spend the time to really examine it and probably click thru to Amazon to see all the other offers, and I let my technology help me speed through the obvious bad deals.

A friend of mine assumes that she can raise her toy prices around Christmas time. When she looks at her scanner and sees the current prices, she thinks about what she will actually charge for that product. While that deal may not look so great on the scanner, at a higher price it is a great deal. She is an experienced seller and is more often right than not. She will buy deals that others put down because she knows the potential for that item. She understands trends and perceived consumer value – all things you can’t get from scanning technology.

Know When to Break Your Rules

magic beansA lot of times when I talk to other sellers I realize that they are frustrated because there aren’t precise rules. They want their business to be a clear equation of: Rule1+Rule2=FBA Success. I encourage everyone to make their own rules because they help streamline your process. You can’t scan everything in a store or book sale and you can’t buy everything there is for sale (unless you have a huge line of credit) so how do you decide what to do? That’s what personal rules are all about. They are guidelines that help you decide which inventory is worth further evaluation. That’s it. They aren’t magic beans.

Almost as soon as you create your own rules you will probably run into exceptions and want to break them. The trick is knowing when to break your own rules. In the beginning when you don’t have a lot of experience, you’ll be guessing and making hunches. This is an important part of the process of becoming a better seller. You have to take some risks sometimes (make them small and affordable) if the reward seems worth it.

When I provide guidelines to my students I always stress that: 1) I am conservative on their behalf and 2) I don’t always follow my own rules. I will sometimes take less than my usual margin if I think I can flip something fast. I will sometime buy something at a higher rank because I think the reward is worth the wait. So how did I figure out when to break my own rules? I experimented. I had a good feeling about something and I tried it. My budget has always been tight so my experiments were by necessity small, but the result of each experiment taught me something and I incorporated it into my business. You will learn your exceptions and rules the same way. There is no better teacher than your own experiments.

Stop Thinking About Yourself

I mean this in the nicest possible way. The fact is your personal likes and dislikes are uniquely yours. Your customer is most likely to be completely and sometimes wildly different. So often I see people pass by a potential inventory item because they would never buy it for themselves or a friend. This is an insidious problem because it is unconscious. They don’t even realize they are doing it. Once I point it out, often they start finding a lot more items to sell. It happens to all of us at one time or another.

A seller in one of my Facebook groups sells a lot of, shall we say, sexual pleasure enhancement items. He posted a picture of a shopping cart once and I turned red all by my lonely self at my computer terminal. Until that moment, I had never thought about selling items like this. It was a complete blind spot for me. In this case, I’m not rushing to the store to fix my oversight because I’m so ugly when I blush, BUT it opened my mind to new possibilities and made me realize that I was unconsciously thinking about myself instead of my customer.

OF COURSE people are buying these items on Amazon! Who wouldn’t want embarrassing personal items delivered discretely to the house? My friend Lesley and I giggle whenever we scan the “woo-woo” section of a book sale. The weirder the philosophy or religious belief, the more likely it will sell for a higher premium because the book is fairly rare with an ardent niche following. Aliens from outer space? Our future in the stars? Ghost guides? I’m ready to help! These books do not reflect our personal beliefs but we are happy to supply our customers.

Understand Your Customer

While your customer may be totally different from you in terms of likes and preferences, there is one thing you need to remember about him/her – he is totally addicted to buying on Amazon and getting free 2-day shipping. He/she is an Amazon shopper. Does that mean she never shops eBay or Etsy? Of course not, but – statistically – he goes to Amazon first. She is less price sensitive than the eBay shopper and expects excellent service and support. He would rather do his shopping online than to wander through the malls. She has relatives and friends far away and enjoys the convenience of buying, wrapping and shipping in one quick online purchase. He is time-stressed and does not want to spend a lot of time shopping, period. She relies heavily on her grandkids’ “Wish Lists” on Amazon.com to buy gifts. He has a Kindle Fire and buys something from Amazon every week – often right from the Kindle.

I find that a lot of new sellers really struggle with this understanding of their customer. They may be themselves eBay shoppers who relish getting a bargain or extremely price sensitive and they assume everyone else is. If they are buying a toy for $10 at Target, why would their customer pay $35 for the same toy? Because they will. Believe it my friend. If you don’t believe it, then you will unconsciously reject inventory item after inventory item and then wonder why you can’t find inventory to sell! Some people will tell me that they want to reach a broader (cheaper) audience of shopper thinking that will make them more money (also known as making more on volume). Stop that right now! Your customer is the premium buyer not the guy who squeezes a dime out of every nickel. If you are losing money on every sale, volume only makes your decline faster.

Aiming towards a less price sensitive customer is not the same as gouging them. The competitive market forces at work on Amazon.com’s marketplace work to lower prices and keep things fair. When you look at everything that a customer gets when they buy from Amazon – guarantee, excellent customer service, gift wrapping, 2-day shipping, one-click buying, easy-to-use website, the ability to shop from any internet enabled device – you see why they buy FBA and why they are willing to pay $35 for that $10 toy.

The next time you are in a store or book sale wondering why you can’t find inventory ask yourself “could this be inventory blindness?” Immediately try something different to break your pattern. Scan more items, pick up stuff you’d never buy in a million years, look at other categories and always, always, remember that the Amazon Prime customer is happily paying you to shop for them. If you would like to work with me in person this Fall, sign up for my live classes or a private phone consultation.

*ASellerTool’s current version is vastly improved and many sellers like it a lot.
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List That, Amazon!

Just a quick reminder for those FBA sellers approaching their first long-term storage fee assessment…be sure to sell, dispose or remove by end of the day Friday or else you will have to pay extra fees. If you are willing to pay, that’s OK, just make sure you know what you are paying for. Check out my blog post on long-term storage fees from last year if you need help dealing with your inventory.

Amazon is an amazing platform that has made my family’s life easier…AND they drive me crazy sometimes. Do you ever feel that way? They are constantly working on their platform which is good and bad. I tend to work out my frustrations through writing so I thought I’d tackle those damn listing errors. You know what I’m talking about here. Total crazy making. I had a client who was recently concerned that her sales had come to a standstill. When I looked at her inventory, over 80% of it had listing errors – no wonder! Once we fixed those, her sales picked up again.

What’s with all the listing errors?

First of all, it happens to everyone. Don’t assume you’ve made a mistake. It is just as likely to have been Amazon or the internet. You just want to be able to fix them when they happen. If you are a newcomer, you may not yet realize that your items will show redline errors in SellerCentral until they are properly shipped in to Amazon. If you are taking a few days to prepare a shipment (which I often do in the case of books), then don’t worry if you see listing errors for products that are not yet at the warehouse. Those will correct themselves once you ship them in.

This also explains why you may have listing errors for products you never actually sent in. Perhaps you listed it in ScanPower or InventoryLab, looked at it, decided you didn’t want to sell it after all and deleted it from your shipment. I’ll do this with books. Sometimes I’ll get home and decide that I’ve changed my mind about a book I bought. Maybe it is in worse condition than I thought or suddenly there are a ton of bottom feeder sellers. I donate it instead.  I’ve also had new merchandise where by the time I’ve priced it, I see that Amazon is now selling it for a low price. I decide to return the item, but the partially created listing is at SellerCentral.

A similar situation for me is that I buy something, go home, scan it into my software and then decide it is a better eBay item. I have a collectible Pinocchio Game right now where I did that. I deleted it from the shipment I was creating, but the partially created listing stayed at SellerCentral.

The fix for these listing errors is easy – archive them and don’t worry about them anymore.

The listing errors I’m talking about are the ones that occur with products that are already at the warehouse – products that should be selling and aren’t. These are the ones that drive good sellers mad….

There are three main reasons for listing errors:

  1. A problem with using your third-party software provider
  2. A feed issue (could be either end)
  3. Something at Amazon’s end

Knowing this helps you figure out how to fix your errors and preserve your sanity.

Third-Party Software Provider

If you use InventoryLab, ScanPower or one of the other listing programs you are basically creating your listing inside of Amazon in real-time with the help of the software that makes it faster, easier and more efficient. What you also get with an outside software provider is the ability to more easily correct your mistakes and make changes to your shipment up to the last minute…and there’s the rub. What ScanPower and InventoryLab do – and I assume the same for the others – is send the final, complete feed at the very end when you press “Finish Shipment (SP)” or “Send Products Feeds (IL).”

If you don’t press that button and instead go directly to the shipping queue to process your boxes, then your entire shipment will have listing errors. This is perplexing because the shipment looks normal when you go through the Shipping Queue…but it is not complete. The system is confused because the shipment is still considered open. If you’ve done this – don’t despair! The fix is easy. Simply go into ScanPower (InventoryLab, whatever system you are using) and close out your shipments officially and properly. This should fix those errors within a few minutes. Be sure to refresh your SellerCentral browser so you can see if they all got fixed.

finish shipment button rev

This is from InventoryLab’s support page:

Note: Your product listing feeds have not sent to Amazon until you do the following: Choose “Send Products Feeds” once your batch is complete (this is going to take your batch to the Send Products Page where you can edit, add, or delete the contents before submitting the batch). Once you have reviewed the batch and are ready to send it choose “Submit” (you will be prompted to confirm that you wish to complete the batch, and for FBA shipments you will check the box next to Create FBA Shipment in the pop up screen) and hit “OK”.  Now your product listings have sent and you can continue to create your shipments. 

The private workflow has many advantages, but it’s important to understand that you will not have a product listing until you tell InventoryLab to upload them. Therefore, since you are labeling items as you go, but you have not uploaded any product listings,  all inventory will be listed with a redline error until you complete your batch and send the product listing feeds. 

I imagine that the other listing programs are similar to Scan Power and InventoryLab since this is an Amazon requirement (how the feeds are sent).

A Feed Issue

This is a problem between your software provider and Amazon. It could be from either side. It could be a glitch in the internet (“glitch” is the official term for “we can’t explain it.”) If most of your shipment has no listing errors but there are one or two items that do have listing errors, then there are three fixes for you:

1) re-send the feed from your software program;

2) re-list the product on Amazon’s Seller Central; or

3) talk to Amazon. I’m going to talk about how to re-list (#2) under the next heading.

To re-send the feed from ScanPower, you need to go under “Settings,” “List” and then scroll to the very bottom of the page. There you will see a long list of your most recent shipments. Click on the shipment that had the errors and the feed will be re-sent. This should fix most feed-related errors. Wait about a minute or so and then go to SellerCentral and refresh your browser. If the problem is not fixed, then it is something at Amazon’s end.

old shipments

I don’t know how it is done with all the other software, but there should be an easy way to re-send feed if you ask or look at the company’s FAQs.

If that doesn’t work, the problem may be either that you are somehow restricted from selling that product or it needs to be re-listed through Seller Central (see below). Product restrictions are varied and something you sold before may now be off limits. It may be, for example, that you are no longer allowed to sell in that category. That happened to some folks with grocery recently. Amazon changed the rules and this is how they tell you.

If you look at your “Stranded Inventory” report on the “All Inventory View” page of SellerCentral, it will show you items that have inventory at the warehouse but are not selling. If you know you’ve sold these items in the past, then it is possible that the product manufacturer convinced Amazon to restrict third-party sellers. This can happen at any time and the effect is immediate.

In the case where you just don’t know what is going on, you will need to talk to Amazon. You can either have them call you or you can send them an email to find out what is up. I prefer phone myself although my assistant does a lot of corrections for me by email. Either works. To get Amazon to call you, go to “Help” in SellerCentral and look for the “contact us” button about half-way down the right-hand side of the page. Follow the instructions for sending an email and fill in the details of your problem. At the bottom of the form is an option for Amazon to call you. Fill in your phone number and they will call you within seconds. They will explain and walk you through the fix or at least tell you how to remove/destroy the product if that’s the answer. I first learned how to re-list products from a friendly FBA support person.

Something at Amazon’s End

There are several reasons that things may have gotten messed up on Amazon’s end – usually while your shipment is being processed, although I’ve had listing errors pop up from products I’ve been selling for a while. Rather than trying to figure it out, I fix it. If relisting doesn’t work, then I have two options – 1) ask Amazon to fix the listing for me through email or 2) call them to find out what is going on.

When I went to create my Step-by-Step I learned that Amazon had changed the way you relist products which was really annoying because I had just learned how to do it the other way. Basically what you are doing is completely recreating your listing on Amazon.com. When you do that, you have to be mindful that you use the exact same merchant SKU, condition, etc. that you did before or your problems will multiply.

Gardening listing error 2

I created a Step-by-Step for Listing Errors HERE in my FBA Library which is free to all my readers. In addition, you can click Listing error troubleshooting for a copy of Amazon’s instructions.  Mine has more pictures.

If you are like my friend Lynn who says, I don’t want to learn one more damn thing! then I suggest using the Easy Button and send your problem listings in batches of three to an email to Amazon. They will fix them for you.staple-easybutton Be sure to give them all the information you want in the new listing including price, condition, MSKU, etc.

What usually happens when they are recreating listings is they give them weird prices like $999 or $500 so you have to go back later and reprice. They’ll send you an email to let you know when they’ve fixed your problem.

Another option is to turn over the whole mess to your virtual assistant and say “make it so.” This is my preferred option because I don’t have to worry about follow up or repricing later. Shem takes care of it all for me.

What To Do

Here’s my suggested approach to listing errors:

  1. Remember, a huge percentage of listing errors are feed errors. Try re-sending the feed first.
  2. For the errors that remain, check to see if you ever sent those products in. If not, archive.
  3. For the errors that remain, either recreate the listing or send to Amazon.com to fix in batches of 3 per email.
  4. Repeat.

It is up to you as to how often you deal with your listing errors, but I suggest looking at them regularly. The last thing you want is a bunch of inventory at the warehouse that is not selling for you. The first time may take a while, but if you do it regularly, it won’t take long at all. Since the majority of errors are feed errors, you can fix those in a snap. My free Inventory Listing Errors Step-by-Step has more pictures with arrows and instructions to help you figure out why your inventory is languishing. If the above link doesn’t work, just login to the FBA Library and look under “Bonuses” for the Step-by-Step page.

PS. If you’ve not noticed, I’m trying to offer more live classes in and out of Texas to help people prepare for the Christmas selling season. I’ve got my Texas classes posted and am working on three classes in Chicago (it is such a big area) at the end of September/early October. I also try to leave time for at least one or two face-to-face private sessions in each city as well.

I was recently in Atlanta and Wilmington, NC. Want me to come visit your town? Let me know! To make the trip I need at least 8 students per class since I will have travel expenses. We have just over 100 days until Black Friday…are you ready?

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Dominate Your Next Book Sale!

Books on a shelfThe Fall book sale season begins this weekend for those of us in the DFW Metroplex.  The Friends of the Plano Public Library sale starts on Friday and it is a big one.  I’m offering two classes in the next month to help folks take advantage of the upcoming book sale season and make some nice high-margin money. With Amazon’s new $35 minimum for free shipping, you will sell a lot of used books during the holidays as folks pick up something for themselves in order to get free shipping for their gifts.

I love books and sell books every day.  They are cheap and yet can be very profitable. They are easily found and stack nicely. The trick is to find the ones that have that wonderful combination of desirability and rarity.  I’m not talking about penny books here, I’m talking about books you can sell for $7 and up.  My average is $10, just to give you an idea.

I wrote a blog last year about how I work a book sale that you might want to review before heading to your next sale.

If you are wondering where I find sources for books, check out this blog post.

Want to join my class on Friday or in September? click here.

In addition, I will be leading a retail arbitrage class on September 3 in Dallas at a Target near the CES II hotel (for those 300+ of you coming to town for it!) and classes in Austin, San Antonio and Houston later in September.  Click here for all those classes.

My classes are small so I can provide lots of individual attention and answer everyone’s questions. Book sales are limited to 6 people and retail arbitrage are limited to 10 so don’t wait too late to sign up.

Next week look for a longer post from me about fixing listing errors. For some reason it is taking me a long time to write it…

Happy hunting my friends!

 

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Don’t Forget Books When Selling Amazon FBA

There’s a lot of excitement about retail arbitrage and for good reason. You have brand new inventory that is (hopefully!) popular and fast-selling. However, it is also riskier for a new seller. You are spending more per item on inventory and your mistakes cost you more. And believe me, you will make mistakes. We all do. That is why I will remind everyone NOW to reprice for the August 15 long-term storage fees assessment that is coming up. You have about a month to sell off your poor performers and mistakes that are a year old. I have two blog posts that address the need to move out inventory and how to use Amazon’s advertising to clear out slow movers. You know what I will be doing before I leave on vacation next week!

Ok, back to our regularly scheduled programming…a lot of people dismiss books for the glamor of new stuff and I think it is a mistake. I sell books every single day. My margins on books are terrific because I know how to find them cheap. It is common for me to price books at 10X what I paid and more. For those on a budget, it is hard to beat books for return on your inventory dollar. I wrote a post about book sourcing back in 2012 that covers many of the basic sources available to almost everyone no matter where they live.

I recently read Peter Valley’s new books “Book Sourcing Secrets: Every Source of Cheap Books to Sell for Huge Profits on Amazon” and “Recycler Riches” which was bundled with it. Even though I’ve been selling books since 2010, I learned some new things and I thought I’d share his book with you. Peter is definitely worth listening to. He did over $130,000 in sales selling used books on Amazon last year and shows his numbers. In his introduction he states that he makes over $80,000 a year selling on Amazon overall so books are clearly a significant portion of his inventory.

Peter’s book is a good guide to find inexpensive books. While it is short (110 pages), he gets right to the point and shares a lot of information. There is no fluff in the book. He shows you with his numbers why books make for a good FBA business. He has over 40 relevant and realistic sources which are more than enough to get anybody started…or re-started. Sometimes when one source dwindles or goes away, we are stumped for new ones. Peter’s book got me thinking about other sources that I’ve not tried yet.

His core sources of books are all ones that I’ve used from bookstores to library sales to thrift stores and so on. The surprise was there were a lot of supplemental sources on his list that I’d never thought of before. That’s saying something after four years of selling books online. I also appreciated his approach to his sources. He describes how they work and how he researches them. A section for each source called “Profit Hacks” gives tips for maximizing the sale/event/opportunity. He also uses personal stories to clarify a point and/or inspire his reader. Where the source is one he doesn’t use himself, he often finds another seller to share their story about that source.

For example, I was inspired by a story he gathered from one FBA seller that makes $3,000 a month selling books (net) anddumpster diving who gets all of his book inventory dumpster diving. He spends six hours a week sourcing and then a few hours processing. He started with $400 to buy equipment and now clears $36K a year working part-time with no out-of-pocket inventory costs….my kind of story! While I have successfully gone dumpster diving for other things in the past (lamps, appliances, vacuum cleaners), I didn’t think about it for books. Now I will.

I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about rummage sales, but I learned that many of them have preview sales just like Friends of the Public Library sales. He talked about how he’ll make a lump sum offer for all the books at some rummage sales that look good. He’s only been successful two out of 15 times, but those two were very profitable for him. I admired his persistence and wondered how many times I would ask before giving up if I didn’t know that it could be successful. That’s the kind of information I found most valuable in his book – the possibilities and the strategies that have worked.

bird nomenclatureI was very interested in the University Press sales section and am going to look into that for myself. There are a number of university presses/publishers within 100 miles of me and I’d never thought about it before. He told a story that involved Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest as an obscure book that seemingly no one would read and I had to laugh because I know it and other nerds who’ve read it…

Peter’s organizational skills are helpful and throughout the book he shows you not only how he researches opportunities, but also how he organizes them so he can maximize his time, gas, etc. He conducts research before he goes to a garage or estate sale to determine whether or not it is worth his time. He shares exactly what he looks for. In fact, he pretty much opens the kimono in every part of the book. His theory is that he can share his secrets because relatively few will ever follow through or will actually do it the way he does it. He protects his personal sources, but happily teaches others how to find theirs – an approach that I agree with wholeheartedly. His book was clear enough that I’m going to share part of this book with my virtual assistant so she can conduct my online research for me.

What you won’t find in Peter’s book is much discussion about rank, how to use your tools, listing, supplies or any of that side of the business. He assumes that his readers know the basics.

There were a few things that he said that I disagreed with. He talked about how he would not let a book store proprietor see him scanning because they take great offense. I have never had a problem with this and I shop retail bookstores all the time. However, he had obviously had this experience so my two cents is to use your common sense. I always try to be polite, quiet and to buy a lot of stuff. That usually soothes any retailer feelings. Peter also buys a lot more books at higher ranks than I do. I strongly suggest that new sellers put books down that are over 1 million in rank. It is not because higher ranked books won’t sell – they will eventually – but because you need to build up a volume of fast selling books before adding a lot of long tail books into the mix. People who tell me that books don’t sell for them are usually selling a lot of long-tail books and not enough quick turnaround books.

Another thing that Peter is up front about is that he doesn’t always follow the rules for book condition. He says that he’s never had a problem listing used-like new as new. As long as no one is complaining, then Amazon’s happy. They care about happy customers. I tend to be more conservative. I have a 100 seller rating with Amazon and I want to keep it that way. Amazon is fairly forgiving of honest mistakes here and there, but consistently not following the rules could get you banned for life.

Lastly, he is adamant that you need to be at a book sale when the doors are open or it is not worth going. While I can see his point and appreciate how fast he works a section, my experience has been that I find lots of books that the dealers leave behind – especially in really large sales. I can’t always be there when the doors open (I do when I can, obviously), but there are some sales not to be missed and I don’t think people should write off a sale if they can’t make the first hour. In a blog post from last year, I detailed how I was the only scanner for two out of the four days of a large sale and left with hundreds of books every day. Some sales just can’t be worked in a few hours.

Recycler Riches

Another brand-new book he is bundling with Book Sourcing Secrets is Recycler Riches. This is a 31-page eBook that dives deeply into one of the sources he mentions in his book – recyclers. If you are interested in buying books in volume for pennies per unit, it is worth the $47 price of Book Sourcing Secrets for this book alone. It is very detailed about how to approach a recycler; what they need to hear; how to negotiate; what you can expect in terms of books worth selling and even how to work the books once you have them. From hiring help to purging leftovers to repricing, I highly recommend this book to online sellers interested in a large-scale operation. What I liked about this book is a lot of the advice would work for any source that delivered pallets of books – thrift stores, auctions, storage units, remainder sales and more.

He interviewed Adam Bertram in detail for this book and asked him extensive questions about his former operation (Adam is doing something else now). From as detailed as what kind of truck he rented to pick up books from recyclers to how to find the right kind of recycler – the one most likely to have the higher quality books. A large scale operation like Adam’s is fascinating. He was generating about $25K-$30K a month (net after Amazon’s fees but before costs for employees – $4K – and other out-of-pocket expenses) from books he bought for 4-8 cents a pound. At the back of the book are two pages of resources to find a recycle company near you.

As far as I know, there is no other book out there like this – and I looked. I was so impressed by Adam’s operations. Even though he processed hundreds of thousands of books a year, his company was a small operation consisting of him, occasional help from family members, a few employees and an empty 800 sq. ft. apartment.

I wish Peter’s books were available in a Kindle-optimized version and I wish the PDF version was indexed so I could click on a chapter heading and go right to it. Book Sourcing Secrets would really benefit from indexing because it is the kind of book where you want to jump ahead to the sources that interest you the most. These are minor things and I’m hoping Peter will consider them in the future.

In conclusion, Peter Valley’s new books are genuinely useful and he shares everything. You get insight into the minds of two highly successful Amazon FBA booksellers and learn from their experiences. I think every new FBA bookseller (and even some old dogs like me!) will benefit from having such a comprehensive sourcing guide. It is natural once you find some sources to stop thinking about other sources – but you shouldn’t. Sources change all the time. Some of your favorite sources today may be undercutting you or out of business tomorrow. If your Friends of the Public Library sales are too competitive, then branch out and consider the other 40+ sources on the list. If you think you might like to scale up your book operations, then I highly recommend you read Recycler Riches. It will be bundled for free with Book Sourcing Secrets only until Monday, July 14 at midnight so act now to get your copy.

Besides my sweet Tess going to heaven, I’m grieving a friend who took his life recently. This double loss has impacted my ability/desire to work right now. I am going on vacation July 15-30 and may not get a new post out until early August, just a heads up. In the meantime, I will be teaching two live classes in Atlanta and Wilmington, NC and will be posting photos and updates on my Facebook fan page. I am so delighted to be able to meet some of you personally. On a personal note, I want to say thank you so much to my incredibly kind-hearted readers. I received many wonderfully supportive emails and posts about Tess and was so moved.

I make a small commission if you buy Book Sourcing Secrets through my link. You can also go directly to Peter’s book information page from this non-affiliate link if you prefer: http://www.fbamastery.com/book-sourcing-secrets-ebook-every-source-of-cheap-books-to-sell-for-huge-profits-on-amazon/. I only act as an affiliate for products I’ve used/read and can personally recommend like Peter’s book. It is important to me that this blog represents information that is valuable to the FBA community – newcomer and old hand – and I’m careful about my recommendations. I turn down a lot of requests every year that I don’t find suitable.
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The Amazon FBA Seller at Home

Recently a fellow seller asked the question on Facebook about how do you spend your time when you go full-time selling Amazon FBA? “Tell me about your day,” he said and it made me think. I was tempted to be a smartass and say “I’m up to my armpits in books,” but there was a more profound question behind the question. He was asking “What should I do? How does it work when there’s no one to tell you what to do?”

When you’ve worked for corporate America for most of your career, you can find yourself a little lost when your time is suddenly your own. When you transition from part-time to full-time it is more than simply having more time for the business. Having a “day job” provides a focus, a discipline, time constraints and rules. You run your FBA business in the pockets of time that are left over. Sometimes, that actually makes you more efficient than when you have the whole day to work your business.

For many people, they’ve never worked out of their homes before so there are additional issues as they learn to work from home. I’ve worked from home off and on since 1994. I’ve had the fancy corporate office with employees and outside freelancers, and I’ve had the desk in my home office as I telecommuted and then, I’ve moved the entire business back to my home and had employees working with me from my home. I’ve lived the dangers and joys of working from the home.

I’ll never forget, for example, the day I was talking to a new employee about one of her projects. We were in my kitchen and I was vigorously spraying baby roaches whose egg sac had dared to enter MY house in a paper shopping bag. There was no way I was not taking care of that right away…but I think she found it a surreal first day. At least I didn’t ask her to help!

Rather than write out my typical day (is there such a thing?), I thought I’d talk this week about what is important to me when working from home. In case you are wondering, yes I DID learn all these lessons the hard way. Hopefully you won’t have to.

Remember your promises to yourself

Remember all those things you said you’d do if you had more time? Eat better? Work out? Get eight hours of sleep a night? Spend more time with your loved ones? Do them. Make them a priority. These activities will take a piece of your day and at first you may worry that you are not getting “enough” done, that you “should” be working. Shake all that off. A happier healthier you is a more productive you. The time you save by not attending meetings at work can be used to take care of yourself. I find that bike riding in the morning (you have to be done before 10 if you live in Texas) or yoga later in the day makes me more alert, efficient, creative and just plain happier. Working at home means better food at a lower cost and with greater control over the evil triumvirate of sugar/fat/salt.

I’m a night owl and often work late. While sometimes I have to be up with the starlings, I no longer feel guilty sleeping in. I love it. I didn’t know how sleep deprived I was until my husband got a CPAP machine for his snoring. Sleep is like my secret weapon now. I’m a better person. It was like I had been living a half-life. It was like Dorothy landing in Oz. I’m not kidding. Sleep. At first you might sleep a lot because you are way behind. Eventually you’ll catch up and start doing things like waking up before your alarm clock(s). Gasp! It’s true. Many professional and Olympic athletes will skip a morning workout for sleep because it is better for their performance. Now that you work for yourself, keep this promise. It will make your business better, I swear it.

I put this point about promises first because taking care of yourself is usually the first thing out the window when you are nervous about your future financial security. I remember a long period of no work in the early 2000’s after I sold my first business. I was so anxious I was having panic attacks. I didn’t enjoy my free time and put myself in a tailspin trying to generate income. It was ugly and eventually everything imploded with me – health, wealth, happiness. This advice about the promises to yourself? I learned it the hard way. Don’t make my mistake!

Turn off the internet, watch TV later

Biggest time suck ever. Record your favorite shows and watch them later. Limit your Facebook/Pinterest/YouTube/etc. time until you’ve accomplished something first. This is probably the number one mistake I see people make who are working from home for the first time. They turn on the TV for some noise and to keep them company and suddenly they have watched three episodes of Murder She Wrote. Don’t let it happen to you! Turn on the radio in another room or buy yourself a white noise maker if the house is too quiet.

At home with no one cracking the whip or no deadline pressuring you, you may be shocked at how much time you spend online. I just cut myself off during most of the day because I’m no good at portion control when it comes to social media. If you see me on Facebook during the day, I’m probably in a waiting room or standing in line somewhere with my phone.

Set office hours

When you work for yourself, you get to choose your hours. I love scouting during the week but I often have to work weekends for book sales and estate sales. My goal is to spend my weekends with the family as much as possible. We eat dinner together every night year round. These things are important to me. This means I will work at night sometimes and I will sometimes do kid stuff and house stuff during the day. During the summers, I tend to do a lot more of my work at night than during the day simply because my son and his cousins are off from school.

What’s important is to have a plan to work that works for you. Some people are morning people and are most productive before noon. Others are like me and are more productive in the afternoons and evenings. Plan your activities according to your personal preference. That’s the joy of working for yourself!

Now, for the hell of working for yourself from home…your office is always open. People working from home often fall into the trap of working all the time. The office is right there and they can’t tear themselves away. Without meaning to, they find themselves working 60-70 hours a week and thinking “why did I think this was a good idea?” They are exhausted and sick of the house. This is why I strongly recommend you set office hours for yourself. If you want to continue to work 40 hours a week, figure out what hours in the upcoming week will be spent on work. Maybe it is 9-5 every day just like when you had your job. Maybe you work a lot of hours Friday-Sunday and then few hours on the other days packing, shipping and repricing. Maybe you work four hours a day during the week and then 4-6 hours a day during the weekends. I will often shut the door to my office as a physical reminder that I’m done working for the day. I need to do stuff like this because I’m a recovering work-a-holic and can easily find myself working instead of living.

Lastly, maybe you don’t set hours but you set weekly goals you want to accomplish. There is no rule that you have to work 40 hours a week! What you want to do is build your business. In my case, I don’t have a huge inventory budget. There would be no point to me shopping six days a week because I’d run out of money early in the month. So my goals are to get out one decent sized shipment a week. I have UPS come on Fridays and I try to have a lot of boxes ready to go. Someone else with more resources may be having UPS pick up three times a week or even daily. I keep a steady pace that has helped me grow over time.

Jessica Larrew mentioned in a blog once that she and her husband each work about 25 hours a week on average and they have a very successful business. The point is, when you work for someone else, they want their 40+ hours from you and they’ll fill up your time. When you work for yourself, you can focus on what makes you money and drop most things that don’t. It is very liberating. If you are focused during that time and cut out distractions, you will get a lot done.

Make a plan for your feelings

Sounds weird, right? But here’s the thing. When you go to work every day, you are in a professional mode. You may have had a fight with your sweetie or be sad or angry, but work keeps you focused (most of the time) and you deal with your feelings differently than when you are home. When you are home – often by yourself – there is no buffer or structure. You may discover that you are feeling your feelings more than you did at work and it can be stressful. If you have kids at home when you are trying to work – you may find yourself frustrated and grumpy by the constant interruptions. You may find that your house is eerily quiet during the day and you are distracted by the silence which gives you time to ruminate.

I’m pretty disciplined in my work at home except when I get the blues. I used to watch hours of mindless TV to numb the feelings. This is OK for an occasional day here and there, but actually makes me feel worse. I’m overall happier when I’m doing stuff that I think is important. Now if I’m having a down day, I read and sleep. I try to exercise and take care of myself. I’m an introvert so going inwards recharges me. You may be completely different. Maybe being with people recharges you. In that case, go out. You might find yourself really lonely at home. Find a Starbucks and set up your business there for a few hours (repricing maybe?). Or call Amazon and ask them a question about your business. Chat for a few minutes with a friend. Go to the gym. Break up your day so you are not alone all day in front of your computer listing and shipping. You will be happier and more productive overall.

Even introverts can get lonely in this business. We spend a lot of time alone in stores and at home working. This is why I like to go to yoga classes during the day when I can. It is also fun to have pals in the business that you can call or text with your latest cool deal. That is part of the fun of being part of the ScannerMonkey online community – friendly scanners who get it. I have friends that I like to go scouting with as well. Not only do we cover more ground with our divide and conquer approach, we get to squeal together when the deal is super wonderful.

Get dressed

 While it is nice and comfy to wear your PJs all day…don’t do it too often. Getting dressed tells your mind that you are ready to work now. You are ready to spring into action. It has been proven that getting dressed in the morning makes people more productive. There is something about jammies that makes you slower and more inclined to nap. Save them for sick days. Being dressed also means you will not be embarrassed when a neighbor or the UPS guy knocks on your door or shamed by your sweetie coming home from work and seeing you unwashed. You will not feel grubby and stinky at the end of the day. All that being said, my work uniform usually consists of a t-shirt and jeans or yoga pants and a t-shirt so I’m still pretty comfy.

 Make a three-goal list for yourself

When you were working the business part-time, you probably focused on the essentials because you didn’t have a lot of time – scout, ship, reprice. Things like sales tax, increasing the amount of seller feedback, wholesale vs. retail arbitrage and so on were put on the back burner. Now you will have more time and the confusion sets in. Where should you be spending your time? My suggestion is to spend most of it the same way you did before – scout, ship, reprice – and take all the other issues and elements and make them side projects. Take them one at a time rather than tackle everything at once. Make sure you are focusing on buying and selling inventory first and foremost.

I learned the three-goal list technique from one of my favorite Zen guys and one of the most accomplished and productive guys I’ve ever seen: Leo Babauta. He wrote the books The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life and Zen Habits: Handbook for Life. In a nutshell, this recommendation of his is that you select three big goals that you want to work on. They can be personal, business, whatever, but they have to really matter to you. This is not a “honey-do” list of chores but a life-affirming list of accomplishments you want to achieve. Assuming that one of them involves building up your Amazon.com business to a certain level, every day you would work toward that goal until you reached it. Before you did anything else that day (if at all possible), you would take action on that goal. In this way, you will accomplish something really important to you every day. Naturally a really big goal has lots of parts and may take time to reach. Here are two of my three current goals:

  • Consistently earn $5,000 a month (after expenses and reinvestment) in my Amazon.com business so we can…(I have an exciting list here of things to do with the money – money itself is not inspiring)
  • Be healthy enough not to require any medications

These need to be goals that provide juice and keep you motivated. Every day I work towards these two goals and another. Sometimes I do a lot, sometimes a little. Sometimes my “to-do” list under the first point is incredibly long but I don’t plan to do it all in one day, week or month. I break it out. What is great about this approach for me is that it simplifies what is most important to me and I have a sense of accomplishment every day. According to Leo, you don’t drop or add a goal until you’ve achieved one. Once I’ve achieved my first goal, for example, I will replace it with something new but until then, no new projects.

Now am I saying I only do three things a day? No way! What I’m saying is that these are my “big rocks” and the sand of life has to fit in around them. Once I’ve checked off something towards my three goals, I have plenty to do as a mom, wife and business owner. What this approach does for me is helps me to strategize and then execute on that strategy. Once I have my goal, I work backwards towards what it will take to reach it. I’m forced to look at my activities in light of reaching the goal and determining if they make sense or not. In this way, I get something done that matters to me and my life isn’t consumed with housework, homework and chauffeur duties.

Writing this blog, for example, is a double win for me because I get to help other people which makes me feel good, and the blog supports sales of my book and video which are part of goal #1.

Review expectations with your family

Don’t be surprised when you move into the house to work, that your family might not get the memo that you are working. Home is so associated with downtime, chores and weekend stuff that – without realizing it – your spouse may suddenly expect you to do more around the house during the day. If this is also your plan; all is well. If you are like me, however, this is a recipe for marital disaster.

I’ve spent time off and on over the years setting boundaries and expectations with my husband about the times when I’m working from home. I had to make it clear that I’m still working and that is my priority. If I get in a load of dishes, fine, but it is my choice and there should be no expectation that I will do domestic chores during my working hours (cockroach killing being an important exception). To my mind it is no different than if I was going to an office.

I’m OK as a multi-tasker, but I do better when I’m focusing on one thing at a time. When I’m in “work mode,” I don’t want to be disturbed and NO, I won’t remember to do something else outside of that. I often lose track of time when I’m writing or working. I once set a pan of boiling eggs on fire because I forgot about them. My husband sets timers to remind me of things. He’s a smart man.

On the other side of the family, they have rights too. You have now moved work into their home – the place where they like to relax, sleep and play their music way too loud. They want to be able to live in the house too. This is why having office hours is important. You can tell them when you will be done and ready to be with them. One thing I learned early on was that it bothered my husband if I kept working when he came home.  Now I make a point to stop for a few minutes to chat, hug and catch up even if I still have work to do.

When we adopted our son and I moved the business home, I did so specifically so I could spend time with him. I cut my business back and I picked up more of the chores. I made a commitment to stop working at 3:00 p.m. and pick him up. This was our decision as a family. Everything changed.

When I started my Amazon business, I had a full-time business run out of my home, care of my son and then Amazon. It was crazy. My husband has a full-time job, too, and we had to revisit expectations again. He picked up more of the home chores, we gave our son some chores and we talked as a family about making it all work. I fully expect we will have future conversations about work and home because that’s life – it is always changing.

Plan for fun

Because you will likely be at home more than you were previously, you might think that you will have more time with your family. This is true to an extent: but are these quality hours? I’m home for my son after school to nag him about his homework, make dinner, drive him to his various activities, etc. He sees me cooking and running around but we aren’t necessarily having quality time together. Those of you with teenagers know what I mean – you mostly see the tops of their heads as they text their friends about how lame you are. Because the business is at home and because there are likely a jillion other things to do around the house, it is easy to forget to have fun together. Life becomes one long to-do list and set of logistics.

Early in my marriage I started scheduling fun for us just like any other appointment. There’s a time and a planned activity. To the best of our ability we have fun together at least once a week. My son and I have made a game out of snagging movie tickets to reviewer previews and usually are able to see a couple of movies a month for free. Free always makes the movie better than expected.

A friend of mine just took an amazing trip with her son to England where they hiked across England…one coast to the other. They had built up their hiking legs during many months of training beforehand so they could hike 20 miles a day in rough terrain. They were rewarded with the most astounding experience, views and adventures during their nearly three weeks in England. I couldn’t wait to see her FB pictures every day. I am so inspired by her story. One of the things I loved about it was she got to spend lots of hours every week with her son before the trip as they hiked around North Texas. This is a journey neither she nor her son will ever forget. She paid for it with her Amazon.com business. It really got me thinking. This kind of experience is why we work and if you’re going to plan for fun, plan BIG.

Tess at restAs a final note, there are a lot of benefits to working from home – be sure to enjoy them! One of my favorites is that it is always “take your pet to work day.” My sweet dog Tess went to heaven this week and I miss her terribly. She always supervised my work with genuine interest and made sure I had fun every day.

 

 

 

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Christmas in July with Amazon FBA…

While most of the world is focused on vacations and keeping the kids occupied during the (long! long!) summer months, retailers are gearing up feverishly for Christmas. The question is…are you? Early bird shoppers and budget planners start shopping for Christmas in September. My sales start their steady upward climb in August and conclude with their highest sales in November and December. If this is your first holiday season selling Amazon FBA, here’s what you can expect starting in August:
  • August – increased sales for birthdays (toys, party supplies) and back-to-school (I finally will sell off the rest of my Tinkerbell erasers), college dorm organizers, textbooks and school calendars (18-month)
  • September – continued sales of textbooks, back-to-school, Halloween, fall foods and décor, Christmas begins
  • October – Halloween, party supplies, Thanksgiving, gourmet food galore, candy and other meltables, Christmas
  • November – Thanksgiving & Christmas
  • December – Christmas
  • January – Returns and gift card purchases for first two weeks. Valentine’s Day gifts, candy and party supplies.

If you are sighing right now because sales are slower than you like, change is around the corner. August is only six weeks away. The big retailers are getting ready for Christmas now by first clearing out the old stuff and then stocking the new. This Retail_Flipping_cvr_smlgives us two great shopping opportunities. Even though August is the biggest month of the year for birthday parties, stores routinely dump last year’s toys in July, so keep a look out. I’m a big fan of Steve Lindhorst’s book** Retail Flipping which taught me how to time my purchases for maximum sales later. He’s created a retail calendar that shows when stores are clearing out valuable merchandise in different categories so we can buy low and sell high later. Just learning that the stores have big toy sales in July was worth the cost of the book to me – but there’s more. You can check out my blog post on the concept of timing HERE.

Stores that don’t normally sell toys or not as many toys (think about Fry’s, Home Depot, grocery stores, etc.) will start stocking them in August and September and/or giving them expanded shelf space. Every store will bring out their special holiday items early. Even if you don’t sell toys, there will be holiday opportunities in your categories. Last year I sold doggie costumes (so cute!) at Halloween, mincemeat from September onwards and special beauty supplies during the holidays. Items that sell year-round like bedding will jump in sales around Christmas as kids get new Avenger comforter sets and Hello Kitty décor for their rooms. Expensive appliances sell like hotcakes. New and Like-New books jump in sales, collectible games and toys…you name it just about everything sells more over the holidays.

We are half-way through June which is an excellent time to plan for Q4. It is easy to spend time working in your business and forget to work on your business. Time to put on your CEO hat. Unless you are already a super-seller with huge lines of credit, there is far more inventory out there than you can possibly buy. The trick is to make your inventory dollars count. If you are on a budget like me, you will be replenishing during November and December from sales from September and October. To get your strategy session started, answer the following questions for yourself and your business:

  1. Which categories bring me the greatest returns? If you don’t know or are guessing, I strongly suggest you spend an hour or so looking over your past sales. Compare cost to the actual sale price.
  2. With which categories do I feel the most competent? You tend to make better decisions in categories where you have some knowledge of the brands, products and buyers.
  3. Where do I spend the most time in my business? Can I reduce it? The holidays are insane. You will be working harder than any other time of the year. You need to figure out where your time is best spent. I am currently sending up hundreds of books while I have helpful elves like my niece with me. Starting in July/August, I won’t be doing nearly as many books because they take a lot of time. One hundred new pet toys take a lot less time to process than 100 books. Some people take advantage of Amazon’s stickering service this time of year (20 cents/unit) so they can get boxes up to Amazon quicker. Others arrange for regular UPS pick-ups at their house (free for a year with new UPS Connect program).
  4. How much am I willing to invest? You’d be surprised how many people spend without a budget and then stop when the money is gone. Don’t max out your credit if you’re not sure you can make payments on the back end. Also, if you can’t pay back the credit extended in six months or less, it is probably a bad idea because you will be spending a lot on interest. When budgeting, don’t forget that you will have expenses as well. You can’t put it all into inventory.
  5. What products have brought me the best returns? Why? Replenishing and selling the same products over and over again may seem boring when there is an exciting world of new products out there, but repeat sales are your key to financial success.
  6. What items in my current inventory are turning over the fastest? What might turn over faster during the holidays? Inventory turn is the name of the game. You need to balance items with high returns but slower turn (like many appliances) with items with faster turn even if they are for a lower profit per unit. Skip McGrath talked about this in a past blog where he determined whether an item was a better Amazon or eBay item. Often he would sell on Amazon for lower margins if the turnover was higher.
  7. Where are my greatest failures and/or smallest margins? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity and yet many sellers find their failures painful and ignore them rather than learn from them. I’ve greatly reduced my purchases of new toys simply because I found that I had to reduce my margins over and over again to compete. In addition, they required a lot of my attention. In the name of efficiency and my sanity, I dropped out of the toy frenzy. I sell a lot of collectible toys and games that I find at estate sales, thrift stores, etc. Your decision may be different from mine. During the holiday season I will be watching my sales closely every day and repricing, but food and bedding tend not to be as volatile which makes it a faster and easier process for me.
  8. What expenses will increase during the holidays? In every business there are two types of expenses – fixed and variable. Variable expenses rise and fall with the volume of the business. Fixed expenses stay the same regardless of your level of business. Some expenses can be both – like employees. You have fixed costs per employee like salary and benefits, but your variable costs also rise every time you have to hire a new person like buying another computer or moving into bigger office space. Fixed costs like rent/mortgage, electric, etc., must be covered and suck up all your profits if your sales are low. Shipping costs like boxes, tape, stickers, polybags, etc., are variable costs that rise with increased sales and reduce when sales shrink. When buying and pricing your new inventory, you need to make sure it will cover all these costs. One of the biggest mistakes I see new sellers make is not charge enough for their merchandise and then wonder why they aren’t making any money – their expenses are eating them alive. Summer is an excellent time to take stock of your expenses. Can you reduce your cell phone bill and other monthly bills? Often you can with just a little research and a few phone calls. Having larger shipments with more boxes will reduce your shipping costs. Check to see if there are supply sales you can take advantage of (Uline has regular sales, for example) and buy in volume for a lower cost per unit of items you know you will need. If you take stock now, you will be prepared this fall. I have been out at midnight buying boxes and tape – not fun.
  9. Cleaning TimeIs my inventory fresh and clean? When you are working fast and furious it can be easy to let things like listing errors, repricing and old inventory slide. You want to go in to the fall with everything priced well, all listing errors fixed and old inventory cleared out (as much as possible). If nothing else, there is a long-term storage fee assessment coming up. Take a page from the big retailers – sell your losers now and re-use the cash for fresh inventory.
  10. What is my diversification strategy? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket if at all possible. You want to spread your risk over categories and product lines. Sellers of Disney Frozen merchandise woke up recently to a nasty surprise that all their listings had been suspended while Amazon looked into some fraud issues.   This caused quite a bit of upset among those who had thousands of dollars of Frozen merchandise in the warehouse – most of it toys. Those who had a more balanced inventory of multiple categories and product lines were calmer and more able to wait and see what happened because they were still selling stuff every day. Even if nothing dramatic like this happens, there is always the risk of a product becoming oversaturated with sellers who are busily driving the prices to the bottom. Until your sales are substantial (which is a subjective term, I realize), you probably want to diversify. I sell books, for example, because they sell every day. I don’t make a fortune off of books, but they are steady, easy to find and really cheap. I usually only have 1 or 2 of a particular book at any given time so there is no great loss if I have a loser on my hands. I also sell brand new products from retail stores in beauty, grocery, pets, toys, baby, kitchen and home. When you are out scouting, be sure to look in all your categories and think about where you want to put your money ahead of time so that you won’t accidentally spend all your money in one place. Obviously, if you have a small budget, then you will be buying fewer items. In that case, you need to be very selective and find items that are both high margin, low rank with few other FBA sellers (if any). This will take a LOT longer to find and you must be patient because every dollar needs to work hard for you. When you have a bigger business, you can afford more long-tail sales and/or items that are lower margin but fast turnover.
  11. Am I ready to be really successful? Most businesses aren’t. (What the..?) As a former turnaround consultant, I can tell you that as many businesses fail from success as do from failure. They are not prepared for the volume, they make new hires before they can be covered by the business and without understanding all the costs each employee brings to the business, they over-extend themselves on inventory, buy new equipment prematurely…and on and on. They don’t ramp up properly and it destroys them. Now that I’ve scared you half to death, I’ll tell you that growth can be managed with some planning. In addition to examining your successes, failures and expenses, you need to look closely at your current profit and loss and plan for the future. Think carefully about the items you want to buy and how you would handle a lot more business. Would you need to hire some help? Is there equipment you want to buy? Create a plan that says “at $X cash flow per month, I will buy Y,” and consider what other expenses might be occurring at a higher cash flow. I’m an annual tax extender. I do this so I can work with my CPA in the summer when she is not overwhelmed and business is slower for me. It is when I look closely at what is working, how much I made and so on. My CPA set up my books in such a way that I can pull a report that shows my variable costs and my fixed costs separately. I can see the hills and valleys of my cash flow and my expenses – which often have some lag. In other words, my expenses will often come before the increased cash flow. Looking at this information at least once a year helps me make better decisions throughout the year.  The fewer fixed costs you have in your business, the greater the chances for your long-term success.  It increases your flexibility in down times.  This is the same reason financial planners tell you to buy less house than you can afford. This year, my son is going to a public school which will free up quite a bit of cash for our family. I have already planned ahead how I will spend that money so it doesn’t get frittered away. Some of it will go towards inventory, some of it towards a family savings account. Because I will have more inventory dollars, I need to plan for that growth – it is a happy problem to have, but a very real one. Amazon has also offered me a large loan as well as Kabbage. I have successfully used and paid back loans from both companies before so I am trying to decide now if I’m ready for a larger loan and on what exactly I will spend it.
  12. How much money do I need for myself? This is another question that needs to be answered and then stick to your guns. It is easy to keep pouring money back into the business. If that is your plan, then fine. You will grow faster. There are some FBA sellers who take out a large chunk of money after December and then keep the rest of their cash flow in the business for the rest of the year to keep it building and growing. This snowball strategy works well for those who have other jobs and who see their FBA businesses either as bonus money and/or who plan to switch over once their sales reach a certain level. In my case, I needed money right away and I needed it every month. I started with $200 and had very little time to spend. I don’t have credit cards, which keeps me out of a lot of potential trouble but also means I have to stop spending long before I run out of deals. These factors mean my business grew slowly, BUT I have a stable business that produces for me. If I wasn’t able to take out money every month, it would not be worth the effort to me. I’m at the point where I want to be able to take out more money from my business each month so I realize I need to spend more on inventory. Taking a loan from Amazon would be great…but paying it back over 6 months not so much. If those months are slower, then I’m taking money from myself to pay back Amazon. It will take some thought and planning on my end. I’ve already decided that if I take the money, I need to do it now so my payback is during the bigger months of Aug-Dec.

I know what you are thinking: “This sounds like a lot of work!” It is and it isn’t. Amazon has some helpful reports that you can use to drill down into your data. If you use InventoryLab, it does a P&L by product for you automatically (see my post from March on InventoryLab). ScanPower has a lot of data, too, it just takes more spreadsheet work to tease it out (see my New ScanPower Unity Data Report). Depending on what system you use for bookkeeping, you may be able to print these reports pretty simply. I use QuickBooks Online which lets me drill down deeply into my books.

Once you do the work, you will realize the benefits immediately in your sales and future inventory purchases. You will make better decisions and realize more money from your business. You will stop wasting time on profit-sucking activities and spend your time on making money. You will head into the fall with a plan which will make it less stressful for you.

Also, you will be able to turn off the online noise and focus on your plan. What I mean by noise is all the firestorms that rip through the online FBA community on Facebook and other online hotspots on a regular basis. One bad story will blow through cyberspace at the speed of electrons distracting us from what we should be doing…selling. If you find yourself spending hours online every week reading FB posts and worrying, something is wrong. It would be better for you to spend those hours in a store scouting for the perfect deal and educating yourself, or planning on how to make your business more profitable.

What about you? Are there other questions you ask yourself to help plan for the future? Do you have an approach to 4Q that works well for you? Please share in the comments below!

*I receive a commission from sales of Steve Lindhorst’s book Retail Flipping, but I won’t recommend books that I’ve not personally read and used in my business. If you would prefer to go to his site directly without the affiliate link, click http://www.retailflipping.com

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Grocery – Yum! FBA Sellers Eat It Up

old spice basketLast year I wrote about Jessica Larrew’s book Liquidation Gold and how it helped me make money in liquidation grocery stores. She had another book come out recently – Grocery Goldmine –about finding deals in regular grocery stores and I have to admit, I was skeptical. I had looked around grocery stores before and only found stuff when the store was being remodeled or otherwise having a huge sale. The idea of finding regular priced inventory that I could sell on Amazon.com just didn’t seem possible to me.

I’m happy to say that she and co-author Beth Maus were right. I’ve been buying stuff at my local Albertson’s, Krogers, Wal-mart and Target grocery stores and selling them on Amazon! Yee-haw! Sometimes they are sale priced, but what I’ve learned is that they often go on sale. For example, before Amazon Pantry (see my previous blog on this), I was selling Old Spice body washes of all kinds. I discovered that they are almost constantly on sale in one form or another. The best sale is the two for $7 sale, but I often could find the bottles for under $4 and resell for around $12 a bottle. The two for $7 sale seems to run every six weeks or so. Even though I lost a few to the pantry (and the multi-packs weren’t worth it), I’m still selling some of them regularly and it is so easy to pick them up when I’m in the store.

Old Spice High Endurance

Some stores are better priced than other stores, naturally, and I’m gradually learning where to go for what foods. I was surprised at the selection and value pricing in Target’s grocery section (even though I shop the other departments all the time). I’ve shopped Sam’s Club, too, but with mixed results. I am not the only FBA Seller shopping Sam’s and so I have some inventory languishing up there waiting for the low-ballers to sell out. One of the things I learned from Grocery Goldmine was what to look for when scouting. In other words, I’m not going to scan all the 50,000+ items in a typical grocery store. As my son often says, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” The book helped me focus my search so I didn’t waste time.

Since I started in grocery stores, I’ve bought and sold body washes and loofas, cake mixes, soup mixes, bread mixes, corn bread mixes, spice mixes, coffee, cereal and those drink powders you put in your water bottles for flavoring. I’ve been pleased with nearly everything so far because they sell relatively fast. Most of my items are gone within the first month which is awesome.

Cheerios

The book is set up like a workbook and there is a lot of math in the examples so you can see margins and how the authors make decisions when standing at the aisle. Once they find an item that is a good seller, they can sell it again and again with no need to buy in huge quantities. This keeps inventory dollars freed up for more high-turning inventory.

I’m still learning and I had to make the Walk of Shame a couple of times as part of my learning curve. For example, even though they warned about it in the book, I didn’t read the fine print carefully enough on a deal. I discovered when I got home that I only got the sale price on the first four of dozens of cake mixes I bought at each store. It was excruciating to return around 60 cake mixes to the harassed young lady at customer service while the line behind me stretched and people fidgeted while trying (unsuccessfully) not to look annoyed as I delayed their ciggy and lottery ticket purchases. Lesson learned: 1) read the fine print and 2) pay attention to the register when you are checking out. I learned the hard way to not get distracted by children, trashy magazines or my own fatigue.

I also found a lot of Moon Pies for $1 a box that were selling great with no other FBA sellers or very few. When I got home it occurred to me that the coating on the Moon Pie, as well as the marshmallow filling are meltables. What was I thinking?!? I was thinking “cookie” more than coated. I’m not the only one who has made that mistake. Two FBA sellers are selling Banana Moon Pies right now. Amazon hasn’t pulled them, but it is very likely that deliveries to the South where it is already in the 90s will be a sticky mess. Marshmallows and chocolate both melt at body temperature. Lesson learned: think meltables before checking out. When I followed up the 60+ boxes of cake mixes with 30 Moon Pies of different flavors, the clerk called for back-up. It was more awful than I can adequately describe to hear her snap at the poor stock boy. Plus, I’ve been craving Moon Pies.

Jessica and Beth also cover things like buying with coupons, rain checks, price matching and more. So far, I’ve not tried any of these techniques as I’ve found plenty of stuff to buy right off the shelf. Once I get a steady group of regular items, I can see how they would save me money. The book also covers expiration dates (unlike liquidation groceries, most grocery items have plenty of time to sell) and how to decode the numbers on candy and other items to learn expiration dates when they are not obvious.

I appreciated learning how the ladies decide to create a bundle and/or add new items to the Amazon catalog. The discussion of multi-packs was also useful because it can be tricky to figure out at what point does a large multi-pack become too bulky and too heavy to sell. I find that scanning in grocery takes longer the first time since I often will look at multiple offers before deciding whether or not to buy something. If an item has a very low rank, the chances are high that Amazon is selling it for an unbeatable price. If I look at a hot item and Amazon is not selling it, my first thought is that Amazon is out rather than Amazon is not selling it. One clue will be the scarcity of other FBA sellers. In those cases, I’ll either pass on the item or I’ll look to see if it is worth selling as a multi-pack.

With the launch of the Amazon Pantry, I’m more cautious about selling solo items. New Orlean’s King Cake Kit? Yes. Those are unlikely to be added to the Pantry. Brand-name Body Wash? No. Look for a multi-pack or bundle.

Something else I hadn’t thought of before reading the book was the huge variety of seasonal items that sell very nicely in the off-season (like the King Cake Kit) and even limited edition foods/packaging that are store exclusives. While I often look for exclusives in Toys, I had never thought about it for food or beauty. This 3-pack below is a store exclusive.

Dove body wash

Food and Health & Beauty overall are more work than other categories like Toys. Most items have to be poly-bagged with expiration dates and “this is a set” stickers. It can take a lot longer to scan during a scouting session and there is certainly more to think about like meltables, multi-packs, etc. However, I feel these disadvantages are off-set by the fact that these items are consumables and will continue to sell and sell. Because they can be found in most grocery stores, your supply is always available. Once you find a nice-selling item, you can sell it for a long time.

There are millions of items in these two categories – many of which have yet to be added to the Amazon catalog. The potential for continuous growth in this category is awesome.

Both of these ladies have successful full-time Amazon FBA businesses selling primarily food, health & beauty. Seeing how their minds work and how they approach their businesses was very helpful to me. I’m very excited about this category for my business and can see it becoming a larger part of my overall inventory.

If you are interested in learning more, you can buy Grocery Goldmine HERE or Liquidation Gold HERE. I make a commission if you buy through these links, but you will pay the same price if you go directly to her site at http://www.jessicalarrew.com. I occasionally take advantage of commissions as a way to help compensate me for the time I put into my blog, but I won’t recommend products/services that I’ve not checked out first.

 

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