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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Up for Auction: Classic Sweden with Varieties and Better Cancels

It's stamp auction time again, and this week the focus is on older Swedish stamps, including varieties and better town cancels.

Scarce shade of 6ö grey
The Swedish "ringtyp" (or "circle type") stamps of 1872-1891 happen to be one of my areas of specialization-- I collect both plate flaws as well as nicer town cancels on these classic issues. This week I am letting go of a number of duplicates.

All items listed start bidding at just 99 cents, and there is NO reserve... regardless of the stamp's value. Some of these items are quite good, including such stamps as this genuine deep blue-gray 6 öre perf. 14-- the scarcest of the grey shades of this stamp, with a catalogue value of 1000:- Swedish kr. in the Facit catalogue. There are also some nice stamps from the "Arms" (Vapentyp) series.

There are at least a dozen listings featuring plate flaws on these classic stamps-- making this a nice group for the specialist.

This auction series also includes some nice town cancels from Sweden-- currently one of the most popular specialties within Swedish philately.

Bidding remains open till Sunday afternoon, August 12th, so I hope you'll go take a look. Since everything is listed with a low starting bid, there's always a good chance to find some bargains!

A nice WADSTENA cancel
Thanks for your interest!

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Is eBay Making Itself Obsolete for Stamp Sellers?

Yesterday, I got a notice from eBay, explaining that my "seller performance" wasn't up to snuff. As as result-- I learned-- a number of restrictions had been placed on my selling account. As a point of reference, I am a 14-year "veteran" of eBay, and have a 100% positive feedback rating.

Now, it's no secret that eBay often is the source of controversy among hobbyists (like me) and stamp dealers who sell stamps on the mega-auction site. In the course of the last 10-odd years, eBay has developed from a rather interesting "online collectibles mart and garage sale" to something akin to yet another colorless "Online Mega-mall."

That's just personal opinion, of course.

In spite of complaints and occasional collective whining, many stamp sellers have stuck it out with eBay, even though the fees are somewhat high and there are lots of "rules" that frequently make it difficult for stamp sellers to operate. But they still stick to it. I would count myself among those. Why? Because eBay works!

Here's the thing, you can go to an "eBay alt" site and pay "no fees" and end up selling three items a month (if you're lucky!) or you can sell on eBay and pay 30% overhead to sell 100 items a month. Simple math: You made $30 on the "alt" site but PAID NO FEES!!! (to be said with a combination of smugness and pride) or you made $700 on eBay paying $300 worth of fees... to me, that's a no-brainer. Being "offended by fees" is-- in essence-- just another variation of "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

Again, that's just personal opinion, albeit backed up with experience.

My background is in business management (among other things) and ecommerce. If you run any semblance of "a business," you go where you can make the money. And making money isn't about having things "FOR sale," it's about actually "SELLING" them. A lot of the people in what I dub the "No Fees Club" take a rather myopic view of selling expenses, somehow turning the avoidance of them into the single most important aspect of "success." Then they tend to point fingers at those who say "But I'm not actually SELLING anything!" (on some eBay alternative site) and actually blame the lack of sales on them for not lowering their prices since they are "not paying fees."

Ultimately, "lowering prices" is the single weakest marketing and business development strategy in the world. Let's face it-- if you lower your prices by 30% because you are no longer paying 30% overhead... but you only make 1/3 as many sales... you end up allowing yourself to be far WORSE off than you we're before. Get real!

But getting back to eBay's most recent changes, there's now a certain element of doom on the horizon, when it comes to being a stamp seller. And it's not that eBay is on some kind of vendetta against stamp sellers, it's just that we who trade stamps happen to have a product that doesn't fit eBay's new "general" policy.

This stamp can be purchased for $6.00 in my eBay shop.
75c shipping is fair, but would you pay an extra $3.00 to get it?
Here's how things have typically worked out for me, in my prior dealings on eBay: When I sell a random $8.00 stamp, it goes into a first class envelope and I have historically charged US $0.75 for shipping to buyers in the US, $1.95 to buyers elsewhere. That covers the cost of a 2-ounce (up to 60g) letter and supplies-- an envelope, a cardboard insert to protect the stamp(s), a glassine for each stamp. I'm not here to make money on shipping.

Problem number 1: In order to comply with eBay's new guidelines to be a "top rated seller," I must upload "tracking information" within 24 hours of shipment. Here's the problem: you can't have tracking information on a normal letter. In order to get that additional service, the package (containing my $8.00 stamp) would have to be shipped as a "first class parcel." So now the cost to mail is $1.95 for postage + $0.85 for trackable delivery, for a total of $2.80. What's more, I can no longer use a plain envelope to mail (cost $0.02), I have to use either a "photo mailer" or a padded envelope (cost $0.25 each, even in bulk). So... my effective cost to mail a stamp would go from slightly under $0.75 to $3.05, in order to follow the new guidelines.

Problem number 2: Stamp collectors... collect stamps. It would be possible for me to make shipping less expensive by using an online shipping service, through which the USPS offers reduced priced shipping and free (or very low cost) tracking. However, that would mean using a pre-printed and encoded paper label as postage, rather than stamps. Pretty boring, for a stamp collector-- especially given how many buyers write to me (with their payment) to say "please use current commemorative stamps on your mailing." Thus following the one avenue to savings would potentially hurt my reputation, as a seller.

Problem number 3: Even IF I were to follow eBay's guidelines to obtain "top rated seller status," I would promptly lose it. Why? Let's face it, stamp collectors are pretty "thrifty" folks. And in the "detailed seller ratings" on eBay, there's one "grade" you give sellers for "reasonable shipping costs?" If I am charging $3.05 to send an $8.00 stamp it would not be long before I'd get sufficient "low seller ratings" (because $3.05 IS expensive, to ship one stamp) to no longer be in line with "top seller" requirements... and then I'd be right back to square one.

Problem number 4: This one is particularly important! When you are not a "top rated seller," there are limitations placed on your seller account (as I just discovered), as to how many items you can list, how much you can sell (dollar wise) and how long it takes for funds from PayPal to be "released" to you. Ironically-- the delay of payment is actually being caused by the lack of tracking information-- the very requirement that's causing the "failure," in the first place. In other words, if I decide-- and even if my (and other stamps sellers') buyers agree-- that being a top rated seller is "not important" to me, I am also agreeing to the following "penalties" or "sanctions," if you will: (a) I no longer qualify for a 20% discount on my selling fees, (b) I will only be permitted to offer a fairly low number of stamps for sale, per month, (c) in case I thought to by-pass "b" by offering high value stamps, I am only permitted a limited dollar volume per month and (d) because my seller performance doesn't meet eBay's standards, I will no longer have immediate access to PayPal payments made to me. Now IF I were uploading aforementioned "tracking information" that delay would be only a few days... but since I am a stamp seller, and we've agreed that tracking information doesn't really "work" in this field, the PayPal delay will be three weeks!

I've been selling on eBay for a LONG time... and my buyers seem to
be fairly happy with the way I treat them.
I'll state, once more, that I have no individual beef with eBay, as a marketplace. But I do feel saddened by the fact that the "product" offered by stamp sellers is-- for lack of a better term-- "incompatible" with selling on the "new" eBay. As a long-time eBay fan with a good reputation as as seller, I feel like I am coming up against a "no-win" situation.

There are plenty of rumors in the stamp trade that eBay is "out to get us," prompting the question: "Is eBay trying to 'get rid of' stamp sellers?" Doubtful. Sound like "conspiracy theory" thinking, to me. As of this morning, there were approximately 2.37 MILLION listings across eBay's various stamps categories. If you're a publicly traded corporation who has to keep shareholders happy, would you be likely to "dump" one of the largest categories on the site? Probably not. It's more likely an issue of eBay management simply not understanding that not all products are sold the same way... and the people in the boardroom being so far removed from the "street level operations" that they don't see any logistical issues with a "one size fits all (sellers)" approach.

The challenge-- and problem-- facing stamp sellers is that there really is no "viable alternative" to eBay, if this somewhat hostile selling environment persists. Sure, dozens of people will read that last sentence and insist that they "do well" on any number of other sites. However, a closer examination of all these alternatives (simply done by looking at the percentage of "closed" listings that ended with a sale, and the number of listings "with bids" as a percentage of total listings) will reveal that "eBay alts" are LUCKY to have a sell-through rate between 5% at the top end (Delcampe and Stamps2Go) and down to less than 1% for most... compared to eBay's 30-40% sell-through rate. From a personal perspective, when I run stamp auctions on eBay, my sell-through rate has been in the range of 90-95%. Meanwhile my "alt site" efforts have mainly resulted in private messages asking things like "Will you take $2 for that stamp you've listed for $8?"

I don't expect eBay to suddenly "see the light" and institute lower fees for the benefit of stamp sellers, and that's not my point, in writing this article. It's not the fees I have a beef, it's the limitations placed on sellers. What I would hope for-- against the flow, no doubt-- is a chance to be able to conduct my business in peace, the way business in my "industry" normally is conducted. I accept that I may not be able to be a "top rated" seller, but I'd like the opportunity to not have "the system" automatically relegate me to "below standard," with the attendant limitations on my selling activities.

Bottom line: Individual sellers are NOT "Wal-Mart." Individual sellers are what add interest and uniqueness to a marketplace. And, ironically enough, eBay was BUILT on individual sellers... there would be no eBay, were it not for the thousands of individual sellers who sold their "stuff" and collectibles, back in the 1990's.

So is there a "win/win" solution in all this?

Perhaps. One option might be to force ALL eBay sellers to include a "weight" entry with all their listings. For stamps, sports cards and the like, that would be a fraction of an ounce. Subsequently, any parcels below a certain weight-- say 4 ounces-- could be made exempt from the tracking requirement, thus taking most stamp sellers "out of the loop" while still leaving the tracking requirement intact where it is "relevant," namely for larger packages. The beauty of this approach is that it doesn't try to "play favorites" with stamp sellers, it addresses a broader issue that items shipped in an ordinary first-class letter can't purchase tracking.

Another and perhaps more feasible solution-- given the existing eBay interface and the way pages are coded and linked to both PayPal and shipping services (UPS/USPS/FedEx, etc) is to simply add "First Class LETTER" as a shipping method, when items are listed. If you (as a seller) choose that as "how this item will ship" it will automatically "filter through the system" from the USPS site that the shipment in this particular sale can't be tracked... and if something was shipped "first class letter" there will be no place to enter "tracking information." Subsequently (to the benefit of sellers who sell "mixed goods") only "trackable" transactions would count towards a given seller's "top rated seller" status. So... if I sell 500 stamps and 50 stockbooks... I would still have to upload tracking info for the 50 stockbooks... but I wouldn't be penalized for NOT doing so, with the 500 stamps. The 500 stamps would be "non-counting transactions."

Another alternative would be to have "business" and "individual" class sellers on eBay, where an "individual" is subject to less stringent rules than a "business." They could be delineated by a number of transactions or dollar volume per year. That method would be somewhat harder to implement, however, and would make less "sense" in terms of WHY we use tracking information for packages.

Of course, that's not an easy "sell," as eBay has made itself a major stakeholder in the shipping business, by charging final value fees on shipping. But sometimes you have to look beyond the immediately obvious and consider the longer term benefits.

I hope you have learned something from reading this commentary, or-- at least-- it made you pause and think. If you are a stamp (or other) seller on eBay and you can see the inherent in eBay's new guidelines, please take a moment to tweet this article, or post it to your Facebook page, or google+ it, or post to your newsgroup, or stamp collecting forums. As you probably know, NOTHING happens unless there's awareness. And there can be no awareness, unless people spread the word. And remember, this also affects you if you're only a BUYER of stamps on eBay-- if the dealers leave, so do the stamps!

So spread the word!