Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, April 24, 2015

Spam: It's What's for Breakfast

Following up last week's post about telephone spam got me thinking about traditional email spam. In the eight days since I last rebooted my laptop, my junk mail folder has accumulated 116 messages that slipped past the filters. GoDaddy and MDD Hosting, depending on the account, catch the most obvious crap. Messages then have to pass my Penis Rule, which drops any emails with words like "Dr. Oz", "Fox News", "mortgage", "pills", "GMO", "pharmacy", etc. in the subject line into the junk mail folder, to make it into my Inbox. ("Penis" was the first word I put on the list and the name stuck.)

I right-click on messages that survive that winnowing and add the sender to my blocked senders list, which is at least 1,000 addresses long and grows daily. Few spammers ever use the same return address twice, but it does block a few.

Most of my spam is vaguely business-related: ads for various i-Things, ads for Ess-Eee-Oh companies, and similar marketing crap. The next-biggest category is diet/weight loss and nutrition snake oil. Then there are a lot of links to conservative "news" articles and sites; I don't know how I ever got on that list since I'm a socialist. Miscellaneous sales pitches (insurance, investment services, office supplies, mortgages, etc.) comprise the next-largest category. You know you're old when wrinkle removers outnumber Russian brides and sex services. There are a few half-hearted phishing expeditions, but not a single Nigerian prince or Viagra ad. The server-level filters must be skimming those.

Spammers and pornographers must make a lot more money than I do for less work. Changing my business model has crossed my mind, but my pesky old-man ethics keep me on the straight and narrow. An ethical legitimate business must surely prevail in the end, right? Hah!  

Golf ball lady never came back, even after I threatened to raise the price of a dozen loose balls by $3. Oh well; as I said, 75% of these bulk inquiries never go anywhere.

I cracked open Wednesday's email to find that a $625 order for four dozen of Panther Vision's old 2-LED caps had come in overnight. Sadly, the order came from Germany. First of all, Panther won't dropship outside of the US, so I would have to pay $35 for inbound freight and then reship them myself. Second, Panther's price had gone up by 75 cents per cap since the last time I ordered, reducing my markup by another $36. Third, because the currency exchange inflated PayPal's usual cut, there was only $75 left after steering the customary 20% into payroll.  

The USPS delivered the coup de grace. Germany and Italy are the only two countries in the world that strictly prohibit shipping all lithium batteries (everyone else accepts batteries that are installed in products). The customer understandably pulled the plug when I offered to ship the caps sans batteries, but without any price reduction due to the already-high cost of filling her order.

And here we see why my payment processing costs have tumbled under the PayPal regime. A normal credit card processor would have charged me a transaction fee, a percentage, and an exchange surcharge amounting to perhaps $40 altogether. Then they would have hit me for the same amount when I submitted the refund; I'd have been out $80 for nothing. PayPal, OTOH, refunded all but 30 cents of their original fee with no additional charges.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

Telephone Spam

I've never been a telephone yakker. The family telephone was a business tool for my salesman father, and off limits to children. Calls were kept short and direct when I had to make them at all; calling people "just to talk" (as if I would ever want to do that) was forbidden outright. I've always hated the intrusive and obnoxious nature of telephone intruders so I was happy when the eventual invention of answering machines meant that I never had to answer the telephone again. If it's important, leave a message; if it's not, just go away. (Hint: It's almost never important.)

Fifty years later, my telephone is still primarily a business tool. I didn't mind sharing my business number with my personal phone when I had an old flip cell phone because I never make or answer personal phone calls, and the phone always stayed tethered to my desk as if it were a landline. That changed when I got my first smartphone last spring. The allure of having the internet and my music collection in my pocket (and my wife's expectation of prompt replies to her text messages) has gradually led me to start carrying my phone around with me, making the spammers and scammers harder to ignore. 

Telemarketers send the noise-to-signal ratio so high that at least 75% of incoming calls are garbage. Like everyone else, I ignore calls from 800 and 888 exchanges and "restricted" numbers, so most salespeople are savvy enough to hide behind innocent-looking phone numbers. When I see an unfamiliar one, I google it to see if it's been reported for abuse. If it has been, I add the number to either my Scammer or Dickhead contact, depending on whether the abuser looks more like a crook or a telemarketer. If the number doesn't have any registered complaints and the caller tries a second time, I have to answer it; maybe half of these calls turn out to be customers. Real customers usually leave a voicemail message, and I return those promptly and politely.

Do I have a point? Actually, no: I've probably written about this before. I just wanted to blow off some steam about telephone spam overwhelming legitimate business. At least email spam is easy to filter and ignore.


Bird Kite Lady finally disappeared entirely with her phantom $1,000. This week I struck up a new dance with a Golf Ball Lady who asked about ordering eight dozen loose balls. I invited her to call me.    

Friday, April 10, 2015

Bobbing the Long Tail

An old retail chestnut says that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your merchandise. That's the "short head." The underperforming 80% is called the "long tail." Most of Curio City's sales come from bird kites, Switchables, and lighted caps, with honorable mention going to golf balls in the summer and Metal Earth during the Christmas season. Pretty much everything else makes up the long tail.

That usually consists of products that either failed to achieve stardom or unexpectedly fell from grace after a rock-star start (like purse hooks and microwave bags). But sometimes I intentionally fill the tail. For example, nothing in my kitchen or office categories has bestseller potential, but those departments pull their weight if I fill them with enough products. I typically bring in six pieces of something and break even if I sell three of them at full retail. Things that succeed might come back next Christmas, or they might be one-shot wonders. Things that disappoint gradually get marked down to cost or lower. This is where the tail starts to drag.

Problems arise when the tail gets too long. After nearly 10 years in business, my cellar is full of miscalculations that won't sell at any price. Thousands of dollars are locked up in dead merchandise. I write off a few hundred bucks worth of the worst dogs each year to free up space and streamline my store, but that doesn't liberate those dollars; in fact, it's like setting them afire. The only dubious financial benefit is to reduce my profit, and hence the income tax that I personally owe on my K-1 income.

It makes me happy, then, when people buy dead products. Even if they only pay a fraction of the original cost, they're freeing up a few bucks that I would have otherwise had to burn someday.  

That happened multiple times last week. I unexpectedly sold maybe $50 worth of stuff that I'd given up on completely. For example, I had sold only one set of Salt + Power in five years; this week I finally sold a second one (at cost). Same deal with Lit! candles, although those are below cost. Granted, lopping a couple of inches off a 40-foot tail doesn't change very much, but selling anything that I have no intention of reordering is like free money.  


Speaking of cash flow, Bird Kite Lady came back again on Monday with "So sorry can you extend one more time! Ordering tomorrow! Thanks!" All those exclamation points must mean that she's sincere, so I immediately extended her free shipping coupon code again. Well, friends, it's Friday again. Bird Kite Lady has now promised imminent orders three times since she first contacted me more than a month ago. I don't know what her game is -- maybe her cash flow is as iffy as mine, or maybe she needs cooperation from a recalcitrant boss, or maybe she's a sadist. 

I sent one last message telling her that her coupon is good through April 20 and heard the expected crickets in response. I'm not going to contact her again. Either she'll give me $1,000 or she won't.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

A World of Crap

The Boston Gift Show is still the Cavalcade of Crap. I dismiss the first two aisles (souvenirs) and the last two aisles (jewelry and crafts) sight-unseen. The rest of it is the same old vendors in the same locations selling new variations on the same old junk year after year. My chore is to find exceptions.

That took less than an hour. The Unemployed Philosophers Guild was there for the first time. I've bought personal gifts from them before, and some of their novelty kitsch would tie into other Curio City products, so I started to get worked up until their rep told me that they won't sell to online stores. That makes sense, since the UPG is itself an online store; why would they want me competing with them? Oh well. 

After eliminating the mainstream aisles I decided to give the crafts aisle a once-through because I couldn't justify calling it quits after just 45 minutes. The drawback to hand-made products is their lack of standardization. I can only tolerate minor variations from one piece to the next when people can't see each one, so crafts have to get over a high bar. One woman was selling fused glass clocks that would benefit from Switchables spillover (I'm always keen on products that can piggyback on existing advertising). But the lack of packaging killed it. Glass breaks in transit without proper boxes, and the artist wasn't interested in online sales. She wouldn't be sitting in a booth at that pathetic little gift show if she were making a good living selling to old-fashioned gift shops...but whatever. Her loss.  

To prevent a strikeout I looped back to a tiny booth that was showing two decks of Bicycle playing cards with Celtic art designs. I already do fairly well with Irish-themed Switchables and golf balls, and my Games category needs a shot in the arm. Since nobody is undercutting the price online yet it looks like a safe bet with small stakes. Selling 24 pieces a year at $12 apiece is my most optimistic expectation, so it's not likely to bring in more than a few hundred bucks at best. I'd need another dozen comparable products to noticeably move the needle.    

So I spent two hours commuting in order to waste an hour at a show where I met two people who didn't want my business, and wishlisted one minor new product. On the plus side, I used my wife's T pass and I got home in time for lunch, so at least I didn't have to spend any money. All I lost was my time and that has no monetary value. 


After telling me last week that she would order on Monday, the $1,000 kite lady fell silent, then cropped up again on Tuesday to promise her order by Thursday "at latest." It's Friday. I had to carry a Mastercard balance again, although I did whittle it in half by taking my CPA's fee out of the lockbox. I just paid $185 to renew my UPS Store address. Some damned thing always keeps me from getting ahead. Business was very poor this week, probably due to Easter and school vacation weeks, and I got three returns: One authorized, one unauthorized, and one purely out of the blue. 

Even if Kite Lady still comes through, $1,000 doesn't help as much as you'd think. 60% of it goes to pay for the merchandise and the free shipping that I offered. 20% goes to my paycheck -- Yay me, sure, but not so hot for my company. PayPal will scalp about 3% off the top. The $170 that's left isn't even enough to pay for my UPS box. And yeah, this is sour grapes; I do need the $1,000. 

My best shot at improving sales, the long-anticipated Metal Earth buildout, can't happen until late May at the earliest, and more likely the end of June. By then the customers disappear and I go dormant until Christmas revs up in September. 

I shouldn't even buy those playing cards, but what the hell.   

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