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Seven Amazon Ghosts of Holiday Selling Seasons Past…

BeiberI was out letting myself be distracted by Facebook the other day and I saw a post where the person asked what did I wish I had known my first selling season? I jotted off a note about never buy Justin Bieber anything ever again (never! I’m haunted by singing toothbrushes!), but it got me thinking. In all seriousness, here’s what I wish I’d learned sooner:

  1. Take more risks
  2. Buy deeper
  3. Invest in my winners
  4. Plan to be tired
  5. Get help
  6. Have a plan
  7. Reprice more often

My first year, I didn’t start buying toys until the first week of December. While I was dazzled by the possibilities, I was also timid. I had so few dollars to invest and I was afraid of making a mistake. I had no idea what a good rank was. When Chris Green convinced me to buy a Dipping Dots toy that was ranked around 80,000 I had no clue if that was good or what (yes, it’s good!). I had a lot of internal anxiety because I did not know what I did not know. To spread out my risk, I was buying a small amount of a wide variety of inventory. I had DVDs, toys, electronics and I didn’t know much about any of those categories. I wish I hadn’t been quite so afraid. This is not to say that I endorse risky gambling-like behavior, simply that I realize looking back that I constrained myself unnecessarily.

Part of my fear was spending money on inventory. When I was buying books, I’d spend no more than $2 per unit so if it was a BLACK-FRIDAYfailure I hadn’t lost much. The Dipping Dots was priced around $20. I was selling it for $79 BUT only because Chris was. I was still at the phase where I couldn’t believe people would pay that much. Even after they did and I was buying more Dipping Dots, I didn’t quite believe it. I waited for a barrage of returns…that never came. It is funny now to think of $20 being a big investment but it was my reality back then. Intellectually it is obvious that buying fewer items with more margin and return is easier and faster money making than lots of small, cheap items for a small return, but emotionally it is not.

At the time I didn’t have the confidence in myself to buy deep. I would literally wait for something to sell and then go buy more and send it in. This is a safer way to go, but I missed out on a lot of possible sales and sometimes when I went back out, the product was sold out. My first year could have been a lot better if I’d had lots of inventory at the warehouse ready to sell.

Because of the way I was buying toys (mostly), it was hard to invest in my winners. By the time I went back, a lot of them were gone. So even though I can tell you that Dipping Dots sold well in 2010 and 2011, it was hit or miss to find them. I had to go to a lot of Big Lots stores in the Metroplex. I wish I’d bought a lot of them up front. Also, I wasn’t really sure what my winners were that first year. I had toys that sold fast and I had toys that sold for a high margin, I was slow to identify those that sold fast and had a high margin. I am much more analytical now.

tired-shopperPlan to be tired. This could be a life lesson and not just a fourth quarter lesson! Still, I was really tired. I worked my day job during the day, scouted and packed inventory at night. I was a zombie and I didn’t have my systems in place to help keep things rolling. Now I plan to be tired all the time – for meal planning and everything else. I ask myself what I could do now when I had energy to prepare for the fact that I was going to be really tired later. How was I going to get through it? How was I going to feed the family without relying on expensive fast food? And not just physically tired from standing on concrete for hours on end, but also mentally exhausted from all the scans and the math in my head. And then there is the lifting of all the bags and stuffing things in your car and then unloading at home. The physicality of it all adds up. At the end of the day you think “why am I so tired?” right before you pass out. It is because of all those things. The advice I would give my younger self is to take some time off. To recharge and to spend time with my family during the holidays so I don’t resent what I’m doing. Shop during the day if you can, spend time with the family at night. Back then, I couldn’t do that, but I can now.

This leads into get help. Besides unloading the car, I didn’t initially ask my family to help me much. I saw this as my job and I did2011_11_26t025230z_7_btre7ao0l9200_rtroptp_3_usa_retail_thanksgiving_w640 it alone. I was really tired and it seemed overwhelming to try and teach what I was doing to them so I did it myself.   You have no idea what I’m talking about? Hah, hah, hah! Necessity taught me to give that up. My family knows now that fourth quarter it is all hands on deck. They lift, weigh, de-sticker, polybag…whatever I need. We turn on the TV, and sit in the living room with our Scotty Peelers and polybags.

I’ve also got an assistant who comes in about 10 hours a week to list and pack boxes for me. Having help makes it bearable and much better for me. Even so, I know I’ll be tired and I’ll need a strategic plan or else I end up eating a bag of Cheetos and a Cadbury Egg for dinner – bad. I will often pack a lunch and keep it in a cooler bag in my car. I bring water so I don’t have to buy it, etc. It is worth taking time in the morning to plan because when I return home with my batteries spent (all of them – phone, Scanfob, back-up battery and me!), I won’t have the mental wattage to light a candle let alone cook dinner. Even so, I find my planning slips during this time of year. It is just a busy, exhausting time (see aforementioned Cheeto and Egg dinner…).

Now when I prepare for the holidays I think about what I want to sell and where I want to spend my money. While this may seem obvious to many of you, I will confess I was pretty opportunistic (still am sometimes) in the beginning. I’d see something in a store that was a good deal and I’d buy it without necessarily thinking about where it fits in with the rest of my inventory. The first year I sold appliances I had to buy a bunch of boxes in bigger sizes. Not a big deal, but something that was unplanned and required extra effort. Over the years I’ve gotten a good feel for where my margins and fast turnover sales are. I’m still on a budget so I’m choosy about the deals I take. I’m set up for food, health & beauty, bedding, toys, appliances and books box-wise so if I wanted something much bigger or smaller, I’d have to think about it now because of the extra effort, costs, etc. I don’t sell very many toys. I don’t like all the fierce competition and the narrow margins. I would rather sell baby spoons than Baby Alive.

793I’ve had folks ask me for weeks whether or not I was going to shop on Black Friday. I have done so before, but I’m not sure if I will this year or not. I like to spend Thanksgiving week with my family. The kids are all out of school. It is also my anniversary on the 25th. Tom and I like to get away for the days after Thanksgiving when we can. Usually everyone usually passes out Thanksgiving night which can be a good shopping time for me. Given all the insanity of door busters, etc., I won’t camp out or shove my way in the first hour or so. It is not worth it to me. If I have a plan as to where I’m shopping and what I want to buy, then I’ll get help. It is great to have someone standing in line while I’m shopping and for my husband to take my packages home while I start on the next store (we only have a Hyundai Sonata).

A lot of times, the things that I’m buying are not the door busters. I can’t sell a TV on Amazon and if the DVD is $X price at black-friday 2Walmart on sale, it is probably the same price on Amazon and everywhere else. While the price will probably go up again after the weekend, you’ve probably noticed I’m risk adverse. My money is usually made on the not specifically advertised sales and the regularly low priced items. While lunatics are clawing each other’s eyes out in toys or electronics, I’m scanning somewhere else. My mild ochlophobia can really play hell with me on Black Friday or even just in stores with narrow aisles. I’ve been known to run panic-stricken from a Macy’s to the relative safety of the crowded city streets outside. All this is to say, I’m careful on Black Friday. I want to get great deals but I’m willing to wait until the crowds thin and take my chances.

One year we were out of town but, being the scouting addict that I am, I slipped into a Big Lots about 9:00 PM on Black Friday – long after the hordes were gone. I ended up making about $1,000 off the things I picked up and was able to cram into our car (which had luggage and stuff in it already). My husband is very patient and understanding man which is why we’ve been married for 20 years.

black friday laborIn this past example and probably for this year, I am not doing what I would call “serious” shopping on Black Friday. I’ve spent most of my inventory dollars to get stuff to the warehouse by Nov. 21. That’s a choice I make. Some people save more of their money and shop hard during the sales. My dad and his wife were standing in line at their local Toys R Us at 2:00 a.m. one Thanksgiving night because his strategy depended on buying toys on deep discount. He told me it was a real beating. He got some great stuff, but he wasn’t sure it was worth it to be up so late in the crowds waiting in line over an hour to check out. What matters isn’t whether or not you shop Black Friday; it is whether or not you have a plan. If all your inventory is up at the warehouse and you are out of money, go play with your family and don’t worry about it. It is not the end-all be-all for sourcing. It IS the kick off for selling, though, so be prepared. I’m working 12+ hour days right now, 6-7 days a week so I can have a lot of inventory at the warehouse by Nov. 21ish. I will slow down after that. I take the week after Christmas off completely every year. [P.S. I usually only blog once or twice in December, FYI.]

I’ve also done some online shopping for Black Friday. While I love that I don’t have to leave the house and possibly panic in online-shopping-girl-illustrationcrowds, I don’t like shopping online as much. I already spend a huge part of my business life sitting on my butt in front of a screen and I get tired of it. I like seeing the products myself. It seems faster to me than surfing the internet although I may have to change that point of view once I start doing online arbitrage the way Chris does. My past experiences with OA have been a mixed bag. Every shipment I’ve ever gotten from TRU, for example, was beat to death and I had to return units because I couldn’t resell them. After the third time, I stopped looking at TRU. Walmart and Sam’s Club were fine online in terms of box condition, but I didn’t always make the best choices and I still had to do the walk of shame at the store. Some of the products I ordered online took a really long time to sell.

I know this doesn’t make sense does it? I mean a product is a product. I’m still making the decisions. I’m just overall happier with my results when I find the item and put it into the cart myself. I’m very much aware that emotion plays a huge role in my success as a seller and emotion has nothing to do with logic and analysis. Finding the balance between emotional happiness/security and emotion-less analysis of your inventory and business is part of being successful as a business owner…but I digress.

imagesBe aware that emotion plays a huge role in your pricing. In a moment of calm, think about yourself and how your emotions – particularly fear – might affect your decision making. For example, I’m always somewhat disappointed when I can’t get my price for an item. This is normal (I think), but it can be a problem is if I let that fear of disappointment keep me from repricing when I should, which means it may take a long, long time for me to sell my item. On the flip side, some people are so afraid that they’ll never get their price that they drop their prices unnecessarily and plunge to the bottom sparking the price war they were afraid of in the first place.

What helps me is to think about my pricing beforehand. I think about the lowest I’m willing to go before I’d hold and wait for the lowballers to sell out. This way when the time comes to reprice, I’ve already decided two things: 1) I’m willing to reprice and 2) how low I’ll go. Then I try not to let fear get the better of me. That becomes a lot easier after you have some experience under your belt.

Make sure that part of your plan is repricing pretty much every day, sometimes several times a day. This is particularly true if you sell toys, but everything is freakishly competitive this time of year. If you don’t check your inventory regularly, someone could start a race to the bottom and you don’t realize it until after the price has tanked. If you’d known it was going down, you could have reduced your price and sold your inventory before it plunged to the floor. This is my first year using Feedvisor and I’m really excited because I know I won’t miss out on price fluctuations and that my price will be competitive all the time without me having to constantly adjust my prices. Feedvisor lets me set my floor and ceiling in advance when I’m in analytic mode. It is such a relief! If you missed my blog post on Feedvisor, click on the link to learn more. My first year I didn’t reprice nearly as often as I should have. Plus, I was doing everything manually. My mind that year equated repricing with pain and it hampered me. I could have sold a lot more that first year if I’d had a system.

I have no regrets one way or the other when it comes to Black Friday. The years I did it, the years I didn’t all worked out fine for me. Ultimately it gets down to you, your stamina and your desire. There are some people who LOVE Black Friday anyway and have made it a family tradition for years long before they were Amazon sellers. They are going to go out there and make BF their…itch. More power to them. They will be glad they did. Others will stay home and surf online for deals. They will be glad they did. Still others will be at home putting up their Christmas tree because they sent in all the inventory they could buy the week before. They will be glad they did.

While it would have been great to know back then what I know now, the fact is I didn’t and I still did OK. Everything I learn helpsmaxresdefault me. Every year gets better and better. I’m doing the best I can and it pleases me. Keep that in mind and be kind to yourself. Don’t hold on to your ghosts of fourth quarter past. The present is the best place to be.

Choose your flavor of happy this year, my friends. Don’t forget to buy presents for your family (you laugh but…) and enjoy them, too.

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sunk my battleshipI am still unpacking the many inspiring ideas and conversations I had at Jim Cockrum’s CES II conference earlier this fall. For example, I was talking to two booksellers who told me that they shrink wrap or polybag every book they send in. I must have gasped and I know my eyes got big and googley because my eyeballs felt stretched. “That’s a lot of work to avoid negative feedback!” I said thinking of the hundreds, sometimes a thousand or more books a month I send in. And she said, “We don’t do it to avoid negative feedback, we do it to get positive feedback.” Maybe that doesn’t sound especially profound to you, but it rang my bell because getting positive feedback on Amazon is hard. Unlike eBay, a lot of Amazon shoppers never bother to leave feedback…but when they are unhappy – watch out!

Later during CES, Skip McGrath talked about news he had from an inside source at Amazon. He shared that our seller metrics are going to be even more important to our ability to sell going forward. Sellers with better metrics will get the buy box more and will be able to charge more and still be in the buy box. This was exhilarating to hear since my metrics were great at the time and I had a 100% with Amazon and a lifetime customer satisfaction rate of 97%. Of course things change fast and my customer satisfaction/feedback just dropped below 90% this week – OMG!!! Am I panicked? Worried? Freaked? I am not.

This is for two reasons: 1) I have a strategy that works to remove negative feedback and 2) I have a solution to increase positive feedback that doesn’t require me poly-bagging all my books (just the New and Like New ones).

Before I get into these points, I want to stress how important feedback really is to you as a seller. I have a private client right nowstats-happy who lost selling privileges because her company wasn’t paying attention to seller metrics (how fast they responded to inquiries, on-time shipping) and negative feedback. Four negatives in one day and they lost it all. This is because not only is it the number of negatives you have over a period of time, it is also the frequency within a short amount of time. In the case of my client she didn’t have very many positives because she was a relatively new seller and four negatives sunk her. We got her reinstated and we are dealing with her customer feedback problems.

Even though she has the absolute lowest price for her items on Amazon, she can’t get the buy box. Amazon is also throttling her orders as well so she can’t get them out the door as quickly as she likes (she is MF). She has to prove herself over time. Getting her approved in a gated category will be impossible until she fixes this problem and she has cases of health and beauty items she can only sell on eBay right now.

Another colleague of mine who does this part-time on top of a busy day job, lost track of his feedback and was informed for the Evil-Monkeyfirst time in years of selling that he can’t sell toys this season because of his seller metrics. He was floored. He is an FBA seller exclusively, but he had one bad listing problem where someone changed the listing on him (sound familiar?) without him noticing and all of a sudden his products were not as advertised. Everyone was pissed and gave him a bunch of 1s and 2s in a week period. We are resolving the issues with his customers and I am very hopeful he will recover his toy selling privileges in time, but what a hassle! The moral of these stories is to pay attention! It only takes a few unhappy customers to tank your metrics. Oh, and Don’t Be Evil! ASIN tricks hurt other sellers: it is not funny, fair or ethical. Amazon frowns on this behavior.

OK, everyone good and scared now? Here comes the good news. You can get negative feedback removed with a bit of work – even after 60 days – and you can significantly increase positive feedback with the right tools. I met the Feedback Genius guys at CES II also. They had a free month trial and boy was I amazed! I got 10 positive feedbacks in the first week which is way beyond my usual. To give you an idea, after four years of selling, I have less than 900 feedbacks total. While my lifetime positive feedback is a respectable 97%, I can’t help but think it would be better if I had more positives. There are some sellers on Amazon with thousands of feedbacks and I’ve always wondered how they do it. Now I have a pretty good idea.

What makes Feedback Genius different from other similar services like FeedbackFive (which didn’t do much for me) is theirtweet feedback approach to feedback. They are tightly integrated with Amazon so this is a fully automated process for you. My system is set up so that when a new product is scheduled to be delivered, my buyer gets an email telling them the product is due that day. It asks them to let me know if it arrives in anything less than perfect condition and it gives them a way to contact me – did you catch that? Me, instead of Amazon first. [This is an optional setting.]

In addition, if they are happy, it gives them a link to give me immediate 5-star feedback. 22% of my positive responders respond on that first day. Another 60% or so respond before or immediately after I send my next email four days later asking for feedback. I know this because Feedback Genius gives me awesome analytics that I can use to tweak my campaigns.

My letters are branded with my logo and they are customized for each customer’s order. I not only remind them of what they ordered, but where it is being shipped, by which carrier and the tracking number. All of this is acceptable with Amazon’s policies as is the follow up. It also pleases me to be sending an email that is valuable and not spam-ish.

There are other cool features that I’ve not even implemented yet. If you have a product that you sell consistently, you can send customers who buy that ASIN a PDF attachment along with a note. As long as the attachment isn’t selling something or taking customers away from Amazon, you have a lot of latitude. I’m currently selling a special product for the holidays and I’m considering sending an attachment with best celebrity recipes (from the public domain). It will be a pleasant surprise for everyone who gets it and I bet it will increase positive feedback. I’m planning to sell hundreds of these items in the next two months.

Even though I sell a lot of used books and collectibles, my strategy is to use Feedback Genius for new items only. This increases positive feedbackmy chances of getting positive reviews. I get negative feedback on books more than any other category and it is usually for the same reason. I said it was one condition, the buyer disagreed. The book and collectible game buyers have to make an extra special effort to give me negative feedback so when they do, I know they are really pissed and I jump on it right away.

Once I tweaked my letters with Feedback Genius, I was done. It runs itself and is awesome! I was so excited with my results that I contacted the guys there and asked them to do something special for my readers. In addition to a free month trial, you will get an additional 500 emails added to your subscription (each time I send an email to a customer counts so they can add up fast if you send two emails per new customer).

Also, I collaborated with the team at Feedback Genius to create an 8-page report/mini-eBook on how to remove negative feedback. This report incorporates several of my actual letters successfully used for different unhappy customer situations. It is free and exclusive to my readers for the next few weeks. You don’t even have to sign up for the free trial, just click the Free eBook button and download it.

As you will learn in the report, the secret to turning that frown upside down for unhappy customers is sympathy and empathy. Don’t get defensive, be their friend. You are there to help and you are really sorry about their troubles. Depending on the problem, a letter isn’t always going to be enough. I’ve given refunds, partial refunds and gift cards to unhappy customers. Not as bribes, but as compensation. The gift is never dependent on them removing the feedback. I always thank my customers for giving me the chance to make it right. In short, we have to treat our customers the way Amazon does – with respect, kindness and helpfulness.

For my new customers, they are most likely to be unhappy about shipping or a defective product. Shipping is Amazon’s problem and they will remove negative feedback relating to delivery. If the seller is complaining about the product, that is a product review which can also be removed by Amazon. So the issues that will require most of your attention are those relating to your performance as a seller. I got dinged yesterday because the product received did not match the listing. It did when I sent the product in, but another seller changed the listing. All I can do is make it right for the customer (curse the evil seller) and have my product suspended until I work it out.

In the situation I mentioned earlier with a client where the date had passed for the buyers to remove their feedback (you have a 60-day window), what I did was tell the unhappy customers that if their problem was now resolved to please tell me by email so I could forward it to Amazon. Three out of four did it. I called Amazon and got the feedback removed. I made it super easy for them and they responded. Most angry customers are decent people with a sense of fairness. They want to be heard. If you approach them with respect and compassion, the anger will often pass. They will see that you are a person who made a mistake and is sorry – not some faceless “them” who doesn’t care about their problems. If you try to make it right for them, most will respond positively.

Bill-Gates_2012907bAnother thing to remember is that usually an unhappy customer is a sign that something is wrong. Sure, sometimes it is because they didn’t read the description or whatever, but a lot of the time, they are telling you something you need to hear – you should be grateful for that alone. I remember when my book manufacturer made mistakes trimming my book; all the pages at the back were missing part of the page. I had sent about 20 in FBA without examining them. I mean, they were new! I had no reason to suspect they were faulty. I was horrified, but because my customers told me about it, I was able to make it right for everyone and remove the misprinted books from the site before I got a ton of negative feedback.

When I first started FBA, I loved that Amazon was my customer service representative and I was not interested in getting my customers to contact me before Amazon. That has changed over time. Now I would prefer that unhappy customers give me a chance to make it right before leaving me negative feedback. That’s one of the reasons I like Feedback Genius. But, if they leave me negative feedback anyway, Feedback Genius sends me a text and an email immediately. I can jump in and respond to the customer fast which cuts down on a lot of customer frustration immediately. I can give them a refund through Amazon (if they’ve not gotten one already) and I can sincerely apologize. It goes a long way.

So, no, I’m not freaked out. I have a strategy and a tool. I know I can help my unhappy customers and I can make it easy for my happy_customerhappy customers to give me feedback. Both my clients I mentioned above are using Feedback Genius right now to get their sales back on track. Don’t wait until you are in dire straights – get on top of your feedback now! We are heading in to the biggest sales time of the year and you have an opportunity to propel your positive feedback to a whole new level just in time.

By the way, if you are a small seller and prefer a DIY approach rather than a program, be aware that Amazon will send out an email about two weeks after an order as a reminder to leave feedback.  In addition, you can always send your buyers emails through the Amazon platform by clicking on their hyper-linked names on the order page or through the feedback center. When I was doing this myself, I focused on buyers who had used expedited shipping. That way I had an idea of when the product was due to arrive and I knew the chances of them being happier was greater.

PS. If you are interested in learning more about the Amazon Buy Box, Feedback Genius or Feedvisor (see my previous review on them), check out next weeks’ free webinar on the Buy Box hosted by the two companies.  Sign up now to reserve your seat.

I occasionally talk about products on my blog that I believe to be useful to the FBA seller community. I don’t write about products I don’t like and only rarely do I talk about a product I don’t use myself. I use my modest affiliate income to help compensate me for the hours I spend on my blog each week. If you click on the links above and become a Feedback Genius customer after your free month, I will make a very small commission. If you would prefer to check it out without an affiliate link, you can go to www.feedbackgenius.com directly.

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The Zen of Evil

rainbow_yinyang_by_antarctica246-d6f72sc (2)What makes people steal, lie, cheat, manipulate and play dirty tricks on their fellow man? Some among us might speak compassionately of fear, poverty, and desperation. Others among us might speak from experience about lack of empathy, lack of conscious and evil. To my mind, while the first situation is often true, if it leads to the conditions in the second sentence, then there is no difference in the end result which is suffering and rampant destruction of others.

Most major religions and philosophies will acknowledge that suffering in life is of our own design. The Buddhists talk about desire, craving and ignorance. The Buddha stated that if we release ourselves from desire, we will release ourselves from a lot of suffering. If we do not crave something, it has no hold over us. [The Buddha lived before the invention of potato chips or else his enlightenment might have taken longer…just sayin’.]

He called craving or desire a great tree having many branches including greed, ill will, jealousy and anger. This tree is rooted in ignorance and grows out of ignorance. Ignorance is the inability to see the truth about things, to see things as they really are. In my own life, as I become aware of my own shortcomings, I am more compassionate of others’. I see the truth that we are all connected and we are all imperfect and impermanent beings. When I focus on the things in my life that give me joy, I do not crave the lifestyle, possessions or successes of others. Getting older is so awesome in this respect. I am happier most of the time than when I was younger. I am also humbled by the suffering that I have caused others in my ignorance and cravings. It makes me more careful, more likely to reflect, less impulsive. When I think of business success, I compare myself to where I was and where I am going rather than looking at other sellers for my benchmark.

How does this work with the competitive nature of selling? It seems contradictory to the idea of winning the buy box and beatingyou-deal-with-your-shit-in-zen-by-sitting-steve-krieger the other guy online. And what about the suffering that is inflicted on us from others? What about dirty tricks by other sellers? Customers who send back damaged inventory and lie about it? What is the Zen of Evil? Given that we live in a world where we cannot possibly know everything, how do we find The Truth and, thus, the end of suffering? This is why Buddhism is called a practice and not a religion (and why it works well with other religions). It is something we work towards because the practice of it is in and of itself rewarding. It can relieve stress and suffering right here, right now – even that caused by the behavior of others.

These past few weeks have been difficult for me and I was nowhere near the calm place I like to be. I felt under attack and was defensive. I felt angry, sad, hurt at various times. It has taken a while to get back on track. I am still dealing with the police, Amazon, etc., which takes me away from my business. So I took a day off for prayer and meditation. I reflected on everything I have in my life that gives me joy. I wrote gratitude lists and I reached out to my friends with love and thankfulness rather than venting and frustration. I went to How+to+zen_4a5e3b_4864925yoga. Wow! What a difference a day makes!

This is the Zen of evil. It offers us an opportunity to observe our feelings, to reflect and detach. According to the First Noble Truth of the Buddhist Sangha, pain is inevitable, suffering is not. We can’t avoid pain in life but we can decide how deeply it affects us. Suffering, while unpleasant, also drives us. We make decisions and take actions that we might not otherwise if we weren’t under the lash of our suffering. Evil makes us seek goodness, find reprieve in love. Suffering provides us with lessons about ourselves and the people around us. I’m not saying suffering is good – it is awful – but it can be transformed. Suffering is emotional and, as such, cannot be transformed solely by analysis and logic, common sense or any of that head-y stuff. It must be transformed emotionally – with heart.

The yin-yang symbol in Zen represents the evil hidden in the good and the good hidden in the evil. It says that nothing is wholly good or evil. Each condition contains the kernel of the other in it.

I will probably never know who stole my inventory and who has been messing with my listings. I will never understand the viciousness of some of the Facebook messages I read about my ASIN issues, “gurus” and those who write books about Amazon. I don’t get why people lie in order to get free shipping back to Amazon. Really? Your integrity is worth so little? But I don’t have to. I only need the ability to detach and observe rather than sink into the feelings. I need to transform. I need to honor my feelings and then let them pass with gratitude for what I have learned. [I am practicing, practicing, practicing!].

One thing that I understand more clearly now is that some people live in a world where there are limited resources, opportunitiesDrop in the ocean quote and chances for success. In their worldview, teaching others how to fish in the sea of Amazon is akin to taking food from their mouths. I don’t share this worldview. I think the sea is vast and teeming with opportunities. For this reason, I will always be in opposition with those who believe that there is only room for a few to succeed. This does not mean I need to fight them or defend myself. I cannot change their view of their world. I will continue to do what I’ve always done – teach others, share my experiences.

As a consultant, I talk to a lot of other sellers about their fears. They call me about something else “help me figure out this… why is this happening?” but sometimes underneath the questions is the fear. Am I good enough? Can I do this? What if I fail? What if bad things happen to me? What if I make a mistake and Amazon kicks me out? I help them with their questions, I encourage them. I tell them they can do this. And I write this blog. For better or worse, I live my seller life out loud on this blog so that folks can see that I make mistakes and I’m still here. I try things out and experiment and I’m still here. Bad things happen to me and I’m still here. Obstacles are put in my way and I overcome them…you will too.

107-no-matter-how-hard-the-past-sWhen my experiences – good and bad – help others, it makes me happy. It is part of the transformation process for me to turn my lemons into someone else’s lemonade. Because I’m a writer as well as a seller, I am sometimes a target of other people’s bitter feelings. This is a new vulnerability for me. In my past career, I was always behind the scenes. I was detached most of the time because whatever the problem was, it wasn’t my circus and the haters weren’t my clowns. Now my circus has come to town and I need to find perspective that will help me keep on track and not get distracted by the noise.

Because it is easy to get distracted. Maybe you aren’t dealing with evil clowns, dirty tricks or thieves, but you may still be distracted by all the brou-ha-ha that happens in 4th Quarter. Lots of people are telling you to do this or that, you are getting emails encouraging you to buy hot lists, tip sheets, etc. You are visiting FatWallet.com every day to look for Black Friday deals and still you wonder…am I doing enough? Am I buying what I am supposed to? Should I listen to this spreecast? Buy this program…etc.? People on Facebook all seem to be doing better than you and posting big numbers. It is easy to lose perspective. My advice if you are feeling stressed and worried is to step back and remember that you are doing the best you can and that is good enough. Don’t compare yourself to your perception of someone else – that view is always skewed. Unplug from the communities for a bit and work on your business and you will do well.

Stop comparing yourself to others and start noticing things you are doing right and that are working for you. This is a better use 100-it-is-you-who-must-take-the-effort-sof your time. Focus on what you plan to do with your earnings – your dreams, goals and all the reasons you are working so hard right now.

One of my favorite Zen phrases is: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” This has two meanings for me in relationship to selling on Amazon: 1) If you think you have reached enlightenment and understand it, keep practicing. I haven’t come close to knowing everything there is to know about selling on Amazon.com. I’m still learning, just like you. Learning and improving are lifelong skills for selling. 2) If you think you have met the enlightened leader – the one who will lift you up to the heights, someone outside of yourself – then you must destroy that belief. [Remember, Buddhism is non-violent, this is all symbolic killing!] There is no such thing as a guru only an imperfect, impermanent person like you who is further down the path than you.

It is no secret that I’m a huge fan of other sellers from whom I have learned so much over the years. I am grateful that they’ve shared their experiences and opened my mind to new possibilities. Ultimately, I make my own decisions based on my resources, interests and experiences. I take what serves me and leave behind the rest. I encourage everyone to do this.

The answer to your Amazon business fears, questions, hopes and aspirations are all inside of you. You are the Buddha. Learn what you can from others, but don’t accept anything blindly. The wisdom for your business will be guided by you. You keep working on your business and one day you will be in a position to help other sellers, too.

tumblr_m8epc9xFzG1qfvq9bo1_500During this crazy busy time of year you will find yourself tired and overwhelmed sometimes. Many sellers have moments of anxiety. Be sure to step back and take some time for yourself. Be still at least 20 minutes a day. Get enough sleep at night. Eat. These are all Zen principles that really work.

Lastly, if we are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with; choose wisely. If you are spending hours online in groups each week, they are one of your “business five” whether you meant it to be that way or not. Make sure they are helping you be better rather than stirring you up.

Have faith in yourself. You can do it! Success in fourth quarter my friends!

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10 Best Ways to Compete on Amazon.com

value creation quoteFor more than 25 years I’ve helped companies successfully compete in the marketplace as well as competed myself against other PR firms, marketing agencies and small publishing companies. There are two truisms of competition: 1) You have lots of competition all the time and 2) You have something that the other guy doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many of my high tech customers would tell me about their latest gee-whiz product and how they had “no competition.” Hee hee hee. Except for whatever it is that people did before the gee-whiz and except for all the other guys that are addressing the same need with their products…yeah. So remember, even if you have no competition for a particular product listing on Amazon, you are still competing against everything else that consumers might do instead of buying your product/solution/gee-whiz. There is always competition. After I crushed their enthusiasm by proving they had lots of competitors, I would then talk to my clients about what they had that no one else had…themselves. That’s where we would put our stake in the ground and start the real work of competing.

Just because Microsoft is not as big as Apple doesn’t mean that they are packing up Windows and going home. Six Flags doesn’t close down because they have to compete with Disney. What most companies realize is that there is a place for more than one product on the marketplace. Just because you naturally know that yours is the best, doesn’t mean it is the best for every single person in your marketplace. Big companies distinguish their customers and target their offerings to those specific customers rather than chasing after the whole planet of potential computer buyers, smartphone buyers, etc. The more targeted and exact the message, the better their sales. This is counter-intuitive to the “I sell to everyone” crowd…any maybe you? Maybe you are wondering what this has to do with selling on Amazon.com?

With Amazon.com we are not necessarily invested in the success of any one product beyond how many units we have at the warehouse. Today I’ll sell Disney princess sheets, tomorrow it will be Hello Kitty or Avengers and I don’t really care what you are looking for as long as you buy mine when you come out to the listing, right? Sort of. You want to sell your product at the highest price the market will bear, right? Yes! You don’t want to survive on a 10% margin do you? No. You want to sell popular, fast-selling products, right? Yep. And as long as you have the lowest price, you win the Buy Box, right? No. Wait, wha…???

That’s right. The Buy Box is not determined by price alone. I have one client, for example, that is the lowest price on all his Amazon offerings but he does not have a single Buy Box. Why is this? Poor seller metrics. I’m working with him to fix the problem and I’m confident we’ll have him back in business again, soon, but his sales plummeted to the floor when he got four negative feedbacks on one day and lost his good standing.

To look at competing on Amazon.com, let’s go back to Truism #2: You have something the other guy doesn’t. Believe it. Own it. flower quoteYou have yourself and that is a lot of resource. Your business will be different from anyone else’s no matter how similar your inventory might be. You can compete by using your smarts and knowledge creatively:

  1. Be in good standing. The better your seller metrics with Amazon, the more frequently you will get the Buy Box over someone else with poorer metrics selling the same product. You can even charge a higher price and still beat them because you are a strong seller. Watch after your metrics carefully. Address unhappy buyers swiftly, solicit positive feedback to counterbalance negative feedback and generally just be a good, honest seller who is willing to do your darndest to make Amazon’s customer happy. It pays.
  2. Sell in categories not available to every other seller. If you are approved in apparel, for example, you can sell a lot more costumes than folks who are only approved for toys. When adding new products to the Amazon catalog, you need to be honest about where it goes, but there are quite a few ambiguous products that could go in multiple categories. If you are approved for automotive and want to sell Chilton manuals in automotive instead of books, that’s perfectly OK. Chilton manuals are sold by part number as well as ISBN#s. They could go either way. Disney Princess backpacks can go in toy, luggage…you get the idea. It is OK to pick what works best for you – after all you went through all the trouble to get approved in these categories for a reason! I’m in grocery, beauty and collectible books with my eye on some other categories to pursue after the holidays.
  3. Use better tools. Whenever sellers tell me that something I use or do is “too expensive,” I’m happy to hear it as a competitor. My scanning tools, my repricing tools, my listing tools have all been described as expensive and that’s OK with me. I know they make me a better seller and it is worth the cost for the return I get – especially given the limited time I have to spend on my business. A lot of new sellers who take my classes, for example, don’t have a Scanfob yet. It can take them hours to scan 30-40 products with the camera in their phones. In the same time I may have scanned 300-400 products. That’s why I find more at stores than they do right now. In the beginning we all have tight budgets, but I strongly encourage serious sellers to upgrade as soon as they can afford it. Until then, they have to work harder than I do to find anything.
  4. Focus on what you know. To sell the whole world of Amazon can be overwhelming. Most successful sellers start with something they know and expand outwards as they grow more confident. The first time I shopped with my friend Susan years ago, she went right to the pet department. Even though I was teaching her, I had never bought anything in pets before. She pointed out some popular dog toys and dog training tools and I expanded into pets that day. Because she loves animals and has multiple fur babies, pets were a natural for her to start with. Do you have a hobby, medical condition, dietary requirement, sport or other special interest? That may be a good place for your business to begin. Rather than shop the entire Target for merchandise, start with your area of interest and scan it thoroughly. Go to specialty stores that are having sales. Buy wholesale if you have that interest and expertise. Start from your strength.
  5. Use your notes strategically. Think about the ways you can distinguish your product from the next guy’s. My product notes might say, for example, “sealed in plastic to protect from dust in the warehouse.” Now you as a seller, you know for a fact that everyone’s product is poly bagged on that listing because it is an Amazon requirement. But the customer looking at several listings at similar prices might decide to choose the one that seems the most clean and cared for – mine. You may not want to take time with each listing to create notes, but perhaps if some of your products are languishing, you might want to look and see if you can zip them up a bit description-wise. Also, most third-party listing programs allow you to create notes and then have them automatically added to your merchandise with no extra effort.
  6. Be smart about the listings you create. When you are creating the listing for the first time, there is a lot you can do to help increase your sales. Be sure to spend time on your listing and give it the best picture. Use tools like Merchant Words to help you choose the best keywords for your product. They are the Google search tool of Amazon.com, basically. Use your five bullet points and paragraph description to not only inform customers but to help them understand the experience they will have using this product: “Breeze through tedious mopping with….,” “Play for hours with…” “Experience the thrill of…” While it is true that future sellers may also sell under your listing and benefit from your efforts – it is only fair. You’ve sold on their listings, too. For the short term, you will be the only seller of this product – do everything you can to encourage buyers to buy your product instead of some similar product that might be on Amazon.
  7. Buy low. Seems obvious, but not everyone is as strategic about this as they could be. If you buy costumes in early November and save them for next year, you will make a lot more money at Halloween next year than the other guy who didn’t think about that – and there are hundreds of examples of this in all different categories. I wrote a blog post about timing your purchases to buy at the absolutely lowest price. Think about this, too, if the other guy paid more for his item than you, you have much greater flexibility in repricing and a better chance of making your margin. Also, some of these costumes are going to sell great at Christmas as little girls still want to be princesses and boys still want to be superheroes or wear Minecraft heads. If you know when the peak selling time is coming for your category, then you can make sure you are stocked up in plenty of time for the sales. We are all in Christmas frenzy right now. Who among us is thinking about Valentine’s Day? You should be. You’ll want to have your VD inventory at Amazon by mid-January at the latest.
  8. Create unique products that are hard to duplicate. This is a bit advanced for the new seller, I realize, but in time you will naturally start thinking about putting products together to sell on Amazon. This happens a lot in food as you see folks selling cake mixes and frosting together, for example, but it can happen in any category. I have a unique product on Amazon that cannot be duplicated. I sell my book and DVD as a bundle. Since I’m the publisher, I’m the only one who can get the product new and cheaply enough to re-sell online. There are thousands of other possibilities out there. You don’t have to write a book to have a unique product offering.
  9. understand your customerUnderstand your customer. In this case I’m thinking about the customer who might buy your unique products or most expensive, most profitable items. How can you target your offering to that person? What are they looking for? Can you be more strategic with your personal description? Can you update the key words to draw more customers overall to your listing? If you tend to sell niche products (pets for example), maybe you want to communicate your love of pets and the fact that you sell many other pet products to your customer. You can’t put a note in your package like you can with eBay, but you can communicate with your customer through Amazon’s own platform. As an example, Feedback Genius* is helping me communicate in a more meaningful way with my customers to encourage them to buy from me again – as well as increasing the number of positive feedbacks I’m getting from my customers. I can customize my follow-up emails based on category, ASIN, condition…so many ways!
  10. Amazon advertising is easy, cheap and effective. If someone clicks on your ad to go to your listing, you will be in the Buy Box when they get there. Obviously, you don’t need to advertise a product where you only have a few units, but if you have a lot of an item and you have competitors, this is one way to edge them out and get more sales from the Buy Box. I have several items that I buy in bulk and advertising makes sure I’m selling them every week. Check out my previous blog on advertising to learn more about how it works and how to set up your own ads.

In addition to these positive, proactive things you can do, there are a few things you shouldn’t do:

  • competitionDon’t be evil. The last few days I’ve personally experienced several nasty tactics by competitors messing with my listings by trying to switch them to ridiculous categories, changing the descriptions, deleting my pictures and other dirty tricks. Their hope, I guess, is that I’ll get unhappy customers who think they are buying one thing and get another instead. Or they want Amazon to suspend my ability to sell my grocery item because it is now in Apparel (really? C’mon!). What they don’t realize is that not only can I dispute their changes, but I can file a policy violation if I think their actions are deliberate. Is it really worth losing your selling privileges on Amazon.com? Don’t be evil. It’s not worth it.
  • Don’t lie to your customer. Amazon had to shut down the Jewelry category and sales of Frozen items because of rampant counterfeiting. Both will eventually be back up after an extensive audit but the fakers and shady people ruined it for themselves as well as everyone else by not playing by the rules. We are all going to miss out on a lot of great potential sales this holiday season because of the behaviors of some liars and cheats.
  • Don’t break the rules. I know of several people who lost their selling privileges because they either weren’t familiar with Amazon’s policies or didn’t care. If you remember nothing else about selling on Amazon, remember this – Amazon sides with the customer and the customer’s experience nearly every time. Don’t think about yourself when something goes wrong, think about the customer. It is better to suck up some losses and keep selling than lose your ability to sell altogether.
  • Don’t lower your price unnecessarily. This one is a tricky one. Amazon is delighted if we all lower our prices and sell our products at a loss or very low margin. It is good for the customer. It is bad for you and other sellers, however. In most cases where there are multiple offers for a product, you will be sharing the Buy Box. The question is, at what price? If you match your competitor rather than lowering the price, you will still both share the Buy Box BUT you will both make more money per item than if you lower it. Lower prices do not necessarily equal more Buy Box time unless your prices are a LOT lower. People who tell me they can’t make any money on Amazon are often selling at rock bottom prices where there is no margin. They feel they have to price there in order to compete but that is not true in the majority of cases. If they would wait a few weeks, they could often get the higher price they crave and the fast sales. Also, now that you know of some other ways to compete, you may be able to sell your product now at a higher price than your competitor.

Many of you saw my outraged post on Facebook about the person or people who were targeting me and messing with my listings. I unintentionally created an atmosphere of fear when I did this as people thought, “if it could happen to her, what about me?” I would like to state emphatically that nothing absolutely nothing should deter you from selling on Amazon. If this business is supporting your dreams, making it possible for you to reach your goals and improving your life, don’t let anything stop you. Not even evil doings by other sellers.

While it made me angry, I’ve been in business long enough to experience dirty dealings in pretty much any field I’ve ever worked jackass whispererin. Some people are liars, cheats and evil competitors. The best way to deal with them is to keep succeeding despite their attempts to bring you down. Let your anger drive you to better performance. Make them choke on their evil, black hearts. Uh…still working on the Zen and centered calm thing there. But the lesson is relevant. There will be people that make you super angry with their bad behavior. Turn it into determination and you will have the last laugh.

A few years ago I discovered a seller who was copying my inventory. She and I had more shared inventory than I had with my closest friends and my father – all of whom I shop with and share deals with. I was indignant and mad at first. I considered sending her a nasty email through Amazon.com (I had her store name after all). In the end I not only did nothing, I stopped caring and stopped looking. I realized that she was stupid if she was letting me do her thinking for her. She didn’t know why I was listing the inventory I was or for how much I bought it. She was going to lose her shirt on a few items that I got for free or at garage sales and maybe then start thinking for herself. Or not. I don’t care.

I was angry because I felt she was stealing from me and my hard work, but in reality I’m doing just fine. I’m still here years later helping to support my family with my Amazon business. People who try to cheat their way to success usually end up getting what they deserve. People who are so jealous of your success that they try to undermine you are pitiful and pathetic. They will never succeed and their jealousy will eat them alive. I’ve seen this before and I know one thing – I’m still here.

Some of you were so kind to share your stories with me about others who attacked you, tried to mess with you, etc., and I was not only horrified – some of you have been through much worse than me – but also inspired because every generous person who took the opportunity to call me or email me or PM me had the same encouraging message. They’d been through it and were on the other side. They were still selling. They are more aware and wiser…and also better and stronger. This outpouring of kindness and support moved me greatly and deflated the anger. Here’s a whole community of my so-called competitors willing to support me. How can I stay angry after all that? I am lucky and blessed.

good energy quoteIf you are discouraged right now about competition and selling on Amazon right now, please take heart from my experience and remember there are truly wonderful people in our business who see you as a colleague rather than an enemy. They will help you find answers and do what it takes to be a better seller. They realize, as I do, that it is in all of our best interest to have Amazon populated by serious sellers with integrity. You might be Microsoft and I might be Apple but that doesn’t mean we are enemies. There is room for both our approaches in the marketplace.

*Please note that I make a small affiliate fee if you sign up after your free 30-day trial with Feedback Genius. You are welcome to sign up directly at www.feedbackgenius.com with no affiliate link, also. I am a customer of Feedback Genius which is why I recommend them. I became an affiliate so I could offer my readers more than they get if they just sign up off the website.

 

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Feedvisor Simplifies Repricing for Amazon FBA Sellers

I know I need to reprice my inventory in order to keep it moving and yet repricing is a huge drag. No matter what program I’ve used, it takes time and there is a sense of futility about it. It is like housekeeping…you have to keep doing it over and over again just to stay in place. And I quickly grow bored with cleaning house. Or, if you prefer your analogies science based, pricing on Amazon is chaos theory made visible. Small factors on a minute-by-minute basis can change the outcomes dramatically in a seemingly random way. While you might, for example, be able to predict that your price will get you sales, you have no idea for how long that will remain true because someone else might be sitting by their computer changing their prices too.

I’ve written blog posts and Step-by-Steps about repricing in the past largely because…it’s difficult. Most repricers out there rely on a set of rules that you set within an “if/then” universe. If the other seller is FBA, then…etc. For a short amount of time your worldview and rules work for you and then…entropy and a swift descent into chaos. That is assuming you had a good set of rules to begin with – which most of us don’t at first because we’re inexperienced. To learn rules that work for us, we make guesses and learn from our mistakes. And we do this because the alternative of doing nothing means our sales grind to a halt.

The ultimate effect of most repricers is a gradual lowering of prices. I drop my price five cents, my competition drops five centsOff with her head and the cycle begins anew – the ugly “race to the bottom.” Even if you slow down the race by not dropping below your competition, that doesn’t mean they won’t keep lowering their prices or that other sellers won’t keep plunging to sales failure and losses. It seems that someone is always losing their heads over pricing and/or they don’t know how to manage their repricer properly.

When I heard Skip McGrath stand up and give a testimonial for Feedvisor at the CES II conference in September, I was immediately interested. Skip is one of my FBA heroes for one thing. For the other, he described a “set it and forget it” system that almost seemed too good to be true. He spends minutes a months rather than hours on repricing – and he is a million-dollar seller on Amazon! I started my free trial after the conference and my sales shot upwards in a way I’d never been able to achieve on my own with manual repricing or with a repricer. The best part is how little time I spend repricing and how incredibly effective it is. The program gives me detailed analytics as well. I know how profitable my items are, how often I’m in the buy box and much more.

I shared my excitement with my fellow DFW FBA’ers at dinner and there were a lot of questions. Overwhelmingly was the “is it worth it?” question because those who had looked into the program knew it was expensive. Some had concluded it was only for large sellers like Skip McGrath. Still others were interested but wondered, “When is it worth it? At what sales level?” That’s why I decided to write this blog so people could get a smaller seller’s perspective.

analytics picture

The first few weeks I cleared out a lot of old inventory that I just couldn’t get rid of previously without a blood bath. As you can see in the report pictured, I’ve had these darn dog toys since 2012. I’ve sold some but OMG, it has been two years – even with advertising! I sold eight units in the past two weeks which is amazing. You can see my profit margin is only 25%, but at least I have a profit margin. I just want to get rid of these dogs. The same with the toy that I’ve had for nearly a year. I had eight units left after the holidays last year and I sold them in the first week using Feedvisor. My profit margin wasn’t what I want, but I can now use the money for something that is not so over-saturated with low-ball sellers.

The number that I find the most fascinating and exciting on this report is the Current Buy Box Share (the historical is not so important right now as I’ve only been using Feedvisor for a month or so). Given that more than 70% of all Amazon buyers buy from the Buy Box without looking at other offers, getting in the Buy Box is obviously incredibly important for sales. I’m getting terrific Buy Box share without playing the lowball game. If anything, some of my prices actually went up with Feedvisor. How is that possible?

How does Feedvisor work?

According to them, it is their “fully algorithmic repricing solution.” Their secret sauce in other words. Instead of repricing based on your competitor’s prices like most rules-based systems do, Feedvisor leverages its algorithm and understanding of how the Buy Box works to reprice based on maximum profit, optimum sales or any other business goal you may have. And it is not necessarily a trade-off either. For quite a few of my products I’m making excellent profit and optimum sales. This is a really cool function. You set your floor and ceiling prices for your item. Feedvisor tells you exactly what your break-even point is so you can decide if you want reprice based on a percentage or within a price range. I generally do a price range.

If you are repricing for optimum sales, it will test your prices within your range to determine the sweet spot where you are getting steady sales at a good profit – the most dollars in your pocket in other words. This makes sense if you have a large supply of (hopefully replenishable) inventory to sell. If you are repricing for maximum profit, and don’t care as much about frequency of sales, then it will reprice for that. This is a good strategy for when you have a limited number of items with a potentially high return.

What else is in the secret sauce?

  1. Comprehensive knowledge of your competitors – it checks your competitor’s prices thousands of times an hour and takes into account their shipping options, available stock, seller ratings and other variables that Amazon looks at when calculating the Buy Box.
  2. Historical pricing trends – like CamelCamelCamel on steroids. This is a constantly growing dataset that can take into account past performance at different times of the year like Christmas.
  3. A constantly improving intelligence – the program evaluates every single price change to see if the effect was positive or negative and improves itself to find the perfect pricing sweet spot for your product.

Did you catch that first point? Feedvisor is checking prices on Amazon thousands of times an hour! No rules-based program can be that responsive even if you are set up to reprice several times a day. I like the intelligence aspect of this program a lot. I use the “Contribution” report to help me determine which products are making me the most money. If you look at this limited sample of my inventory, you can see that in two weeks, I made approximately the same amount of profit from sales of my first and third products. I achieved this through nine sales of the first product (accelerated quite a bit from the 2-4 I might have gotten before Feedvisor) and 34 sales of the third product. So which product is the most valuable for me?

contribution report

I spent $27 to buy nine units of the first product and $34 to buy 34 units of the third product. They are still pretty close. The third product is seasonal; the first product sells all year round. I want to sell all my units of the third product by Halloween. At this rate, I’m confident I’ll make it. So now which product is most valuable to me? That’s the great thing about this report. I can easily make my own decisions and decide where I want to invest more dollars for maximum return. The number that matters most is that Profit number. It doesn’t matter if I have to sell 34 units or 9 to get there as long as my out-of-pocket costs are reasonable in relationship to my return.

Feedvisor also reprices merchant fulfilled items. I can add my expenses to the item such that it makes it easy to compare MF vs FBA fulfilled and determine which way of selling is most profitable to me.

Using the program is simple. Feedvisor pulls all my new products – they only reprice new – from Amazon.com. I click on the product to bring up this screen (below). From here I can click on the little Amazon icon if I want to see the product on Amazon and look at other sellers. The “price listed on Amazon” is my current price on Amazon. You can see how much I paid originally – wahoo! Feedvisor uses this number along with the estimated FBA fee to determine my cost. I have the referral fee of 15% (for grocery). I can now set either my floor and ceiling (which I did here) or my markup on cost as a percentage or a flat amount. Once I put in my floor price of $9.99, the program filled in the percentage for me and the markup on cost. As you can see, if I sold this product for $9.99, I’d still nearly double my money after expenses. I’ve sold several units this week for $15.99 which is higher than my original price point of $14.99. Once I set these numbers, I don’t have to do anything else. Feedvisor will adjust my prices in response to the chaotic marketplace and I’ll sleep better at night knowing that Feedvisor is trying to get the best and most profitable price for me at all times.

Repricing

Even though my floor is at $9.99, the program won’t move in that direction unless I stop getting the Buy Box, and it won’t jump there right off the bat, either. It will move down by increments. Also, because Amazon uses more than price to determine the Buy Box, I’m often able to get the Buy Box at a higher price than my competition – sometimes significantly so. Dropping down to match their price would mean leaving money on the table and Feedvisor keeps that from happening. I have really good seller and customer feedback metrics and Amazon relies on these as well as price for determining the Buy Box.

Another great function of the program is it will jump UP right away if a lowballer sells out. This happened to my friend Lesley cha-ching-logowith Feedvisor. She had a product where she was sharing the Buy Box near the bottom of her range. The other seller sold out and her price instantly jumped up to what Feedvisor thought was a more optimal price based on her history of sales of this product and she sold out all her units at the higher price. If she had been repricing manually or through a scheduled repricer, she would have likely sold a number of units at the lower price and missed out on all that extra revenue simply because she didn’t know her competitor had sold out.

This feature alone is worth the price of the product to me. As we all head into Christmas, the experienced among you know how crazy it is and how you have to reprice every day – sometimes every few hours – if you are going to remain competitive. With Feedvisor, I don’t have to worry about that this year. I’ll set my range and get back to work scouting or – gasp! – spending time with my family.

Another helpful report I get is the Buy Box report. It shows me which products are getting the Buy Box and which ones aren’t. The relatively few that aren’t require my attention, the rest do not. I have a few products where I have decided to wait out a low-baller and so my floor is too high for the box right now. I now spend a few minutes each week repricing my new inventory. As new products/SKUs arrive in the warehouse I set my floor and ceiling prices. I check the Buy Box report to see if anything else requires my attention and I’m done.

I sell grocery and health & beauty which means I can sometimes run up against an expiration date. While Feedvisor doesn’t keep track of my dates (my assistant does that), it does allow me to aggressively reprice if I need to clear out some expiring units as well. Most of the time I’m pricing for profit, but occasionally speed is more important. With Feedvisor I can do both as needed.

Feedvisor does not change the chaos that is selling on Amazon.com but it keeps up with all the changes for me.

Does it make sense for you?

I love this program, but there are some cons, too. It is expensive – and I paid a year up front to get my rate. Bigger sellers will pay more although they tend to be eligible for more flexible pricing with no long-term contracts. The pricing is partly determined by the number of SKUs they are repricing for you. You get to choose which items to reprice. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition which is good. Also, Feedvisor doesn’t reprice used and collectible items – a substantial percentage of my inventory – so I still need to use a rules-based program to reprice my books and collectible games. The reason they don’t do books and collectibles is because you can’t win the Buy Box. This is a very Buy-Box focused program. The initial set up can take a few hours depending on how many new items you have since you have to go in and add the floor and ceiling for each product the first time. I had more than 200 SKUs so the first time through took me a few hours. Now I only spend a few minutes at a time.

If you are at all interested, I suggest you try the free trial and ask yourself these questions:

  • How much time and money do I currently spend on repricing?
  • Am I happy with my current repricing efforts?
  • Will this program help me make more money?
  • Will I make enough more money to cover my fee?
  • What is my time worth to me?
  • What categories do I mostly sell in?
  • Do I tend to have competition for my products?
  • Am I planning to grow or stay where I am?

Of these questions, I think the last three require the most attention. If you mostly sell books, for example, this program may not make sense until you have hundreds of non-book MSKUs. I think food, toys, pets and baby are ideal for Feedvisor because they are competitive and volatile. In the case of toys, it is Volatile with a capital V. If you are mostly selling products without competition, then you don’t need a repricer. While many people might reflexively say “of course!” to the last question, it may not be true. Many people rise to a certain level of comfort in this business and they stay there. They are running the business part-time, they might be retired or there might be another reason why they have pretty much risen to their level of sales and are comfortable there making a few thousand a month. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to spend a hundred dollars or more a month on a repricer (just as an example – your fees may be more or less than this).

In my case, I’m transitioning over the next year from part-time to full-time FBA sales. I plan to double-to-triple my current sales over the next year. For me, Feedvisor is a competitive tool that makes perfect sense. Not only have my sales already nearly tripled, but it has made me more confident in my purchases. What I mean by this is I am more willing to take on a volatile and potentially high-risk product because I know that Feedvisor will be monitoring it constantly for me and acting in my best interest rather than racing to the price bottom. I’ve been buying toys again, creating more unique listings and generally skewing my buying habits towards more new versus used and collectible items.

With the data I’m getting from Feedvisor, I can see in a glance what my top profit-producing products are and focus my attention and inventory dollars there while quickly selling out my low performers so I can re-invest those dollars into better performers. What Feedvisor does that is different from a listing and/or accounting program like InventoryLab, for example, is it brings in the Buy Box information. So while InventoryLab can tell you after the fact how profitable your product was, Feedvisor brings in the analytics of the Buy Box to tell me how likely it is I can sell it at a certain price point, how many units at a certain percentage of the Buy Box, how competitive that product is and how often I got the Buy Box to obtain this level of sales.

I am buying a basic level of service from Feedvisor. My understanding is that bigger sellers get even more intense data regarding their sales and competitors. This program will scale with me as I grow. Best of all – from my point of view – is I don’t have to think about it very much. Once I’ve set my floor and ceiling, I don’t have to revisit that item unless I see that it is not getting the Buy Box or I have a few units I need to aggressively sell.

Feedvisor Chart

How do I try it out?

LogoI talked to my sales guy and the director of Marketing at Feedvisor in order to negotiate a substantial discount for you as an experiment. Go to the “contact us” portion of their site. If you and mention my name in the email when you sign up for the free trial, Feedvisor will tell you about this discount for my readers only. They don’t want me to put it in writing because it will vary depending on your level of service, but I can assure you it is significant. Even the most basic level is substantial. Bigger sellers get an even bigger discount. I hate to be mysterious, but I can understand Feedvisor’s desire not to quote a particular dollar amount since it is based on a seller’s unique use of services.

This is the first deal of this kind they’ve ever done. They don’t do discount, referral or affiliate programs. It will be a grand experiment for us all.

As we head into the busiest time of the year, you might want to try it out and see if it makes sense for you. Even if you don’t have the money today, you will know how it works when you are ready to grow.

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Tired of Shopping? Take a Seat!

Online Arbitrage coverWe’ve all heard about them, those guys who sell on Amazon but who don’t shop. How do they do it? Either they are buying wholesale or they practice online arbitrage. Online arbitrage is a great option not only for people who hate to shop or who live far away from stores, but for anyone as a part of their overall business.

Chris Green – the FBA seller and CEO of ScanPower who brought you Arbitrage: The Authoritative Guide on How it Works, Why it Works and How it Can Work For You – leads the way again with his newest tome (epic? Iliad?) Online Arbitrage: Sourcing Secrets for Buying Products Online to Resell for Big Profits. It weighs in at around three pounds and it is hefty in more than one way. I’ve been trying to read it in bed at night. It digs into my chest. If you buy the book, be sure to buy the softcover version from Amazon.com. You will get the Kindle version for free which will make it a lot easier to read.

At its simplest, the concept of online arbitrage is buying inventory from online retailers to resell on Amazon.com (or eBay or any platform of your choice). You find a good deal online and flip it on another platform – or sometimes the same platform. It is different from wholesaling because you are buying from a retailer rather than a wholesaler. You can buy as few as one item if you want unlike wholesaling which usually has a minimum purchase. Also, many online retailers like Target, Walmart, ToysRUs, etc. have retail stores where you can source the deal you find online. So why is Online Arbitrage more than 400 pages if it is so simple? The details! This book is chock full of strategies and precise tactics.

Chris doesn’t hold back. He shares his tools right down to his recommended browser (Chrome), websites and much more. Most importantly, he shares how he thinks. With many, many real-world examples he takes you through his thought process of how he found the deal, how he analyzed the data and then how he sold the item. His data is fresh – many of his deals are from earlier this summer.

Let’s face it, when a $200+ book comes out, the question everyone asks themselves is…”Is this the silver bullet that will magic beanstransform my business? The magic beans that will lift me to FBA nirvana?” Well, no, maybe, could be, yes! The thing about this business is that you have to work it consistently and in a disciplined way. Despite the book title, Chris Green is the first one to tell you in his book that there are no “secrets” to making money on Amazon, only strategies diligently applied.

That being said, we all know that the really successful sellers are obviously doing something different from us or we would be as big-time as they are. At CES II in September, for example, I learned from sellers who have outsourced their businesses, who shop together in large buying groups, who create unique products to sell on Amazon, and many other strategies that have helped them scale up.

Like many of you, when I plunked down my money to buy the book during the conference, I wondered if it would be really worth it, especially to someone like me who has been selling for a while. I understand online arbitrage and have done a little bit of it myself on Black Friday, etc.

I wasn’t doing it like Chris Green, that’s for sure! I learned a lot. Several times I found myself saying “holy sh%^#!” because I had either never thought of it that way or I had not realized exactly what I could do with all of the available data out there.

For example, I’ve sold on the Amazon platform for over four years and I never understood why some offers were suppressed (i.e., no buy box – you have to click thru to see the offers). I never really thought about it. More shame me!

I learned in the book that a suppressed buy box means that the offers are all higher than MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). It also means that Amazon is not selling that item at the moment (if ever) and that there is an opportunity for me if I can find that item at retail price to flip it on Amazon. If the item isn’t selling online, Chris can often find out where it is selling in his area stores and go out to buy it. In addition, he often finds deals where Amazon has an artificially lowered price that he can flip quickly to make money at normal prices.

Combine that knowledge with how he finds fast moving items and I could immediately see the huge potential to make money and frankly, what an unfair advantage Chris has when he looks for inventory. His analytical mind makes it easy for him. The rest of us may need to practice a bit before it seems natural to us – but he shows exactly how he finds his deals in the book and with the 35+ private videos that are part of the book. You can scan the QR code to see them, type in the link or press on it if you are reading the book in your Kindle (or the free Kindle reader).

Chris calls the book a course more than a book. I think of it as spending several hours inside the mind of a master seller. Reading it reminded me of the hours he spent with me early on answering my questions and helping me understand not only the mechanics of retail arbitrage but the strategies and big picture. I used to leave his office or hang up from a call with my hair on fire – so excited I wanted to run outside immediately and get to work.

485px-jumpingrabbitAs far as I can tell, there is nothing held back. He may or may not be sharing every single one of his online sources, but by sharing the strategy of “Rabbit Trails,” he teaches you how to find your own deals in the exact same way. Several times in the book he shows how he started in one place and ended up finding a deal somewhere else because of his strategies and approach.

He covered a lot of sites and tools that I’d never heard of before which made the book valuable to me. It helped cut time off my learning curve and I love automating tedious things like research.

In the chapter on “Scaling” he covers the pros and cons of scaling along with resources he uses to outsource part of his business.

The strategy “Learn a Line” teaches you how to quickly become fluent in any line or any product and to find out which products in a line are going to be popular, hot and/or hard to find. This isn’t just about toys. It applies to any consumer line of products. Knowledge is power in our business and this chapter answers the question “what’s going to be hot for Christmas?” once and for all.

He is highly analytical in his approach so there is a lot of math, charts and graphs involved – brace yourself. If you think of numbers as dollars…it is way more fun than school. He also has a lot of full-color pictures – big screenshots with arrows (I wonder where he got that idea?).

Considering that everything is on the internet and this is online arbitrage you may be wondering, “couldn’t I just find all this stuff myself online if I did some research? The answer is absolutely! IF you happen to already think like Chris Green. That’s why I said the book is like looking inside his mind. Throughout the book in his comments to the reader you get insight into how he thinks about his FBA business and basically why he is successful. Buy the book for the strategy not the tools. They will come and go, but the strategies are what will make you money.

I had a lot of “holy sh$#^$!” moments and my hair is aflame again with the possibilities.girl's hair on fire

There are some cons in that some of the resources and websites will no doubt become obsolete over time – one chapter was devoted to a site that is already gone. The book is heavy and so physically large that it is hard to read. Again, I suggest you read it on your Kindle. He warns you in advance that there are typos. It is expensive and we FBA sellers are by inclination cheap (me included!).

While online arbitrage offers a lot of benefits in terms of working from home, and lots of free shipping supplies, it also involves a lot of sit-on-your-butt research and math. Also, part of his success strategy is to be the guy that buys up all the stock so he can control the price. That won’t work for smaller sellers. This is not to say that there aren’t smaller deals for folks with more modest inventory budgets, but understand that volume is power just like knowledge is power.

The table of contents is more than 30 pages into the book and I found it hard to navigate the book. This is partially because he ran out of pages (CreateSpace has a limit) and had to eliminate every single white page that might have made it easier to navigate (by putting chapters on the right-hand side of the book and other publishing tricks). For the same reason the text font is small even though the pictures are nice and big. Again, buy the Amazon 2-for-1 deal, but read it on the Kindle or your eyes will start to cross and you’ll get frustrated when you want to go back to something later. It is not a bifocal-friendly book. I had to resort to sticky notes and make tabs for myself.

These are minor issues, though. To my mind, this is a transformational book. It has the potential to completely change how you think about your business. Some of the ideas seem so obvious once he explains them but the fact is they weren’t intuitive to me and I didn’t think of them until he explained them so I’m grateful he wrote the book.

Online Arbitrage is more than worth the price I paid and highly applicable to what I am doing now. Put aside a few of your Q4 dollars and buy this book as a present for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. And if you aren’t? Amazon has this lovely extended holiday return policy. I’m sure you’ve heard about it!

Still not sure? Either download a sample to your Kindle or click here to have the first few chapters emailed to you for free.

Have you read the book yet? Please share your comments below! Happy scouting!

Please note that if you click on the links above, they will take you to Amazon.com or ScanPower. I am an Amazon affiliate and will make a small commission if you decide to buy the book. You can, of course, go to Amazon.com without an affiliate link to buy the book. The free Kindle with the purchase of the softcover book is Amazon’s special, not mine. The free chapters from ScanPower are not an affiliate link and you can go there directly from Scanpower.com.

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Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner!

Nobody puts Baby in a cornerThere are those among us who were very difficult children to raise. If mom and dad said “no,” you wanted it fiercely bad. In this case, Amazon is dad with all its restricted categories where we just KNOW we could make a fortune if we could sell in there. We love our dad but inside our seller chests our heart says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!!”

For all of you who know this stubborn passion, this blog post is for you. If you don’t understand that reference, you are young my friend and should rent Dirty Dancing immediately.

Recently, the fun folks at ScannerMonkey hosted a live spreecast about how to get approval in the restricted categories. I took notes.

Cordelia Blake and I collaborated on this post and she graciously made the hour-long spreecast available for free to everyone – even if you are not a ScannerMonkey member. Normally, spreecasts are only free during the live broadcasts and you have to be a member to go through the archives – so check it out! It is at the end of this post.

Basically, Amazon restricts categories in order to ensure the customer experience is excellent. In categories like apparel, there are a lot more things to consider like size, color and return policies that are not as relevant or difficult for an appliance or a book. In order to make sure that you will treat its customers as well as Amazon would, big daddy makes you jump through some hoops. These hoops include a questionnaire. Often you also have to provide pictures and a flat file. In some categories like food or health & beauty, you now need invoices. Lastly, you need a track record with Amazon. Unless you are the manufacturer of this gated item, they want to see that you are a good seller first.

All of this paperwork and fiddly rules are quite do-able they just take some work and attention on your part. In most categories when they ask you for something, you need to provide it within a few days. For this reason, Cordelia recommended that you apply for restricted categories in batches – while you are in the application zone doing your pictures and flat files.

In our notes below you will find details for each of the restricted categories discussed. This chart is also available as a downloadable PDF from my free FBA Library. Click to register. or Click here to go directly to the file if you already have your password. The PDF has live hyperlinks so you can jump directly to Amazon’s page about that category.

Restricted Category Chart v2_001

 

Please note that some of this information may seem contradictory. That is because approvals are done by people. Some Amazon approvers are sticklers for the rules, some are more lenient. To be successful, you need to plan for the sticklers. Cordelia, rebel that she is, didn’t always follow the rules and still got accepted but your experience may not be the same.

Before you dive in, one cautionary note: Don’t be evil! Be sure to use your new freedoms for good and follow the rules. This weekEvil-Monkey, a friend of mine had an FBA seller change the category of some food she was selling from Grocery to Apparel. The guy even had the nerve to put the word “Men’s” in the title. For a kiddie snack! We were both incensed.

This kind of behavior is forbidden by Amazon. She totally ratted him out and Amazon fixed the listing back on the spot. It was such a blatant attempt by the other seller to kick her off the listing I hope he got a spanking. Remember kids, this is not the right way to compete with other sellers. If your product legitimately fits in another category (like costumes which are often found in apparel and toys), then you can make your case for a NEW listing being in a gated category, but probably not for an established listing. See our notes in clothing, below.

Seven Steps of Approval Success in the Restricted Category

  1. Be clear about your own motivations and how you plan to use that category. Don’t be evil.
  2. Set aside some time to do this as it will be a busy week or two of paperwork and phone calls with Amazon.
  3. Read all the guidelines!
  4. Follow the rules. Most FBA sellers are approved if they follow the rules.
  5. Have good seller metrics. It is harder for a brand new seller to get approved because you don’t have good seller metrics yet.
  6. Be available. Amazon will phone you during more complicated approvals.
  7. Keep your application simple. Avoid restricted brands even if you have permission from the manufacturer. Get permission in the category first, then provide them proof of your ability to sell that particular brand.

Grocery, Health & Beauty

You need three invoices with very specific information (see online). You also need three separate orders purchased in three separate days and shipped on separate days.  If you are ordering online for resale, you must show the packing slip to prove you received the goods as well.  Walmart, Walgreens did NOT have all the required info.  Drugstore.com had the info needed.  There’s an eBate of 4% cash back for drugstore.com. BJ’s Wholesale Club also works. Submit a scanned PDF of your packing slips to Amazon along with online form.

Clothing/Apparel

Many sellers want to join because of sports cross-overs like backpacks that are sometimes in sports, sometimes in clothing, sometimes in toys.  Costumes are often in clothing, sometimes in toys. Sign up online. They ask if you are the manufacturer. Otherwise they prefer that you buy directly from the manufacturer (fewer problems with counterfeit). Then they ask for the brands, a history of your business and five images that meet Amazon requirements. Make sure they match requirements exactly. These can be of products already for sale on Amazon.

  1. Photos – Read the style guide before you submit. Angle of clothing and positioning is dictated by Amazon. Ironically, 24 of the pictures they rejected of hers were actually taken from the Amazon catalog!  It was a lesson learned. See links to the style guides below.
  2. Cross-browsing items – They went through her listings and found several cross-browsing items (like a backpack in toys that she wanted to list in clothing) that they rejected.
  3. Specific rules about parent/child listings – Parent=style, child=colors/sizes. Karin had one hat in three different colors for this requirement.
  4. Timing – You only have 2 days between steps.  When they give you the flat file (spreadsheet) to fill out, you have two days to return it or they will cancel your application. Cordelia got an extension by talking to them.

BISS

BISS=Business, Industrial, and Scientific Supplies Your flat file requires five images and 40 items in the flat file.  One of the spreecast participants mentioned she is planning to sell those Legos that are in BISS (robotics, etc.).

Handbags

If you are approved, you automatically can sell shoes and sunglasses. Avoid anything that could be considered luggage. Go very small! A lot of ladies handbags are considered luggage. Caution: beware of restricted brands. No invoices required. Amazon requires at least a minimum of five products with at least one Parent/Child. [Note: Cordelia submitted hers with no Parent/Child and it was accepted].

Luggage

Very easy. One seller just did totes and got approved easily. Images of handbags that are considered “luggage” can be used too. Check Amazon website to see what category they consider the bag to be. No invoices required. Amazon requires at least a minimum of five products with at least one Parent/Child relationship (which can be a size or size/color variation). [Note: Cordelia submitted hers with no parent/child and it was still accepted.]

Watches

All you need is five images. Easy. But Amazon is fussy about the images.

Jewelry

Currently closed for an extensive audit. While we don’t yet know what the requirements will be for new sellers, one seems fairly certain – you have to be authorized by the manufacturer. They are stamping down hard on knock-offs and counterfeiters. It seems unlikely that we will be able to do retail arbitrage for jewelry.

Automotive

Give examples. State that you are not interested in creating new listings but in accessories, like Chilton manuals. Emphasize your good metrics and seller statistics. If you truly want to create listings and/or sell more extensively in automotive, then you will likely need permission from the manufacturers you want to represent.

adultimagemedSexual Wellness

Need five images, no flat file.  One of the chat room attendees said “Follow the guidelines or you’ll be sending in dildo pictures until the cows some home.” If you want to join these brave sellers in the contest for the most embarrassing shopping basket…this is your category. You should see the pictures they post online!

Collectible Books (Cynthia’s experience)

Very easy if you are already a bookseller on Amazon.com and have a good history. I filled out an online form and was approved in a day. If you are already a rare book dealer, then it is a snap. Basically, collectible books are first editions, those signed by the author and those extremely rare. They have a different lingo and condition requirements. Collectible book buyers are just as fussy as any Black Label Barbie collector. You’ll want to protect your collectible books in bubble wrap and/or poly bags, describe them in detail (maybe even an added picture) and be patient. I only got into the category because some of the used books I sent in were gated as collectible only. You have to read all the rules and agree to them, basically. I sold a very much used first edition Julia Child cookbook for a fantastic price even though it was in the lowest condition. There’s no accounting for what a collector wants, but be sure to take care of it the best you can.

Miscellaneous Tips and Resources

  1. When sending in your flat file, it needs to be an Excel file even though they specifically say “tab delimited” in their directions.
  2. If you are afraid of spreadsheets, get someone to help you so you learn it – you’ll use it a lot with Amazon.
  3. The items in the flat file do NOT have to be items you have for sale right now. The flat file does NOT create listings for you. This is simply to give Amazon an idea of the types of products you want to sell.
  4. Get your flat file templates here.
  5. ASINtoUPC.com – will tell you the correct UPC code for anything in the Amazon catalog – helpful in doing your flat files.
  6. You can use your Amazon storefront for wholesalers wanting to see your site and Amazon when it requests to see your storefront. Cordelia has a URL with a permanent redirect to her storefront for use with wholesalers.
  7. Once you are in the category you can sell anything in the category. You are not required to sell the items you submit.
  8. Keep your application simple. Avoid restricted brands even if you have permission from the manufacturer. Get permission in the category first, then provide them proof of your ability to sell the product.
  9. Go to these links for photo style guides:
  10. Go here to learn more about creating parent/child relationships.
  • Parent: [Brand] + [department/(and Special Size if applicable] + [product name] (e.g. “Anne Klein Women’s Petite Glen Plaid Blazer”)
  • Children: [Brand] + [department/(and Special Size if applicable] + [product name] + [size] + [color] (e.g. “Anne Klein Women’s Petite Glen Plaid Blazer Small Black”)

Don’t let Amazon put you in a corner! You now have the tools to get into many of the restricted categories. Do a sexy dance with your sweetie in the living room!Dirty-Dancing-dirty-dancing

You’ll notice I didn’t list wine and a few of the more obscure restricted categories. That is largely because they are highly regulated categories. If you are a winery, you are well familiar with these legal restrictions. Most of the rest of us can’t apply.

Still got some questions? ScannerMonkey had some lively discussions HERE and HERE if you are a member. Otherwise, ask them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!

I’m a member of ScannerMonkey exactly because of these kinds of topics which they cover regularly and the highly active facebook discussions. If you are not familiar with them, come join them on a free Thursday night spreecast and see what you think. You can click HERE to learn more about the group or go directly to http://www.scannermonkey.com without an affiliate link.  I only recommend products, services and groups that I have personally investigated or use myself.

Spreecast is the social video platform that connects people.

Check out Gated Category Approval on Spreecast.

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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!

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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