Monday, December 2, 2013

We Were a Third Party Amazon Seller

When we were finishing our Thanksgiving feast Teresa sighed how pleasant it was to ease our way into the night and the long weekend without wondering how our Amazon orders were piling up. Black Friday, Cyber Monday?  Been there done that. We were third party Amazon sellers. As recently as two years past, Thanksgiving weekend was devoted to listing, packing and shipping. Teresa's oft repeated maxim was best to choose a hobby where you make money rather than spend it. We went there and beyond. We sold under the trade name Eonzaway.

Baby Einstein DVD set.
It started on eBay and happened by accident. We had our first baby and were looking to buy a low cost copy of the Baby Einstein series on DVD. I checked out retail prices in the stores and on-line and compared to listings on eBay. The auction web site promised substantial savings. A listing popped up that was $20 less than the others so I pounced on it. Only when the package arrived did I realize my error. We were the proud owners of 20 video tapes. We decided to cut our losses. We wrote our first eBay listing to put the video tapes on the market, were thrilled to watch the bids roll in and were happy to mail out the unwanted package, worse off only to the extent of PayPal fees incurred and eBay commissions paid.

We looked at boxes of our own video tapes and several bookcases of used books and saw value. We monetized their value by selling on eBay. Then one Saturday Teresa went to a neighborhood yard sale and returned with a couple of bags of video tapes. We were off to the races as a reseller. 

To secure inventory I went to yard sales, flea markets and estate sales. I scanned ads on Craigslist. We looked in the bargain bins at bookstores. We even kept our eyes pealed when walking down the street during trash night. We filled our basement with inventory. We crowded the attic and dining room with packing materials.  

Yard Sale territory
Our yard sale territory ran from McLean, Virginia to the north, near the CIA and Georgetown Pike, down south all the way to George Washington's place at Mount Vernon. In between were Arlington, Falls Church, Alexandria City, inside the Beltway portions of Annandale and Springfield and the large swath of Fairfax County residences with Alexandria addresses outside the Beltway.

Starting Monday mornings in season, I would cut and paste yard sale ads from the Washington Post and Craigslist to a Word file. Then Friday afternoon or evening I would lay out an itinerary, copying a tight MapQuest street map satellite view for each sale (scrapping sales I identified as insufficiently promising) so I could see how to navigate from nearby arterial streets through the neighborhoods to each sale. I learned to plan my overall itinerary using neighborhood yard sales and flea markets as the major nodes. As I traveled in between the group sales, I would stop at individual sales. It was a numbers game -- the more sales I could stop at during a Saturday morning through early afternoon, the better we could do. Over time, I became familiar with most every neighborhood inside and south of the Beltway in Northern Virginia.

Usually I was out of the house by 6:30 am. It was free sailing on sparsely traveled roads, unless I ran into an Obama golfercade on I-395.

The best yard sale months were May, June and September. November was slow -- December, January and February were a small trickle. 

I invited out of town visitors along to yard sales.  It was fun. They'd get a view of the area like they would never otherwise see, and enjoyed the thrill of the chase, a treasure hunt if you will. We would stop mid morning for breakfast at one of the few remaining Roy Rogers restaurants, where I would enjoy my favorite ham, egg and cheese sourdough sandwich. Yard sales were best early morning when you could get first dibs, and late in the day when sellers were anxious to clear out their inventory. Mid morning was a good time for a break.

Roy Rogers Restaurant in Kingstown, Virginia.
Our yard sale staples were books, video tapes, Cd's and DVD's. Gradually I learned what to buy and what to walk away from. With notable exceptions (like current hot sellers), the general rule was if I had heard of the title or item don't buy it. For a pop culture ignoramus like myself, a known item meant everyone had bought it in its day, and that the market was flooded with supply. Another rule of thumb is sets and collections are good, as are items that can be grouped together and sold in a package, like books by the same author, multiple Cds by a given artist or  a collection of movie sequels. New in package sales command substantial premiums (towards the end I learned the value of classic board games still in original wrapping).

Alas, Washington Golf is no more
Since I was knowledgeable about the market I did well buying and reselling golf clubs. The long, thick boxes that are used to ship golf clubs are expensive. So if you ever saw two feet sticking out of the top of the cardboard recycling dumpster at the old Washington Golf store in Shirlington, that would have been me retrieving used boxes originally sent by Callaway, Taylor Made, Titleist or whoever, for re-use in shipping to our customers. We dumpster dove for packaging whenever we could. I would extract shipping boxes from the recycling bins at work; discarded business books too. What we could not obtain by dumpster diving we bought from -- padded wrap by the roll, packing tape rolls by the dozen, and bubble wrap envelopes by the carton, size 000 through size 6 -- mailing labels too.

Buying in bulk works. If someone was selling Cd's for a buck or two, for example, I would offer to buy their entire stock for a fraction of the price, after checking samples to gauge the overall value (be wary of sellers who have all the good stuff on top). Scan, identify, negotiate, buy and move along, the faster the better to get on to the next sale.

I learned by watching and talking to other buyers. There was a time early on when I was looking at a table of opera Cd sets on sale for a dollar per Cd and I cherry picked a few sets that looked particularly good to my untrained eye. As I went back for more sets, another purchaser approached the table and used his forearm to sweep the entire collection into a box. When I researched later I realized my hesitance had cost hundreds of dollars in potential profit. Lesson learned and put to use many times thereafter.

One time, on a slow day, I arrived at an estate sale 15 minutes early and waited in line. I chatted with the young lady in line ahead of me who it turns out ran a high end resale shop up in Manhattan. She made a living on resales. So I asked, what do you buy when you don't know what to buy?  She said, "Grady it's easy. People who have nice things have nice things." That was incredible advice. 

I learned that gay guy estate sales offered especially good buying opportunities, because they tended to have high incomes, good taste and would buy things their families were not necessarily interested in keeping. Moving sales were good. And like with Goldilocks and the three bears mid range was just right -- low income neighborhood yard sellers sold junk, while upscale sellers had inflated views of the value of their possessions. Republicans negotiate; Democrats don't (you could tell one from another by the electioneering signs leaning on their garage walls or by their lineups of used nonfiction books on sale). I used these rules of thumbs to negotiate and target sales on days that I couldn't make them all.

I ran across a fellow Chris from Hyattsville, Maryland on Craigslist who had a line on unclaimed book club books. I would drive over from time to time to purchase and fill up the bed of Teresa's pickup with hundreds of books, virtually all multiple copies, making for efficient re-use of Ebay listings. Chris worked in a pre-school. He lived with his drop dead gorgeous girlfriend who in my observation, whenever she said jump, he would ask how high.

Google Maps street view of Don's apartment building
and the parking lot where we conducted business.
One Saturday I stopped at the Alexandria Jaycees Community Yard Sale at the Birchmere parking lot in Alexandria where I met Don. He was selling multiple copies of The Da Vinci Code, which was a hot seller at the time, and was well stocked with video tapes and DVD's. Don said Hispanic buyers were big video tape buyers -- an inexpensive and entertaining means of improving their English.

After I selected 20 or 30 items Don reduced the total price because I was a quantity buyer. He told me he was a regular seller and to be sure to visit the Jaycees sale the next month. He also sold at the Springfield Lions flea market. I came to make the monthly Jaycees sale and Don my first stop on the appointed Saturdays, eventually following Don and the Jaycees down to their new location south of the Beltway in the Kingstowne section of Alexandria. 

Alexandria Jaycees sponsored yard sale at
Lane school in Kingstowne, Virginia.
In the winters I would get a call from Don every now and again. We would meet up in his apartment parking lot to negotiate a price on cartons (a dozen or more at a time) of books. Don was a retired Navy guy and a government contractor who enjoyed the social aspect of selling. Eventually, I learned that Don had a hook into apartment managers in the Landmark section of Alexandria. His manager friends would give Don a call when tenants were moving and looking to rid themselves of books which would be costly to ship, specially if the tenant was moving overseas. 

The most remunerative Don purchase was a collection of crisp new review books that publishers had sent to MacNeil/Lehrer producers (the PBS news show was produced in the Shirlington section of Arlington) hoping for a
Shirlington Village parking garage
reserved space
nationally aired author interview (many of the books included letters inserted by publishers inside the front cover offering to sit for network interviews). Don was a great guy and a fantastic supplier.

I met Mrs. Jackson (Antique Associates) at a gay guy estate sale on a sticky hot summer day in a Fairlington condo with an inoperable air conditioner. The rece
ntly deceased had hundreds of high value classical music Cd's, many new and unopened. I went to the sale because it advertised Ping golf clubs. It turns out the heirs had taken the clubs and a number of other valuable items for themselves after Mrs. Jackson had researched values and advertised the sale. She was ticked (typical estate sale terms are 50/50 for the estate and seller) and as a consequence gave me a great deal on hundreds of Cd's. She saw the address on my check when I paid and asked if I knew her son, Michael Jackson. Of course, I said, he lives around the block and walks by with his dog, Oreo, twice a day. Michael would stop by when I was on the front porch of our home in the People's Republic of Arlington to talk about the local government, investments, the economy, neighborhood issues and politics. From then on, Mrs. Jackson would let Michael know when she had estate sales coming up that were rich in the items I was looking for.

We would look through the clearance bins at Barnes and Noble to find books we could resell for a profit. For 75 percent off we picked up multiple copies of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which driven by Teresa's kick ass ad copy, sold extremely well. Teresa went back to Barnes and Noble and negotiated buying out their nationwide inventory of the pocket book size hard copy edition at a super discounted price. It became our best and most profitable seller. We bought books and tapes at the local Goodwill. For a time, books on Cd were highly profitable. One time we were able to buy dozens of Lands End kids parkas at rock bottom clearance in the spring and resell them for several multiples in the fall. Another time Teresa bought dozens of special wooden box packaged classic board games at Target on clearance. We sold the games for two and three times our purchase price online. Whatever opportunity we saw, we jumped on it.

I learned to accumulate draft listings and release large volumes of listings during the holiday buying season. Teresa packed, shipped and calmed irate customers. I purchased, provisioned and wrote most of the listings. Along the way we became third-party Amazon sellers. Amazon gets better prices but cuts out a larger commission than eBay. Amazon has high-end buyers on average with higher expectations. eBay has a lot of scammers and people who expect to get something for nothing.  As time went on we listed everything we could on Amazon and used eBay as our clearance rack and listing source for specialized and grouped items. In the beginning we bought stamps to affix to packages; in the end we printed and affixed post paid labels that included Delivery Confirmation via PayPal.

As a Civil Service Retirement System employee working for the federal government, I was not in the social security system. But by fulfillment of my self-employment payroll tax obligation to Uncle Sam on the profits from our Amazon and eBay sales, I've qualified for minimal social security payments. Also, I bought tons of stuff for the kids (bikes, skates, clothes, books, games, toys, etc.) on the yard sale rounds for substantially reduced prices and the household as well (grill, yard tools, furniture, chain saw, maternity clothes, etc.). And I figure I probably saved $40 per week by not playing golf on Saturday mornings.  It was fun and an excellent deal financially for the family. If we had to do it all over again, we would. 

Next time you are on Amazon check out third party sellers.  If they have positive feedback ratings of 98 or 99 or 100 percent give them a go. You should not be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. It was great fun joining you on your Saturday buying outings, Grady!