Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Amazon FBA Tag

A lot of people start selling on Amazon.com to generate part-time income in the pockets of time they have after work, kids, etc. Once they are making money it is inevitable to wonder, “Can I actually make enough to leave my day job behind me forever?” According to Frank Florence, the answer is a resounding YES!  He is currently accepting new clients for one-on-one coaching that is designed to do exactly that – in only six months. 

As a customer of Frank’s BookSalesFinder program and someone who has read his books, I was very interested to learn more about his program.  I’ve built and sold several small businesses. Ideally, this will be the last one I ever have to build.  I’d like to retire young and walk the Great Wall of China one day. Frank is currently living his dream in Europe where he answered my questions in a series of email conversations.

Q. What does your one-on-one business consulting include?

A.  Basically, I teach my clients how to find and sell any item online for profit. I make sure they are successful in setting up their online business and I teach them how to put their businesses on “autopilot” so they will not only quit their day jobs in six months but it will continue to generate income with zero work. The pieces of my six-month plan include:

•    1 year of BookSalesFound.com to help you build your online store fast
•    1 Year of ScoutBotPro.com (Music Feed) to make online sourcing a breeze
•    50% off SitesForSellers.com to automate your local sourcing
•    Learn how to sell any item online for profit
•    4 of my online business books
•    Individualized action plan based on your city, time, resources and goals
•    Access to my private Facebook group for students of the program
•    One-on-one email support for life
•    30-day refund policy

Q. You talk about autopilot – what does that mean to you?

A. Autopilot is simply outsourcing every link in the chain so that you become the business owner and not an employee. I’ll give you an example. I do a lot of online sourcing. One of my favorite methods is buying under-priced items on eBay and selling them via FBA. For this I have a full-time buyer located in the Philippines. I give her rules to purchase by and when she finds a good item she buys it and has it sent to my Lister (my sister). My Lister then lists the items on amazon via FBA and sends them in. Amazon takes care of all the pick, pack and shipping tasks and I have a fully automated autopilot stream of revenue.  This is just one example. There are many ways to set up an autopilot business using Amazon and eBay.

Q. You have your clients set up their autopilot businesses in six months which sounds like a lot of work. Do they need to quit their jobs right away?

A. No. In fact, I don’t recommend it until month five at the earliest.  During those early months my clients work really hard during the evenings, weekends, etc. to get their autopilot systems running. It is a huge commitment to their future but it is do-able, particularly when you know that you’ll be able to quit your day job for good in month six.

Q. When you talk about “hard work,” how many hours a week are you talking about for the guy/gal with a day job?

A. If automation and an autopilot business is the goal, you need to be able to get your business to the point where you can start hiring people.  The more hours you can put in per week the faster you will get there.  I always recommend people put in as many hours as they can.  My job is to get you to make the most of those hours from day 1 so you can avoid a lot of the mistakes I made and cut your learning curve.

Frank Aaron FlorenceQ. After it is set up you claim they can keep it running with zero work? That seems too good to be true.

A. I know it does, but I’ve done it for years.  After working my butt off to get my business up and running, I was able to spend a whole year traveling across Southeast Asia – totally paid by my Amazon business.  Since 2009, I’ve lived in 25 countries and have no plans to return to a typical work-lifestyle. I’m currently living in Budapest.

Q. But you have to do some stuff, right? Like paying taxes and other admin things? Or do you outsource everything?

A. I outsource everything! Even taxes. I have a bookkeeper and a CPA who files my taxes electronically for me. Don’t get me wrong – I still work – but I am always working on new businesses instead of maintaining the old ones. Going back to my source-on-eBay-sell-on-Amazon business example, the only time I would need to spend time on that is if I lost one of the links in the autopilot chain and had to hire someone new.

Q. How many hours a day or week do you spend on your Amazon business now?

A.  I spend a few hours per month on my Amazon business. Most of this time goes to expanding the business.

Q. Do you need a certain amount of cash on hand to buy inventory?

A. No. Of course it helps to have a stack of cash, but it’s not a requirement.  This is 1-on-1 so we can make it work on any budget.  I started with 50k in student loans and a few hundred dollars. Anyone can do the same!

Q. Is your one-on-one consulting for new sellers, established sellers or both?

A. It’s for both.  I’ve been able to help both new and experienced sellers.

Q. What does your coaching have to offer the FBA seller who has been selling for a while like me?

A. If you’ve been selling for a while and you’re still listing and buying your own items I can help get you automated.  If you’re still part time and you want to go full-time I can help. If you just want to make more money I can help.

Q. How is this different from courses on online arbitrage or Amazon autopilot that my readers may have seen out there?

A.  I don’t know anything about these courses, but what I am offering is not a course. This is one-on-one coaching based on the individual’s specific needs and goals. I don’t think anyone else is offering coaching at this price with these bonuses.

I’m living what I coach. This program is not a theoretical experiment. I’m living in a posh apartment in Budapest as I run my business.  I tell my clients the exact type of business to start and how to start it. I share the tricks I’ve used in order to travel all over the globe for years. Even if you don’t plan to ever leave your city, my coaching will help you achieve the time and resources to pursue the things and experiences that excite you the most.

Q. Is this for books only? I know you say “any item” but your BookSalesFound service and books that you offer as part of the package are book-focused.

A. This is for any item on Amazon or eBay. I started with books and I think they are still a great place to start, but I now sell items in most categories and the principles for most categories are the same. It really comes down to what you’re interested in selling and what kind of inventory you can source with the least amount of cost and time given your location and knowledge. Creative Sourcing For Booksellers is the only book-focused book of mine and most of the principles could easily be applied to other types of inventory.

Q. When you help them set up their business does that also mean tech support to help them understand the technology, listing programs, SellerCentral, etc.?

A. No, I am not tech support. I can help with recommendations of technology. I can also redirect tech questions to the best way to get them answered from Amazon or the technology supplier.

ParisQ. When you talk about “retiring” how much money a month is that on average? $4K a month? $10K a month?

A. That all depends on the retiree’s goals. I lived in Chang Mai Thailand for three months and never spent more than $600 per month.  In Central and Eastern Europe I rarely spend more than $1500 per month.  If you’re living in New York you are going to need a lot more than if you’re living in Buenos Aires.

Q. Can you tell me more about ScoutBotPro? Is it only for books?  The sales video is book focused.

A. ScoutBotPro.com is not just for books. We currently have six “feeds” which include the following categories on Amazon: books, electronics, music, movies, video games, kitchen, beauty and toys.  These bots find opportunities in these categories and make them available to subscribers every day.

Q. If every subscriber is getting the same information I am from ScoutBotPro, doesn’t that make it the same competitive market that a book sale is or a deal-sharing group?

A. Yes and no. Everyone is getting the same information, but everyone has different buying strategies. If you want to get alerts before the competition you can bid on the “first alerts.” The first alerts give the winning bidder access to the alerts 30 seconds before anyone else.

Q. Quite a few of my readers have expressed disillusionment with toys after this past Xmas and frustration with crazy low-ballers that cut into margins or slow down sales (if you wait for them to sell out). What would you say to these sellers? Do you teach them how to find inventory that has little or no competition?

A. The inventory that is easy to get i.e. retail arbitrage toys is going to be competitive, that’s just the way it is. I’m not going to say don’t do retail arbitrage, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If one method of sourcing or one kind of inventory is too competitive, move on. Nothing lasts forever and the sellers who are willing to adapt are the ones that survive.

Q. What is Sites for Sellers?

A. This is a new service where we set up a buying website for you to buy inventory locally from the public. Imagine a brick-and-mortar store that buys used books. You would advertise to the public that you bought these items and people would come to you and sell them. Half-Priced Books is a good example. With SitesForSellers.com instead of a brick-and-mortar store we set you up with the website to buy inventory from the public. Again books are the example, but this would work for any type of inventory you could buy locally.

Q. You live overseas. Do you also sell on other Amazon platforms? Which ones?

A. I am currently only using Amazon.com. I have used Amazon Canada in the past.

Q. What types of products do you sell?

A. Electronics, CDs, collectible video games, collectible records, collectible books, Collectible VHS, toys, kitchen items.  Some of this I sell on Amazon and some are best on eBay.

Q. How long have you been selling on Amazon?  For how much of that time have you been full-time?

A. I started around 2006 and was full time within a few months.  I was right out of college so I had a lot of time to put into the business and my costs were low. I was able to build quickly.

Q. What drives you to write about your experience and to coach others?

A. I’ve always been a teacher at heart. I studied elementary education in college, but never really got a chance to teach because my Amazon business took off. Now I’m combining the two. Coaching others has been extremely gratifying and something I look forward to each day.

Conclusions

Many people who start working for themselves trade in one job for another – and in the beginning you often do have to do everything yourself – but the goal of working for yourself is NOT to have to work so hard.  You want to build something for the future that can be sold and enjoy your life as you go. You don’t want to be too old or too bitter to try adventurous, vigorous activities.

Years ago I read The E-Myth by Michael Gerber and it changed my life.  I went from being a freelancer with helpers (basically) to building a business I could sell – where everything was delegated and managed by someone else. It changed how I viewed my purpose as a business owner.  I realized that I needed to build something that could survive outside of me and that would have value. I needed duplicate-able processes.  I needed to separate myself from my baby and be an owner, not the business. I made the business about something else besides me. I sold that first business and my second business. I will one day sell this Amazon business.

Frank Florence realized this early in his life.  His business is an interesting combination of the E-MythFerris quote which teaches you to build a business that can be duplicated and be taken over by someone else, and Timothy Ferriss’ Four-Hour Work Week which reminds us to actually DO something meaningful and exciting with the rest of those 36 hours per week.

I recently read Ferriss’ updated version of his book and it was transformative. When I had first read it years ago it was “cool idea! smart guy!” and I took some of the ideas like hiring a virtual assistant but I never really could imagine having a business that I only worked for a few hours a week.  Now that I’ve been selling on Amazon for a while (and given that I started with only 10 hours a week), I see the possibilities for myself.

In Frank’s life, travel and living overseas is important. In my case, I want to travel to visit family for longer visits, take nice vacations every year, pay off my mortgage and build a nest egg for the time in my life where I may not be able to work at all. Most importantly to me, I want the freedom to be creative, to think and to write all kinds of books, not just Amazon-related. I want flexibility and control of my time and to make money even if I’m not working.  Talking with him made me think about my Amazon business differently.

I started my business in desperation as a part-time solution to a $1,500 a month problem. Now I’m looking at my business as an engine that will drive an entirely different kind of life for me. I want it to be the vehicle for doing things I really enjoy. I want my husband to be able to retire. I want to not worry about how I’m going to pay for the experience.

I want to squeeze my business around my life instead of the other way around.  As my husband’s coworkers called him at 2:00 a.m. to deal with yet another crisis last night (funny how they all happen on evenings and weekends) I thought, “we have to get the hell out of this situation!” We rely on his income and benefits.  I want us to be able to rely on my Amazon business completely. He needs freedom, too.

What about you? Are you ready to retire by the end of 2015 and live off your Amazon sales?  Frank Florence did it and he knows you can, too.  Check out his one-on-one coaching here*. It is currently a $197 one-time fee.

For me, it was a no-brainer to sign up even though my personal timeline is longer than six months, because I wanted to have lifetime email access to ask my questions and get pointers. In my opinion, he is not charging enough for his time.  As a consultant for more than 25 years, I know at some point he’s going to stop doing this, or charge a lot more for it because the demands on his personal time will be too much…and he already doesn’t need the money.

Last Chance for Florida Classes!florida

Speaking of living the dream, I’m going to Florida this week for my grandfather’s 95th birthday (yay!) and to spend a week in the sun with my family.  While I’m there, I’m leading two classes at a Pompano Beach Wal-mart and offering in-person, private one-on-one consultations. There are only two slots left for the in-person consultations.

Big Blog Changes

Just a quick note for those of you who don’t get my newsletters/blog notifications.  I’m reducing the frequency of my blog to 1-2 times a month rather than 3-4 times a month.  I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to stop writing – it is one of the things I love to do – but I’m reclaiming some of my time to pursue my dream.

I thought about writing shorter, less in-depth blogs and then realized I’m incapable of doing that. I’m a magazine writer in a twitter world….

*If you click on this link and decide to sign up, I will make a small commission. I use commissions like this as a way to compensate me for the time I spend on my blog.  However, you can reach the same page without an affiliate link at: http://czarnovel.com

quotes-courage-is_14280-2One of the most frequent questions I get in my classes, my blog and online is a variation of “How do I know this is a good deal?” With new sellers in particular there is a natural fear of the unknown. You read up on Amazon FBA and it all sounds great but there is this voice at the back of your head saying “yeah…but…” because it seems almost too good to be true. Before you put down your hard-earned dollars, you want to know that it is going to be worth it, that you are going to get your money back out. While I’ve covered this topic in the past, the fact is there are so many more resources today than when I got started. It is time for an update.

Early on in my Amazon selling career I would find myself standing in front of a shelf somewhat anxious. I was looking at a book or toy and wondering if it was a good deal. I didn’t have anyone to call for a reality check or to think out loud with. So what happened? Sometimes I bought the item sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes it was wonderful and sometimes it was a huge mistake. Through these experiences I learned a lot. I tried really hard to learn each lesson just once…but sometimes I’m a slow learner. Hopefully that is NOT the case with you!

Why are you hesitating?

When I stopped to pick apart my anxieties later I found that there were 10 common reasons why I would hesitate:

  1. Amazon is selling it for less
  2. Rank is higher than I sold at before
  3. It has no rank or, perhaps, wasn’t even in the catalog
  4. I don’t know how to price it
  5. Item is oversize
  6. Item cost “a lot” and is, thus, riskier for me
  7. Condition is iffy – slight box or cover damage. Can I sell it as new?
  8. There are a lot of other FBA offers
  9. There are penny sellers (in the case of a book)
  10. Analysis paralysis

Today I have a lot fewer anxious moments not just because of experience and good tools, but also because of personal rules I’ve made for myself over time. I will say up front that if you disagree with my rules or have different rules of your own based on experience, we are probably both right. Personal rules are about comfort and about streamlining the decision process for yourself. I offer mine up as a helpful insight, but NOT as a commandment. Only use what works for you:

dilbert_strategy

Amazon is selling it for less

This is not always a deal killer which is why I hesitate. I sell a brand of shower gel, lotions and soaps that is very popular. Amazon sells them for $8-$9 a bottle/bar and I sell them for $13.99-$14.99. I buy them for $3.99. I know from experience that Amazon regularly sells out of this brand and that mine will sell quickly when they do. How did I learn this? I naively bought a bunch and sent them in thinking that Amazon didn’t sell it (this was before tools like CamelCamelCamel – see below). I sold a few units a day and then it stopped because Amazon was back in stock. I waited Amazon out and I sold the rest of my inventory. Today I can see the sales history for an item and know that Amazon sells out regularly. If I’m OK with selling it in bursts every month or so, then great. This strategy works best on low ranked items, obviously.

Sometimes Amazon will have a sale to compete against another retail offer or it is a seasonal thing like when they discount all their calendars in January (don’t worry, it is only for a couple of weeks!). Back in the day, it was a much bigger risk to buy something that Amazon was selling for less. Today I have tools to help me and so I don’t dither. I can see Amazon’s normal price and decide if it is OK for me. I can see how often they have run out in the past. Read on to learn more.

Rank is higher than I sold at before

Sellers who take my live classes get a fairly conservative range of sales rank from me. I want to make sure that the stuff they buy on our trip will sell relatively quickly and that they realize success. New sellers usually have limited dollars for inventory and need to build up before they take on a lot of “long-tail” deals. If your whole inventory is long-tail payoff, you will not be able to pay your bills today, basically. For that reason I’ve usually given them category ranks in the 1%-5% range.

Peter Valley wrote a guest blog for me once about sales rank where he included a chart of suggested ranks that many sellers have found useful, but PLEASE don’t write me and tell me it is outdated. It was outdated the second I published it because new items are constantly being added to the catalog. My suggestion is to use this as a guideline when you are getting started and to update it yourself from time to time. It is easy enough to figure out the top 1%, 5%, 15%, etc., in a category. One last PS to this chart, I rarely buy books over 1 million in rank any more. This is my rule for me. Other book sellers may feel differently.

OK, Cynthia, but what about when you see something with a high rank that you just know is adorable and should sell? Or maybe it is a seasonal item like a textbook or a pool toy or Halloween costume? This is where the anxiety drift begins. Also, if you decide “I’m not selling books above 1 million” and then you find a high-value book for 1,100,000….what then? My first step when I see something with a high return that is outside of my normal comfort zone rank-wise is to check CamelCamelCamel. ScanPower, FBAScan, ProfitBandit and other scanning tools provide direct access to CamelCamelCamel (CCC) from your view screen. You can also type in www.camelcamelcamel.com in to your phone’s browser if you are using a tool that doesn’t have direct access to CCC.

If you’re not familiar with CCC, it keeps track of Amazon product rank and prices over time. To me CCC is like a miracle drug. I’m totally addicted to the data. Yesterday I sold a textbook for $35 that I bought last year for $4.79. When I bought it in September I was fairly confident that it would sell either by the end of September or in January because textbooks are seasonal. But let’s pretend I had no idea and I was totally new to books. I would have still bought this book if I’d checked with CCC first.

CCC price

CCC shows you first off price history data for your item. It will default to Amazon (green) unless Amazon doesn’t sell it. Then you will see 3rd Party New (blue) or 3rd Party Used (Red) checked. Otherwise you will have to check them yourself. In this case, my book is used-very good so I clicked the red price type. What I note immediately is that Amazon is selling it for $165 and has been selling it around that price since last August. This is good news for me – lots of room to undersell them.

CCC Price changes used

Third-party used has been all over the place. I am not discouraged by the $1.97 price because that is Merchant Fulfilled and I’m going to be FBA fulfilled. When I bought these books (I bought two), there were no FBA sellers at all which meant my offer was the most attractive with free 2-day shipping. I priced both of them at $35 even though one is used-very good and one is good. My customer is impatient.

Why doesn’t my $35 price show up under “Last 5 Price Changes?” My price has not changed, for one thing. It is not the lowest for another. You can see there is at least one MF seller racing to the bottom over the past week. This heavy textbook is going to cost him his shirt. I don’t get it. Why doesn’t my price show up in “Current?” Because it is not the lowest and it is not in the Buy Box. I was never in the Buy Box at the price I was offering because it is used and the Buy Box is for new items (as of this writing). This is one of the ways books are very different from toys or other categories. The Buy Box is not as important. Someone who wants a used book and/or who wants Prime shipping will search by that and not by the Buy Box. I aimed my offer at the impatient Prime buyer not the tight-waddy student willing to wait two weeks to save a few bucks.

sales rank

Now here’s the money shot! This is the sales rank over the past year for this product. Each spike represents a sale. Some sales are so close together that it looks like a thick green line. Green for money, my friends! Right now the rank on this textbook is around 10,000. History shows us it is likely to drop as low as 5,000 over the next week or two. There are some book sellers who won’t buy a book over 500,000 in sales rank. If they scanned this book on December 2 on 2014, they would have missed out on a really great deal.

CCC is really helpful if you are buying out-of-season items at a huge sale price like I recommend.  You’ll be able to see when the peak sales are. It also helps if there is a high ranked item that is out-of-stock. It might be that the rank is so high because there are no units for sale or it might be that it is so high because no one likes it very much. CCC can help you see what a normal sales rank might be.

There is no rank and/or it is not in Amazon’s catalog

CCC isn’t much help if there is no Amazon history. When I’m teaching a class, I’ll usually tell my students to put down an item that has no rank and to look for something else. Again, I’m conservative and I want them to be successful. I’m clear that I do add items to the catalog, but I don’t recommend it for brand-new sellers. The reason for this is that it can take a while for sales to pick up on a new item in the Amazon catalog. Skip McGrath told me once that it usually takes a month to six weeks to see the first sale on a new item that he adds – and he is highly experienced with launching new products on Amazon. Also, there is no guarantee that an item will sell at all. Take the risk when you have some money you can afford to lose.

If an item has no rank, it has never sold a unit on Amazon except for all the exceptions. For example, electronics (CE) is riddled with exceptions where they won’t show you the sales rank or you can only find the sales rank in the sub-category, not in the overall category. Why does Amazon do this? I have no idea. I’ve sat at my computer and looked at the top 100 sellers on Amazon in CE and found all kinds of items that showed no sales rank. Crazy! Usually if you do a CCC search on that item, it will show you the rank unless it is too new to have a history.  In that case, I might look at a similar item from the year before for an idea of its potential popularity (think about Dre headsets or a Bose speaker). If you are looking at a name brand electronic item and it shows no rank on Amazon but has offers, dig deeper. I’ve heard that apparel can be like that too.

Maybe the reason no one is selling it on Amazon yet is because it is brand new. When Inkoos were a hotinkoos toy, I bought a bunch of different kinds of Inkoos and added them to the Amazon catalog. My other Inkoos were selling well and I was confident that these other versions would sell well, too. And they did. The great thing about adding an item to the catalog is that you are the only seller for a while and so I sold most of my Inkoos before other sellers jumped in with their units.

Another tool that I use from my scanner is eBay completed auctions. This helps me answer the “I wonder if anyone will buy it from me if I put it up there?” question sometimes. If the item has been sold on eBay recently that tells me that there are buyers out there. Pricing on eBay for me is a starting point. Often eBay listings are cheaper than I can price it for on Amazon.

You can also do a Google search on your phone’s browser (or from the scanner) to see the other online sites where it is for sale and what they are charging. If the product is nowhere to be found online, then you have to decide if you think it will sell and if you are willing to take the risk. If you are hesitating, then maybe you should keep looking for a deal that has already proven to sell on Amazon.

I don’t know how to price it

Maybe you are hesitating not because you are worried about selling the item, but because you don’t know what to charge and/or if you’ll be able to get the price you need to make it profitable. I’ve done that before with rare and discontinued items that are hard to find. They were sold out on Amazon and this was before CCC so I couldn’t consult with price history. What I did in that case was I checked eBay sold and Google.

eBay sold

This particular item wasn’t anywhere. It was discontinued and sold out. It was a major brand and I took a chance at $35 each. I started selling at $150 and my first one sold the day it reached the warehouse. I raised my price to $175. Eventually I was selling this Harley Davidson comforter set for $250 each. Each time I found more, they sold instantly. I thought about selling them higher but I felt shy about it. I’m over that now. If I had the same deal today, I’d start at $499 and test my price from there. At the time, I didn’t understand the value of what I had. People really wanted these comforter sets and they were nowhere to be found.

Other times I’ve done my searches and found that it was selling on eBay and other sites. I had to assume that Amazon might come back into stock and decide what I wanted to do. Could I compete close to the prices I was finding online? If not, it was probably too risky.

Item is oversized

I’m not afraid of oversized items, but there’s oversized and then there’s OVERSIZED if you know what mean. The problem isn’t whether or not I’ll make money off it – my scanning tool gives me an accurate net price – but how much it will cost me to ship it to Amazon.com. Will it need a special box? If it is oversized I already know it is going to a special warehouse and that I won’t be able to combine it with smaller items. With all the changes in Amazon’s fees, it is less and less profitable to send in big items.

FBA sellers used to sell large-screen TVs and dishwashers on Amazon just to give you an idea of how things have changed over the past few years. Now the determining factor for me is often whether or not it will fit in one of my boxes. I buy 24 X 12 X 12, 20 X 20 X 20 and 22 X 22 X 22 boxes regularly (along with book boxes). These sizes cover bedding, grocery, appliances, and collectible games. Amazon also sends me a huge supply of smaller boxes that I break down and keep for smaller orders (if they are still in good condition). If I don’t think it will fit one of my boxes, I usually put it down. The cost and hassle factor go up a lot at this point.

Bedding and appliances are well worth the extra costs for shipping and boxes (usually one bed kit fills a box by itself to give you an idea) because my ROI is so high. This is not always true of oversized toys and groceries. I often carry a tape measure with me so I can measure before I bring home an item. If you don’t have one with you, sometimes a store manager can scare one up. My friend Lynn refuses to buy anything that won’t fit in a Walmart moving box. That’s her rule. I buy from Uline and I have more choices, but I also have a minimum number I have to buy to get a reasonable price. Plus the warehouse is at least 30 minutes away. Know your boxes.

Item costs “a lot”

This one is perhaps the hardest one to overcome because it is an emotional rather than analytical response. It comes from a place of fear. What is “a lot” to me is different from someone else. It is purely subjective. You are naturally afraid of losing your investment. It might feel a bit like gambling in the beginning even with all the tools. What I can tell you is that nearly every seller I’ve ever talked to about this topic has told me “I wish I’d started buying more expensive items sooner.” I feel the same way. That is usually where the best profits are to be made. You can buy a $1 item and flip it for $7 and make a few bucks, but for the same amount of time and effort, you can buy a $25 item and sell it for $130, which is way more exciting and makes you money faster.

Johann-Wolfgang-Von-Goeth

Here is my suggestion for you. If this is during your first six months of selling and you feel nervous about an item because it costs a lot, put it down. Buy smaller deals that you are comfortable with and get experience selling. It is more work for you to process a lot of lower cost items but you’ll still make money. After you’ve been selling for a few months, make some rules for yourself like, “I will spend up to $25 per item if the rank is X.” I suggest that X be a fairly low rank in the top 1% of Amazon sellers. After you’ve tried a few of these and learned from them, then you should feel more comfortable upping your game. Having a game plan takes a lot of the worry and hesitation out of your shopping trip so you can focus instead on the good deals.

The good news about our business is that there will always be good deals out there. I find that there is more opportunity than I can afford to buy. Don’t feel bad if you miss out on an occasional good deal – another one is right around the corner.

Maybe “a lot” isn’t about the per-unit cost but about the number of units. There are 30 units of what seems like a good deal but I’m hesitating to spend $750 on it. If I don’t buy them all and they turn out to be good sellers – someone else will have probably bought them all in the meantime and I’ll be kicking myself. In most cases I’ll usually buy the items but I won’t send them all in at once. If I send a few up there and they stagnate or a bunch of low-ballers come in and undercut me, then I can easily return the ones that are in my house and use the money for something else. The rule in this case may be “if I don’t sell a unit in two weeks from receiving at the warehouse, I’m returning the rest,” or whatever time frame feels right to you. Obviously this only works in stores with a generous return policy.

Condition is iffy – slight box or cover damage. Can I sell it as new?

damaged_box2If you are asking the question, you already know the answer. Probably not. In Amazon’s world, new is new. Anything else is used or “Open Box” or “Collectible.” Have I covered up small tears in shrink wrap with a sticker? Yes I have. Is a Big Wheels box different than My Little Pony? Yes it is. Large Big Wheels (and other large toys) boxes are meant to be shipping boxes as well as descriptive boxes. A slightly crushed corner is normal. The bottom line for me is if the person receiving it would consider it new, then it is new. If they would think it is dirty, old or slightly damaged put it down. If a Barbie collector would have a fit, put it down. They are only going to send it back. It’s not worth the negative feedback and possibly unhappy customer. Don’t spend too much time with these iffy’s, they’ll give you heartburn.

There are a lot of other FBA offers

My general rule is to put something down if there are “too many” other FBA sellers. How much is “too many?” It varies depending on rank and category. The higher the rank, the fewer competitors I want to see. I have a great repricer in Feedvisor so I feel pretty confident about my ability to compete with other sellers of new items BUT the single biggest problem with seeing a lot of sellers on an item is the race to the bottom. The price might look OK today, but it is like an avalanche. One scared snowflake/seller starts the race and everyone else tumbles down the hill after him.

In books, most other sellers have one or two units at the most. In almost any other category they might have dozens to hundreds of units each. I have some candy that I bought for $1 that was low ranked and only had one other seller besides me and my shopping partner. Unfortunately, this guy didn’t run out for more than four months and he was selling his candy at a stupidly low price. He’s finally out this week and my friend and I are selling our units, but if I’d realized ahead of time just how many units he had, I gp2would have never bought this candy. My mistake. I could have found out before I bought several hundred units but I didn’t. I thought “One seller! No problem!” In this case, a lot was just 1 guy (curse you, Red Baron!). In other cases, I can successfully compete against 4-5 sellers without much concern. I see this in Baby a lot and I think it is because most of us have limited quantities (we are all buying from the same closeout stores) and I have a dynamic repricer which keeps me in the Buy Box a significant percentage of every day.

It is OK to buy items that have other sellers. It helps to have a rule of thumb for yourself about how many is too many.  If I see five other sellers at a price lower than I want to sell, I usually put it back down.

There are penny sellers (in the case of a book)

penny bookIn the past I would look at a book and if there were one or two penny sellers I might still consider the book. Sometimes I might even buy their books and resell them. My thought was that they would sell out and mine would sell at a higher price. It doesn’t work that way as much as I’d like and I don’t sell penny books any more. A penny book is one where the merchant fulfilled price is 1 penny plus shipping. That means an FBA seller could sell that book for $4…right? Nope. Remember that panicked snowflake? I’ve seen FBA sellers sell penny books for $1. They are losing a lot of money on each one and I don’t get it. A repricer gone crazy? Someone who doesn’t understand the business? Maybe. I’m following Nathan Holmquist’s advice on book selling now and I’m much happier about my book sales. I want the MF price to be at least 49 cents and then I’ll look at the FBA offers. He taught me that if the MF is lower than that, there will likely be a lot of FBA sellers. Check out my blog post if you want to learn more about Nathan’s approach and rules around books.

Analysis paralysis

The dark side of having so much data and having such powerful scanning tools is that sellers can get bogged down by analysis paralysis. Using scanning tools, having personal rules, all these things are designed to make your decision-making process easier and more efficient. During my classes I will often see students spending a minute or more per scan. I see this particularly in the programs where you are required to enter your cost in order to get a net price. This is not how scanning is supposed to work. Scanning is all about getting to the “maybe.” The data you immediately pull up on your phone should be enough for you to say “No” in most cases. And in most cases the answer will be no.

If you are using a Scanfob or other Bluetooth scanner then it should be a quick “no, no, no, no [lots more no’s]…maybe.” That maybe is the one that you’ll check out in more detail. If it looks good on my phone, I’ll usually click through to CCC and to see all the FBA listings on Amazon. This way I don’t find out later that there are a ton of other sellers and I get a feel for how quickly it might sell and at what price. After I do that, the answer may still be no. That’s why it is important to scan a lot – hundreds of items in a typical shopping trip – and to have a way to quickly eliminate the many, many deals that don’t fit your profile. If you find yourself spending a lot of time analyzing each scan, check your personal rules and check your tools.  You need to streamline your process.

Florida Trip in Februaryflorida

I’ve set my dates! I’ll be in Southern Florida/Fort Lauderdale area on Friday and Saturday February 27th and 28th. I’m tentatively planning on two sourcing classes but can schedule another one on Monday March 2 if there is sufficient interest. My classes are limited to 10 people. I’d rather have two smaller classes than one too-large one. I have gotten emails from 10 people thus far indicating interest so don’t delay. Click HERE to reserve your spot now! I have a special early-bird gift for those who sign up by Sunday.

8-ways-to-beat-january-blues-1024x707_1With all due respect to T.S. Elliot, January is the cruelest month for an online seller. There is the post Q4-let down to deal with, the slower sales, the fact that you owe sales tax to every #$%@X state of the union, meetings with your CPA, reporting, 1099 and w-2 forms to get out, new year’s resolutions…I mean, could life be any less fun?

Oh yeah, and don’t forget that Amazon will impose long-term storage fees in a few weeks and it is raising its FBA fees. And the weather has been unusually cold and my dog is refusing to use the doggie door. In short, I’m out of sorts, tired of cleaning up pet deposits, and maybe you are too.

Staying in a funk is not a good idea for long-term success, so what’s a seller to do? This is my fourth FBA January and here are a few strategies that help me slog through:

  1. Plan – Prioritize – Focus
  2. Your heart’s desire
  3. Something new
  4. Take time for yourself

Plan-Prioritize-Focus

It’s a new year and you are filled with goals and resolutions for your business…right? (umm…sure) If you are like me, thinking of new ideas and ways to improve is fun, getting it done is less so. Plus, I tend to be overly ambitious thinking I can handle six impossible things before breakfast every day.

What helps me is to start from a very high level. I write down the top 3 things I wantMagritte to accomplish by the end of the year. This things MUST excite me. Something like “improve my understanding of technology I need for my business”…YAWN! This is an incidental side benefit of something way more exciting like “Increase my sales enough to where I can leave my day job.” These juicy goals are my “big rocks” for the year (if you are not familiar with Steven Covey’s analogy, click here). Remember these are big things, not steps, not pieces. In pursuit of your juicy goals you will likely accomplish many other goals, too.

Next, I commit to these big things. They are in my head now and I’m going to get them done. This is why I don’t recommend more than three. You can always add more juicy goals later if you are successful enough to finish early.

Don’t make my mistake and try to do everything at once. It is a recipe for half-finished projects, despair and chaos. I strongly suggest prioritizing your big rocks. Which one is first, second and third? That means that in January you are only pursuing one goal. This is tough for you overachievers out there, I realize, but hear me out.

You are now going to focus like crazy. First, figure out the steps that need to be done to reach that goal. You can be as macro or micro as you like, just so you know what is next and how to get there. I’m a macro girl. Then, every morning before you do anything else, take steps towards your goal. If it is an hour a day, it is an hour a day. It is your time. The important thing is to accomplish something every day towards reaching your juicy goal. Then, no matter how bad a day you have, you will have accomplished something important. I recommend doing this before checking email and getting distracted – but I realize that you may need to check your email first.

If you focus on one thing at a time, you will progress faster.

Why only one thing at a time? Because you can get a lot more done if you are focused. That is one thing that Covey’s story doesn’t quite get right. He seems to imply that if you do the big rocks first you can actually get everything done, the small rocks, the sand, etc. That’s not really true. The big rocks take a lot of space. You WILL have to give something up, so make sure the goal is juicy AND de-clutter your other activities. What are you spending time on today that is keeping you from getting to your big goals? See how many of them you can eliminate or reduce. This alone will make you happier in the cruelest month.

Your Heart’s Desiretom-cheney-we-can-t-find-a-compromise-between-a-life-of-quiet-desperation-and-life-i-new-yorker-cartoon

Ennui sets in when you lose your spark for your life. I was talking previously about business-related goals, but even the most exciting goal can seem dim and pale if your personal life is suffering. There is joy in work, of course, but you need joy in life to be sustained. It is so easy to get into a routine with kids, making dinner, driving kids and homework….I’m putting myself to sleep here.

The solution is to reach for your heart’s desire. What energizes you? Makes you happy? For me it is travel and vacations with my family. I like to plan them far in advance not only because I’m a planner, but also because it is fun and it keeps me excited for months before the trip. My Amazon business has allowed me to go to San Francisco and the wine country, Tahoe, Disney, the Outer Banks and other fun vacations with my family.

During the short term, I like to have lunch with friends, go to movies and read books. Sometimes I just take a day off to be by myself. I like yoga. When I find myself in the doldrums the first thing I ask myself is “what am I doing for me this week?”

FocusWhat does this have to do with selling on Amazon? Everything! It is NOT about the money, it is about what the money will let you do or get. If your only goal is pay your bills; it is not enough! It won’t keep you humming along with a song in your heart. If you are finding yourself feeling the January mopes right now, make yourself a quick list of what your Amazon money is for – make sure at least one thing on that list is fun and exciting – maybe even a bit crazy.

Something New

After the excitement of Q4, January can seem really dull. All those responsible, necessary tasks…bleh. Time to mix things up a bit. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to check out, learn, try…do it now. I’ve got a couple of software solutions to check out and some books to read to make my business better. I put them off because of Q4 and now I’m excited to finally get to them. This week I’m in a class learning how to better use my Infusionsoft software. Sounds dull, but it isn’t (really!). I’ve been wanting to figure out how to better connect with my readers and be smarter about that side of my business for a long time. I’ve learned so much already that I’m itching to put into practice.

Since last Fall I’ve been getting myself approved in gated categories and now I’m excited to learn about clothing and jewelry. I’ve also got two exclusive agreements with a jewelry designer and a food manufacturer. As the sole seller of these brands, I’m working towards my bigger goal of having a portfolio of unique and/or exclusive products to sell on Amazon. I know I’ll learn a lot this year and I’m excited.

Take Time for Yourself

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. You can’t give from a deficit. If your energy tank is low, your business will suffer, too. Your best bet for getting your sales to hum along is to take care of yourself. Sleep at least eight hours a night. Eat regularly. Take a walk. Groom. Catch up on your laundry. Clean off your desk. Call a friend. All these things will make you feel better.

JoyQuoteIt may be that more is needed to take care of yourself. It may require a change of life, geography, relationships, spirituality, emotions or behaviors. Get outside help if you feel overwhelmed. You are worth the effort. The time you spend understanding yourself is some of the best time you can spend. It pays the most dividends.

OK, if you are reading all this and thinking “WTF is wrong with her? I’m happy as a clam in January!” please contact me. I’m looking for some guest posts on interesting topics and from diverse seller voices.

Just a quick reminder that Amazon’s fees are going up and it will be imposing long-term storage fees in February. Time to clear out your inventory. You’ve got a few weeks to reprice and sell.

What strategies do you employ to pull yourself out of the doldrums? Please comment below!

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.

 

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.

riskProbably the number one concern I hear from new sellers is “I can’t find any good inventory!” They’ve gone to a store or two, scanned and walked away with nothing. They are frustrated because they know other sellers are shopping the same stores and finding stuff. Or maybe they are buying stuff but it isn’t selling and they are frustrated because all their money is tied up in inventory. They are discovering that, much like real estate, your money is made pretty much at the point of sale. It is hard to redeem poor purchases later.

They want to know, what is the trick? What am I not getting? This is a hard question to answer definitively because it varies. Sometimes, they are doing nothing wrong, per se, they are just impatient or had other expectations for their business. Over time, however, I’ve seen some commonalities. I’m calling these the Five R’s: Rank, Risk, Reward, Repetition and Research. If you are struggling with what to buy, see if any of these potential problem areas sound like you:

Rank

Rank is by far one of the hardest things for a newcomer to understand. On the one hand more experienced sellers say “it is a snapshot in time and only an indicator,” and on the other we say “rank is the first thing I look at.” Rank tells me that something has sold on Amazon.com at least once. This provides comfort that it might sell again. If the rank is really high, then it has been a long time since it last sold. That’s the snapshot part. There may be different reasons for this:

1)      Not a popular item;

2)      No units for sale or

3)      Not priced competitively.

Reasons two and three offer us an opportunity. I will often buy a higher ranking item if it is sold out reasoning that my unit might be quite welcome on Amazon and will likely not have competition (yay!). If I can make my margin at a lower, more competitive price that is an opportunity if I think everyone else is overpriced.

If something is low rank, then it is selling more frequently which assures me that I can turn my money faster. In my classes, private sessions and in my book I share some rank ranges that I use as guidelines for when I’m shopping. With new shoppers I am conservative because I want them to experience inventory turnover and get some money going. How did I acquire my ranges? I experimented. I would try things at increasingly higher ranks and see how long they took to sell. I would use inexpensive items I bought at thrift stores, estate sales, etc. as my experiments. Over time, I got comfortable within a range and would generally stick with it. Rank for me is my first test as to whether or not I should buy something – but it is not the only one. If the rank is within my range, I’ll look to other factors like is Amazon selling it? Are there a lot of other sellers? Are the prices overall good for my margins? While it is OK to have high ranking items in your inventory, make sure that they are the outliers and not the bulk of your inventory. It is great to have a long-tail sale that nets you big bucks when it sells – but that could be months or even years from now. You need stuff that is selling every day and making margin for you.

Risk

When I buy an item with a high rank or no rank, I am taking a risk. Every time I add a new product to Amazon’s catalog I’m taking a risk. If there are zero other sellers, for example, I might think my item is super-cool, but maybe no one else does. The first time I bought a Harley Davidson comforter set, the rank was over a million (!) in bedding and there were no sellers. They cost me $25 and I sent in three priced at $125. They sold in less than a week. I then went to every BigLots in the Dallas area and bought all I could find.

I sent them in the first time because I had faith in the Harley Davidson brand and that I would ultimately sell my comforters. Other things I’ve sent in that I thought were adorable took months and months to sell even one unit. Witness the Disney Tinkerbell erasers I bought last August – I just sold my first one last week, alas. Hopefully I’ll sell the other 13 before long-term storage fees. At least they are small and storage is cheap.

Sometimes the problem I see with a seller’s inventory is that there is too much risk in the mix. The seller may be more of a gambler than a business owner. Every successful business owner I know does not like to gamble. They only go to Las Vegas for conferences because they think it is ridiculous to throw money away on a rigged game. Or, they have a pre-set gambling limit and they stick to it. Most of us don’t buy lottery tickets either. If this concept is incomprehensible to you, now is the time for some self-reflection. An addictive, adrenaline-fueled personality will show up in a seller’s inventory in a bad way with lots of risky buying decisions. The potential reward may be terrific, but the chances of success small.

What, then, is the difference between Risk and Gambling? Acceptable risk has safeguards built in and relies on experience and patience rather than luck. Acceptable risk is boring, calm and steady. While all sellers get lucky sometimes with awesome deals, we don’t build our businesses on chance. Most of our business is “bread and butter” type purchases that have ranks in our range, a good margin, and not too much FBA or Amazon competition to torpedo our margins. The “home runs” are fun, but we win the game with steady base gains (I so rarely use sports analogies). If we spend money on riskier inventory with high rank – or even no rank if it is a product you are adding to the catalog – then we balance it with other, proven inventory. We know when we buy that we may never make our margin on this risky item and it is acceptable because this item is an outlier in our inventory and not the bulk of our inventory.

Acceptable risks means setting limits on yourself – keeping within your budget, not overextending, scanning patiently until you DO find that great deal, not putting all your inventory dollars for the month into one purchase.

Over time, finding good inventory becomes easier and easier because you are experienced. Things that seemed risky a few months ago are now part of your regular purchases because they’ve proven themselves. You also have a greater bulk of good selling inventory so adding more experiments affects you less and less – kind of like seller feedback on Amazon.

A lot of people start like I did with very little money to spend on inventory. I tell them to start with books, video games and collectible games primarily. Why? Because they are easy-to-find, cheap and the risk is low. It is like giving a teenager a car. I’m of the “old beater” school of thought because I know my son is going to make mistakes and quite possibly damage his car while he is learning. I’d rather he make those mistakes in a cheap old beater (with good seatbelts!) so he will have greater success later when he can afford a more expensive car. If a book never sells and you spent $2 on it (plus storage fees), that’s not a big deal. If an appliance never sells and you spent $75 on it…that might be more painful. Especially in the beginning when your inventory dollars are tight.

Lastly, if you have ever gotten into financial difficulties in the past because of gambling or compulsive shopping – this business is not for you. It will only feed into your problem. Some people I’ve talked with on the phone I can tell by the words they use and how they talk that they are gamblers or compulsive shoppers. I am saying here what I don’t feel comfortable saying to a stranger on the phone – be honest with yourself. Don’t do this business until you get a handle on why you gamble/spend.

Reward

I personally advocate spreading the risk in the beginning which is why I like books and inexpensive items mixed in with other inventory. This is a slower growth plan, though, and some people want to buy the high reward items right from the beginning. Their reasoning is “if I’m going to spend $75, I’d rather buy one appliance/toy/whatever and make $100 off of it in a few weeks rather than 75 items for $1 and eventually make $150 off of it over time.” This is great if the item actually sells in a few weeks, but you can’t count on that.

Or they may think “I’ve got to make BIG MONEY, right now!” I call this the Wheel of Fortune school of thought. It is a lot likewheel-of-fortune-bankrupt-game-tv-show-spin gambling to me and there’s that “bankrupt” slot that gets sellers all the time who try to fly too far, too fast, and tie up money in inventory that they can’t get out right away. Late last summer I reviewed someone’s inventory that was full of high dollar items. They weren’t moving at all because they were the kind of items that people don’t buy that often and/or were the kind that are often given as gifts. I told her that they would sell over the holidays and that I thought they were all great items. Because she needed to make money in the meantime, I talked to her about taking what few dollars she had left and buying books and collectible games.

In addition to buying lots of high dollar/high reward items, another issue I often see is not enough margin. This frequently comes from either not understanding Amazon’s fees or from not understanding their other costs. I’ve seen some sellers working themselves to bankruptcy because they didn’t understand what kinds of margins they need to make.

When I buy something, I fully expect to sell it for a price such that I will double my money – at a minimum. Because Amazon fees vary based on size, weight, etc. and because my costs may vary on these same factors, I look at the “net” on my scanner as a starting point. I add in my projected out-of-pocket business costs and figure out for how much I need to sell that item. If it seems reasonable that I can sell it for that price in a timely way based on the other sellers, I buy it. To be clear, if I’m spending $10, I expect to make at least $10 after I deduct all my expenses (including my initial purchase cost).

I get lots of questions about the exceptions to this rule like “what if it is selling fast? Would you lower your margin requirement?” The answer is I might, you shouldn’t. What the…? Here’s the deal, no purchase is made in a vacuum. It is made in the context of all your other inventory. That margin not only has to reward you for what you invested in it, it also has to cover returns and losses.

The fact of the matter is Amazon will lose stuff, customers will return stuff and lie about why, sometimes your great deal will be torpedoed because Amazon will drop its prices to dizzying lows, other sellers will race to the bottom and have zillions of units to sell before you can sell yours or you will be forced to lower your prices and take a smaller margin. You will have storage fees and on and on and on. It is part of the business. So can you have items in your inventory that are only making you $5 for every $10 you spend and make money on volume? Sure. A few items like that in the context of a much larger well-performing inventory base are perfectly fine. But most new sellers don’t have that yet so I advise them to put that item down for now and keep looking for a better margin.

Repetition

You have to scan a lot. Many new sellers aren’t finding stuff because they aren’t scanning enough. I recently went with a friend to a book sale for a couple of hours. I walked out with four large bags of books (about 50-60 books). She walked out with seven books. I scanned several hundred books in that time. Because her Scanfob wasn’t working that day, she had to use her phone camera to capture the barcodes. I felt my two hours was well spent. She did not. She scanned a fraction of the books I did. It was a bummer. The next time she goes, it will be a much better experience.

paul coelhoWhen someone tells me they are scanning a lot and not finding anything, I ask them what they mean by “a lot” and frankly it usually isn’t. They are not moving fast and they are not scanning often enough. If you spend a few hours somewhere, you should have scanned hundreds of items. I ask about how many scans they did (your SerialMagic Gears will tell you if you have Android) and it is very low.

You need to scan, repeat, scan, repeat, scan, repeat, scan, repeat until you are in this lovely Zen state called Flow where you are 100% personally efficient and effective…where you feel calm and fulfilled at your task. It may take a lot of practice.

Especially in the beginning you have to scan like crazy. Most of the time the answer will be “no” and you are scanning fast to get to the “yes.” During this time you will not only be developing your patience muscles, you will also be learning about the types of items that are likely to be good candidates.

When I go to a store now, there are whole categories and types of products I avoid there because I already know they are unlikely to bear fruit for me. There are also brands that are either restricted or practically impossible because they have their own store on Amazon. I will go to the most likely items first which makes me more effective. This is what you learn from experience. You can be more successful in less time. There is no way to circumvent this learning curve so plan to spend hours and hours in the beginning scanning stores.

You should also scan a lot of different stores. I had to wean a client off of his Target habit. He found great things there, but on the days when there wasn’t much, he didn’t have anywhere else to turn to for inventory and his sales would slow as his pipeline narrowed. Or, even worse, he would buy “Just OK,” so-so and bad deals because he felt he had to walk out of the store with something to show for his time – don’t do this! Jim Collins has it right when he says Good is the enemy of Great. By broadening his horizons and getting him to scan other stores as well, he now has choices and places to go when one store is a bust.

Research

Tools matter. At the book sale, the difference was dramatic. We both had ScanPower, but my friend’s ScanFob wasn’t working. We were using the same scouting criteria and we were the only scanners in the room during “members only” night. While many people cannot afford ScanPower and ScanFob in the beginning, I tell them to make those tools one of their early purchases after they’ve made some money. This example is why. You can do more in less time. Also, the quality of the data is important.

With changes at Amazon, our scanners now are showing us the most competitive offers according to Amazon – and not necessarily all of the offers. This means that if you see something promising, you need to click through to Amazon’s site to see it more completely and make sure that there aren’t other offers that would make your deal less exciting. This adds time to the process which is a bummer but – as I mentioned before – most of the time the answer is “no” which you can usually tell from rank, Amazon’s price, etc., without having to do research.

For items with no offers or where you feel the offer is too high, you may need to do extra research through the “Hot List” of research sites. ScanPower includes direct links to eBay completed, Google UPC and other sites in its product. This is a neat feature because the UPC/ASIN is already filled in for you and you click right to the answer instead of trying to type on your smartphone screen. Other scanning tools may require you to type in the URLs into your browser.

I saw a product yesterday that was ranked a bit on the high side, but had no sellers. When I checked www.camelcamelcamel.com, I saw that Amazon normally sold that product for $79.99. I assumed that it would have a lower rank normally if there was product in stock. The item was so cheap, I knew my clients could easily charge less than Amazon and still make their margins. I told them to buy it.

When people ask me “Do I have to buy ScanPower Mobile?” or “Do I have to have a ScanFob Bluetooth scanner?”  I tell them no…BUT they’ll want to as soon as they can afford it.  Acquiring high producing inventory is the most important part of our business – you want to be as efficient and accurate as possible.

Remember the difference between me and my friend at the book sale?  I also took my son with me to a book sale this weekend.  He had to spend time examining each scan and looking at the cheat sheet I gave him – he’s still new to this.  However, he walked out with nearly 40 books to my 67 in a two hour period. He had the tools.

“Rogers”

It was a stretch to find the “R” for this last thought so it is technically not part of my “5 Rs”: you have to be willing to makeGood-judgment-comes-from-experience__quotes-by-Will-Rogers-43 mistakes and learn from them. Perfectionists will find this business frustrating because there are so many variables beyond your control and because you will make mistakes. Try to manage your risks such that your mistakes when you make them will not affect your overall business too much. In past blogs and my book I’ve talked about mistakes that I’ve made that hopefully you can avoid.

As an experienced business owner of 20+ years, I knew I would make mistakes and I planned for them the best I could by spreading my risk and not spending too much in any one type of inventory purchase. I originally didn’t use credit so I couldn’t get overextended (Last year I tried Amazon’s Lending Program and Kabbage). I also read avidly and learn from fellow sellers on their blogs and in their books.

Several years in and I am still learning and growing. I still make mistakes sometimes (anyone want about 20 Spiderman action figures? Just kidding – I’m donating them to charity) and I have yet to figure out how to make good wholesale decisions – all my experiments have been failures so far.

I’m always fascinated by other sellers’ stories and what I’ve noticed is that most made mistakes early on that helped them ultimately be a better seller. Sometimes when someone posts their numbers or gives a short synopsis of their story, it can appear that they magically started FBA and made zillions. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! John Groleau is a good example of this. He has realized tremendous sales numbers selling FBA in a short time. He is an inspiration to me. When you read his book, however, you realize that he had years of online and other sales experience before he ever tried FBA. He made mistakes and learned from them years ago when McDonald’s was putting Beanie Babies in its Happy Meals. [If you don’t remember the fist fights and fury…you are young, my friend!] He also had years of relationship building that has helped him in his FBA business. In short, he paid his dues. His fairy godmother was not around to help!

Be kind and compassionate with yourself when you make mistakes. Look at them as a sign that you are actually doing something right – you are taking action to build a business – and see what lesson you can take away for next time. If you have a lot of mistakes in your inventory right now but you’ve learned from them, then they were simply a necessary part of your business growth. It will get better. Will Rogers had it right.

Do you have additional advice you would share with new sellers? Please leave a comment below! Happy scouting!

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I use a Virtual Assistant.  When and how to get help is a question that FBA sellers often face when they get to a certain size/level of activity.  In my case, I’ve used an assistant in my day job for years. When I first published my Make Thousands on Amazon in 10 Hours a Week! book, I had my assistant help with design, layout, setting up my book and blog, HTML, etc., but I was still handling my FBA business myself.  Over time, I brought her into the Amazon business.  Since so much of an FBA business is technology-enabled, it is easy to delegate certain tasks if you are willing to take the time to train your assistant.

Currently, I have a weekly commitment with her and I spread her time out over my Amazon business, tasks related to my blog or marketing my book, and my day job.  She is mostly Amazon/blog/book now with a few hours a week focused on my day job or other tasks.  Here’s what most people ask me about working with a Virtual Assistant:

Q. What are the benefits of working with a VA?

A. The biggest benefit to working with a VA is you can delegate tasks to them that you do not like to do or do not have time to do. They work when you are sleeping (mostly) so you can get quick turnaround on tasks.  If the work can be done over the internet, consider if working with a VA will save you time to focus on what is most important to you.  They are less expensive than workers here in the U.S., more skilled, better trained and less entitled. I’ve had assistants since 1988 and what I have learned is that a good assistant is worth his/her weight in gold and nearly as hard to find.  Most of the time finding a good one is as much about me as it is about them. If I want a quality assistant, I need to be a good boss. I could write a book on this topic alone (but I will spare you!).

Q. How will my VA work with me?

A virtual assistant is flexible and will work with you the way you desire.  I use Skype with my assistant for IMs and the occasional phone call. We also use email a lot, of course.  If I want her to see my screen or vs. versa, we use http://join.me along with a Skype call for training. For sharing documents I’ve used free collaboration programs like Google Docs and others (that I was using with my clients, basically).  She is in the Philippines so the time difference between us is 13 hours (she is nearly a day ahead of me). We communicate directly by IM or call in the evenings or early mornings my time.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. It varies depending on the kind of work your VA will do for you.  I found my current assistant through a professional company in the beginning and they quoted me a rate after assessing my needs.  You can pay anywhere from $5-$15 an hour depending.  Over the years I’ve paid $5-$8 an hour for administrative support but your results may vary.  If you want someone who is trained on Quickbooks, for example, that will cost more than someone who will mostly use powerpoint, word and excel.

Q. What is the commitment?

A. I am committed for 15 hours a week on average. Sometimes I’ll have a heavy week one week and then a lighter week. I pay twice a month. I’m running three businesses. Your needs may be less or more than mine. Generally you hire a VA by the project or with a weekly commitment of some kind.

Q. Where do I find a VA?

A. There are hundreds of VA companies. The smartsheet is like a yellow pages of VA companies – mostly smaller shops. This article on the 20 Places to Find a Top Notch Virtual Assistant is also good. I suggest Angie’s List, the Online BBB and a google search to determine reputations.  You want a VA and/or VA company where you can check their references with actual customers. Don’t just read stuff on a website. In addition, check out http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/outsourcing-life/ by Timothy Ferris.  He’s written quite a bit about the topic. Some of his blog posts include names, ratings from customers and more. Chris Ducker is also known as a VA guru.  Check out his blog at: www.chrisducker.com.  He has a helpful article that lists resources for business owners looking for a VA and wanting to know how to work with a VA.

Ducker also owns a company that acts as a matchmaker between business owners and VA companies called Virtual Staff Finder. I have not used them, but I know a couple of business owners who used them to find their VA.  They were very pleased with the service. It took a lot of the pressure and research time off their shoulders.

I suggest a professional company with offices in the U.S. as well as overseas to begin with.  They will likely have a large base of assistants to choose from. They take care of all the taxes and foreign requirements but you can talk to an American if you have questions/problems. American based companies have greater transparency and accountability which helps and many of them bond their workers.

Q. What kinds of tasks are appropriate for a VA?

A. Just about anything you can think of that does not require a physical presence. This includes bookkeeping, taxes, research, reservations, programming, HTML, etc.  Here are some of the Amazon FBA tasks my VA handles for me:

  • Correct listing errors
  • Reprice my books (I handle other items myself) using my repricer
  • File and pay my sales tax for all the states where I am registered (we use TaxJar.com)
  • Track reimbursements
  • Monitor listing changes for me
  • Update listings with pictures, etc., as needed
  • Run reports from SellerCentral
  • Dispose/Return unsellable and/or very old items as appropriate
  • Compile certain reports for my CPA
  • Petition Amazon to remove negative feedback
  • Set up advertising accounts for me on facebook and google
  • Set up my affiliate program with Amazon (embedding HTML into my blog, etc.)
  • Source images for my listings and size them properly

Q. Is it safe to turn over my passwords/credit cards/bank account/private information/Quickbooks/SellerCentral logins to my VA?

A. Yes and No.  It is always a risk to share private data with anyone, but I’ve had more trouble with assistants in the U.S. abusing my credit cards and financial data (three) over the years than overseas (zero). Trust is something built over time. Most professional companies bond their workers and provide some level of guarantee.  Amazon.com, my bank and Quickbooks allow me to set up special accounts for my assistant such that they have limited access/capabilities (can’t transfer money, for example). This gives me some control. They never know my login and can’t make admin-level changes like I can. I set up my bank account, etc., with all the different states myself. My assistant can file and pay my taxes but she can’t move money out of my bank account in any other way. That being said, I have a good relationship and a high degree of trust with my VA. I have given her my credit card number in the past to handle certain transactions for me.

Q. How do I pay my VA?

A.  With my first VA company, they took a draw from my bank account (like a subscription or car payment – I had a contract with them). Currently I use PayPal and, occasionally, Xoom.

Q. What are the pitfalls of working with a VA?

A. Obviously there are tasks you can’t assign to a VA like doing your filing, running errands or cleaning off your desk (sigh, I do miss that).  Also, since you are working with someone overseas there can be language and communication issues that can lead to mistakes and add time to projects in the beginning as you are learning to work together.  The onus is on you to be an extremely clear communicator.  If you’ve never managed people before, I don’t recommend a VA as your first experience in management. I’ve been managing teams of people virtually here in the U.S. since 1994 so the transition was easy for me.

Besides communication issues, there are cultural issues to consider. As a people, Filipinos tend to be shy and non-confrontational, for example. If you want an assistant that will give you feedback, make suggestions to help your business improve and generally learn from his/her mistakes, you need to create a safe environment for them to do so. They are more likely to take criticism to heart and be genuinely distressed if they displease you. This is another reason to take on the onus of clarity and communications. It keeps the relationship calm and productive if you say, “Oh, I see now that I was unclear with my directions previously. I meant to say….” rather than “you did it wrong! fix it!”  This is beyond simple diplomacy and tact – it also helps you get what you want done quickly. A distressed assistant can stay that way for a while which is bad all the way around. I have found with my assistant that I rarely have to say something twice. She catches on very quickly and remembers.

American culture and management style tends to be much more aggressive, brusque and blunt. This typical style will not work with a Filipino assistant. It doesn’t work all that well with American assistants, truth be told.

Others have struggled with getting their VA to understand what they want because they make assumptions and/or don’t know how to break out instructions in a logical way.  Also, inexperienced managers tend to lash out and blame others for problems and errors, which lead to poor results. If you can keep it firmly in mind that all communications issues are your responsibility, you’ll find working with a VA a good experience because you can work together to form a great team. Your patience and ability to learn from your own mistakes will lead to increased loyalty and productivity from your virtual partner.

Q. Is a VA an employee or a contractor? What are my tax reporting/payment obligations?

A. Most Virtual Assistants are employees or contractors of the VA company you hire.  There are no obligations on your part to report their salaries, etc. The VA company is a vendor to you.  In my case, my corporation contracts directly with my VA and was required to fill out additional (heinous!) paperwork for Uncle Sam proving that she is a foreign national and is meeting her tax obligations in her country.

Q. What country is best for hiring a VA?

A. I have worked with an Indian VA and several from the Philippines.  I prefer the Philippines. English is their national language so your VA will have excellent communication skills.  There is an accent, but it is easier to understand than an Indian accent, in my opinion. Every VA I have ever worked with from the Philippines was exceedingly polite, cheerful, helpful, accountable, professional and hard working. They are eager to learn and eager to please which is refreshing and much appreciated. I’ve hired assistants (employees and virtual) in the U.S. for over 25 years and I know talent when I find it.

Q. Can I work with your VA?

A. Maybe. With her team, she has the capacity to work with far more people than me. She has done a great job for other FBA sellers for whom I made a referral. She knows how to set up sales tax in different states, perform various tasks on Amazon.com, set up websites/blogs, use HTML, etc., and is a resourceful person that I like and trust. Because of this, I’m happy to make referrals to help her business grow. However, I don’t want to waste her time with non-serious inquiries and flaky people.

If you want a referral, please be sure that you can commit to a certain amount of time per week (at least 5 hours) and know what tasks you want done either on an ongoing basis or as a project (like setting up in different states for sales tax or redesigning your blog).

If you want to try a VA to see if the concept works for you, I suggest working with one of the many professional VA companies out there first. They spend time teaching you how to work with your VA to make the relationship productive on both sides. They also have many built-in reporting and accountability mechanisms so you always know what is happening on your account. It is a good way to test the waters and to get help managing your VA in the beginning.

Many people who read this blog are part-timers like me.  We look at the Amazon FBA program as a way to make good money in our limited time, but often struggle with the demands of our day jobs and family. Even full-time FBA-ers sometimes find themselves in the weeds dealing with distractions and tasks that take them away from their priorities. Last night the folks at ScannerMonkey invited me to speak to their group of FBA sellers about how to squeeze out the time to work this business.  If you missed the live interview, be sure to check out the video at the bottom of this blog post.  In addition, here is a summary of my seven-step approach to being more efficient in my business.  Do you have tips for how you are more efficient?  Please share in the comments below!

7 Steps to Create More Time for FBA

1.   Eliminate–something has to give

2.   Prioritize–you can’t do it all at once

3.   Focus–your most productive activities

4.   Leverage technology

5.   Organize your workspace

6.   Delegate ̶ minions, elves and virtual assistants

7.   Plan/Combine activities wherever and whenever you can

Eliminate ̶ Something has to give. You can’t add in FBA without taking something out. Here are some of the things I gave up to make time:

  • Nearly all of my networking and other professional groups
  • Cut back on time with my friends
  • Cut back on TV (I record everything now and binge-watch when/if I have time)
  • Making dinner every night.  My husband and son now help out and we eat lots more spaghetti than we ever did before.
  • Fancy meals (I’m an adventurous vegetarian) with lots of prep. My new approach to meal creation is “assume I’ll be tired.”
  • Saturdays/free weekends – there are many book sales, estate sales, etc., that only occur on the weekend. I take time every weekend for my family, but I also know I will be working part of the weekend.

Prioritize ̶ There is no way I can handle everything related to our business at once or even every week.  Since I only have limited time each week to work the business, I have to determine what I’m going to do with that time. Basically, I take care of my top two priorities and then fit in the others as I can over the course of a month. Here are my priorities:

1.   Sourcing and Shipping ̶ I follow Jon Groleau’s axiom to “Always be sourcing”

2.   Customer service ̶ keeping Amazon’s customers happy means I get to keep selling so if an issue pops up, I deal with it in less than 24 hours

3.   Sales tax (monthly ­ now delegated) ̶ talk about a time suck.  I’ve trained my virtual assistant to file and pay for me now. What a relief.

4.   Taxes (annually in March and August) ̶ I have a CPA but there are a lot of tax obligations for a C Corp. I extend my taxes so I can deal with them in the summer when both of us are more relaxed (me and my CPA).

5.   Education, learning, reading blogs, etc. ̶ I love reading books by other sellers and learning something new, but it is low on my list.  I just read Jon Groleau’s new book and recommend it for inspiration.  I don’t spend much time on facebook or other social media because I don’t have the time and I can get sucked in so easily.

6.   Reporting/Admin ̶ I hate this part of the business and do as little as I can get away with legally. I have a Neat scanner that helps me with receipts and online filing so I can reduce paper filing.  I have a terabyte drive that is backed-up real time. This saves me a lot of time and provides peace of mind. I record purchase price of my items in ScanPower (you can do this in InventoryLab, too, click for my recent blog post) as I go.

Focus ̶ What stores are most productive? Can I do a cluster of stores near each other? What types of items have the biggest margin and/or bang for my buck? What categories are best for me? What trade­offs am I willing to make? Some categories are steady and profitable but take more time to process ­ like grocery.  Books take time because when you have 300 books, you have 300 separate MSKUs most of the time. But they are high margin items with a cheap entry price. Collectible games are work, too, but can be extremely profitable. Over time I’ve determined for myself what kind of inventory works best for me in my timeframe. I do books, food, beauty, pets, appliances and some baby right now. I sell both new and used.

Leverage technology ̶ Good scouting and listing tools are a must.  You can hobble together a cheaper solution from Amazon and ProfitBandit, but when time is a priority, spend the money. It is worth it. I can’t imagine the additional hours I would have to spend scouting without my Scanfob and Scanpower Mobile solution or listing without a tool.  ScanPower List and InventoryLab are both good tools. I’m not as familiar with some of the others. You will eventually also need a repricer once your inventory gets to a certain size. Many of my readers start small with minimal investment which I completely understand – I did too – but I tell them to use their early sales to buy technology. Your business will expand much faster.

Packing centerOrganize ̶ It is worth the effort to get organized. Make it easy to assemble your boxes and clean up your inventory. Protect your supplies jealously and don’t let anyone use your stuff but you. I created a shipping center in my office with a magnetic peg board and organized polybag boxes so I could grab my supplies easily when I needed them.  You need scissors, tape guns, un­du, sharpie pens, poly bags, Scotty peelers, measuring tapes, packing paper, stickers (mine say “Heavy” and some have the suffocation warning on them) and boxes all within easy reach. Don’t let your supplies get buried underneath your inventory!

Delegate ̶ I now have minions (grumpy sons forced to help instead of texting friends), elves (my niece and nephew who think it is fun to help Aunt Cynthia, plus my very supportive husband) and a virtual assistant. They are all helpful.  I count on my VA for regular support.  She does a lot of the admin stuff like fixing my listings, repricing, HTML stuff on my blog and much more. I have a CPA who handles my bookkeeping (most of it is automated) and filing needs. I have a housekeeper who cleans and does laundry for us on Fridays. I paid Dell for unlimited tech support when I bought my laptop which has been awesome when I needed help and so affordable. If I could train my dog to do more than keep the kitchen floor clean…I would! I’m a big believer in delegation so you can focus on what matters.

Plan/Combine ̶ I set routes for myself and combine errands with scouting so I can maximize my time. Anyone stuck with me during these times…like my son…is put to work.  He’s actually very good at finding high value stuff.  He found a brand new scuba wetsuit at our local thrift store for $12.50 earlier this week.  They are normally fairly expensive. I make special trips into Fort Worth and the mid­-cities area when I have at least $500­$600 to spend on volume buys. Otherwise it is books, thrift and local stores for me. I also used to combine packing/shipping time with education time by listening to FBA Radio and ThatKat! podcasts while I processed inventory.  TV time with the family often includes de­-stickering and book sorting, or reading and watching or paying bills and watching…it is almost impossible for me to watch TV without doing something else (except Downton Abbey…that requires my full attention!).

I look ahead to book and other sales and plan them on my calendar. I use Frank Florence’s Book Sales Found service to help me find sales less likely to be filled with other scanners. It definitely makes a difference.  I’ll work both but being the only scanner at a sale is like shooting fish in a barrel, I fill my boxes much faster.  I figure out every week when I’m going to source. [I am an affiliate of BSF as well as a customer]

UPS comes to my house every Friday after 5:00 p.m.  This keeps me disciplined and focused on getting out a shipment every week which means I usually source on weekends and early in the week, process during the week and pack up on Friday before my son’s violin lesson.  If I don’t already have an inventory plan at the beginning of each week, I make one. While it is only $9 a week for UPS to come to my house, I hate to waste money.  Thursday nights are usually inventory prep nights at our house.

If you are finding it hard to find time for your business, hopefully one of these steps can help you create more time.  See my video with ScannerMonkey for more!