Monday, June 1, 2015

Selling Vintage Online is not the Money Making Stream You Hope it Is

Dear eBay/Etsy buyer: your seller isn't making any money.

It may appear like they are swindling you--paying only .50 cents for a pony and selling it for $20, but I assure you, they are not. They are either in the heady love of a newfound hobby, don't understand accounting and scaling models, or (like me) they enjoy it. But rest assured: they aren't making money.

I have wanted to write about this topic for a long time. I think it's an important point for all collectors to grasp, especially if they are not thrift/garage sale people and buy online exclusively. Some tend to feel ripped off when they learn a seller purchased an item for so cheap. Trying to get the best deal possible, they negotiate free shipping, bulk discounts, etc, because "Hey, that seller for it practically for free, right?" They, at times, complain about slow shipping, packaging materials and imperfections even if they've only spent $20 or less on their item. In other words: they expect the very best for very little.

I know this because I'm a buyer, and a very informed buyer. I spot hidden gems. I snipe. The idea: get it cheap, get it quality. I frequently succeed.

But I'm also a seller and have felt the flip side of this issue. I have had buyers try to negotiate a $10 item down to $5, effectively wasting my time. I have had people complain about slow shipping after they refused to pay for priority and opted for media mail. I have taken hundreds of additional pictures to assure are picky collector that the item is what they want. I have been scammed with international mail fraud chargebacks more time than I can count. Once, over $1000 worth of packages were stolen from my porch.

I don't generally mind the issues that come with day to day selling. Antique and vintage toys are very additive to my life. In other words, when I've had a hard day doing other things and being adult, I love visiting my cute storage unit where all my inventory is. I also love going to thrift stores and finding the items. It's just plain fun. It's plus-one for me and my emotional health.

But, I worked for years as an accountant and I know the grim truth: I am not making any money. During tax season this tends to be most evident. After adding up all the expenses such as storage unit costs, gasoline, inventory acquisition, postage costs, supply costs, fees, etc. I find I have traded 20+ hours a week for a measly $60 in profit.

Read: that's $3 per hour.

Unfortunately, many small shop owners, especially those who sell online, don't understand basic accounting principles don't get that they aren't making money. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, they don't take into account their own value as a moneymaking entity. If they can make $30 an hour answering phones, but only three dollars an hour selling vintage, that's a net negative -$27. They are, in effect, losing potential dollars simply by working for less.

But some people don't want to work answering phones and would rather make three dollars an hour doing what they love. I get that. The next truth is that they don't understand tax law. I have found that many fail to even file a schedule C or incorporate their business. The sheer labor of tracking profit of a $1 item, let alone $1,000 one-dollar items, is far too arduous and labor intensive in QuickBooks or any other accounting software. They literally don't have the resources to file proper taxes or keep detailed, so they just don't. Without these numbers, they can never be sure they are making anything, and I have found that they would rather not know. Moreover, they don't keep track of important incidental costs like fuel, utilities and payment gateway fees. It's overwhelming, so best ignore it! Besides, didn't they just sell a $.50 item for $30? Shortly, there's a huge room for profit in there?

I felt this way too. I thought that if I just kept trying it would eventually pay off. When I began to deal in bulk, I started hiring people to help. I hired a photographer, a lister, even a shipper, a bookkeepe. The idea was the more time I had, the more inventory I could find, the more I could sell. My per hour rate went up because of the bulk I was able to sell but I was also pressured to buy more. More items turned into a heftier storage unit cost and heartier budget for inventory acquisition. Rising costs equaled lower profits even in bulk.

But why not find ways to lower costs? Why not keep the inventory at home to save on storage unit costs, for instance? 

I experimented with this too. In fact, I kept my inventory in all sorts of places over the years. Garage, living room, basement, office, outside storage shed, under my bed. In one answer: It is too chaotic. Plus, if you think about it, keeping items at your house isn't free either. Take the square foot total of your home and the square foot total of the space your online inventory takes up and divide your house payment by that. It isn't free. Also, having guests come over and look at your vintage toy room can really damage your adult reputation. I have yet to meet another adult that believes scouring garage sales is a healthy use of my time or that other people buy these old things. 

But they do. I make many sales per week. Some weeks, I make hundreds of sales on various channels. At times, I am overwhelmed with orders.

So with all that cash coming in, how can I say that I'm not making money? What am I doing wrong?

The answer is nothing. I am running as an efficient an online business as possible. The real problem is that vintage retail is an inherently flawed business model. After doing this for 15 years I have noticed two important truths that clue us into the reason these businesses are flawed.

First, no one has ever met a rich antique dealer. The few wealthy dealers I know where wealthy before they became dealers. They are able to continue to be dealers because they have family money. This is true for upscale store fronts. There are several here in Utah. Their items are very expensive and very unique, justifying the price. But, I have kept careful track of their inventory. Items sit on the shelf for years. All the while, the wealthy family money playboys get to shop for new inventory and chat with other people all day. When they do make a sale, the sale is huge. But, not enough to pay for the acquisition of new inventory and overhead. These playboys are not making any cash.

Contrast that with a few of the dot-commers I've met in my neighborhood. They started from nothing and are now multi-millionaires and they became so in less than a decade by starting businesses online. Why they succeeded while us online vintage sellers have failed?

The answer (and the second thing I've noticed in 15 years of dealing) is that antique businesses cannot scale and therefore cannot turn huge profits.

The dot-commers invent a service or a widget that they can manufacture in huge quantities. They market that one widget for that one service. They hire people to improve and maintain the service. They hire people to market the service. They acquire funding from venture capitalists. There one service makes their business highly scalable. Once they've built a fort they can keep the whole city safe. Once they build the big fort, we can keep the whole country safe.

They also eventually sell the business to a larger corporate entity for millions of dollars so they can free up their time to do it all over again. Scaling makes it possible.

I have experimented with scaling in every respect. I can justifiably say that I have exhausted all prospects. I have tried selling in bulk, hiring cheap labor, buying large collections. I have tried selling on personal websites to cut down on third-party fees, I have tried bulk discount at the post office to cut down on shipping. I have tried selling consignment. I have tried antique mall booths. I have tried selling super cheap. I have even tried selling digital vintage images that have passed the copyright date.

Each of these avenues significantly improved the metric it was trying to improve but because each item is unique and therefore needs to be treated uniquely, and because the need for acquisition funds scale up as my business scales up (you have to stock your shop with new items regularly in order to sell old items) the overhead again dominates profit.

Ultimately, selling antiques is selling in the retail market. Retail is notoriously turbulent. You have to guess what your buyers want and often times, more often than not, you guess wrong and the item that you bought hoping to make a huge profit on has to be sold at a loss. Times this by 10,000 items over the course of the year and you can start seeing why it becomes difficult to turn a profit.

But even regular retail stores have scalability. Ever been to Claire's? Every Claire's across the country is exactly the same. They are selling the same sparkly scarf that they bought in bulk discount from a retail manufacturer. That is a form of scaling that can reach huge amount of people and reap huge profits.

That's impossible with vintage. At times, I have purchased old store stock and have had five or six of the same item. But I've never had more than that. The opportunities to buy in bulk are rare.

For these reasons you see secondhand shops open all over the place and then close very soon after. In the real world, not online, I can usually predict with fairly good accuracy when a vintage store will close. It's usually at the two-year mark. A few of my favorites, where inventory was very cheap, have disappeared. Friends have left the country after these businesses fail, donating all those tough-to-sell bits back to the thrift stores from whence they came for another hopeful to buy them up and start the process all over again.


I have grown to look at vintage/antique dealing like the arts. A writer or a painter is almost never paid for their work. If they are paid, they are certainly not paid in proportion to the work they have done. Many of them struggle over lifetimes to sell a single manuscript or painting. Sure, there are the superstars that become instant millionaires that those are so rare as to almost be mythical. It's about as rare as finding Elvis' hairpiece in an old shoe box your grandmother gave you. Boom, instant thousandaire. It's happened before, but it's rare.

The antique dealer and the writer and the artist don't necessarily do it for money. Many times they do it because it renews them. They do it for love.

So next time you pay $21.99 for an item on eBay and the shipping is $10, think of all the time and money that it took to get you that special item. That seller went out into the world for you, fought off the other dealers at the thrift stores and garage sales for you. They took pictures and cleaned the item for you. They put it in a box with your name on it. 

You are willing to pay $31.99 for a good steak, why not pay for something that will last longer? Why not pay for somebody else's (and your own) passion?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Chernobyl Strawberry Shortcake House

I am trying out a new iPhone blogging app. This is because I'm hardly ever at my computer. I'm usually at my storage unit with over 10,000 different toys.

I like to quickly share with you my interesting find today. The Berry Happy Home! This is the first time I have ever found one while thrifting. That's saying a lot for somebody who's been doing this for 20 years.

I was already having a really good thrifting day. I found a My Pretty Pony (one of the first my little ponies).

Then I found several bags of 80's toys including Sea Wees and Petite Ponies. I turned the corner and found three Care Bear stuffed animals from the 80s which I promptly snatched up.

Then, amid all of the wreckage of children's play sets there sat the Berry Happy Home!

Unfortunately, it looked like he been through some sort of terrible disaster. Therefore, I have dubbed it the Chernobyl House.

It's base is broken in several places, the stickers are wrinkled and some of them are missing, the plastic is yellowing. But...BUT it only cost me $3.10!!

Worth it? Maybe.

I could attempt to restore it since I don't currently have a Berry Happy Home and would really like one but what I will probably do is strip it for parts, clean the reusable ones and sell those in my store to save up for one and more mint condition.

Poor gross little thing!

Incidentally I have found something to be true. When you are at a thrift store and you find something from the 1980s it is about 90% more likely that you will find another thing from the 1980's. For that reason, when I find one object I look very closely for the items that got donated along with it, and usually I score!

I hired a nice gal to help me list over 1,000 toys this summer. Its going to take a lot of work but we are already part way done. She kept asking me if toys were really worth anything. I gently explained to her that people enjoy preserving pieces of their childhood. It makes them feel happy. She didn't get it.

Not many people do.

Which is probably why no one else wanted to by the Chernobyl house?

Did you find anything recently?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How to Connect With Me + Thoughts on New Toys

Plum Loves You

Wow! What a fun week for toy collecting!

I hauled like 20 boxes from my storage unit filled with toys. I'm going to start listing some of my doubles on Etsy as I have time. Toy and antique selling is a great side gig and super fun to boot! I promised myself that I wouldn't go thrifting until I list at least half the boxes, which is like 500 items. I'm not kidding. Its nuts! Luckily, my semester is almost over so I will have time to do this over the summer.

There are literally 200+ My Little Pony (Vintage, and G3) to go through. The rest are random 80's miscellany! My daughter (9) is going to help me comb out some of the hair. I swear, pony hair is a tyrant!

Did a lot of work this week on setting up some online profiles. Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, oh my!  If you want to connect with me on any of the following places to see pictures and share information about toys, please do!

ETSY - The Pink Room

I don't want to get super sales-y on this blog. I am doing it for fun, not as a money thing. But when I share finds, 90% of the time they will materialize in my Etsy store. This is because I am really strict about how many toys I will allow myself to keep. I make myself earn them through hard work. So finding something, even if I don't own one already, doesn't mean I get to keep it. I use toys as a motivation to get other things (like school, art, tough projects) done. If one can turn obsessions into positive, healthy things, then one has won.


I discovered that Instagram is a great place to meet other 80's/90's toy lovers!  Within about a day I had made some bffl's and gorged myself on pics of other people's hauls. Lots of fun! I also have a nasty habit of liking about 500 photos a day. I can't be helped.


I'm mainly going to set Twitter on auto. I have ifttt uploading new Etsy and Instagram pics and I will Tweet when I have a new blog post. I'm not a huge tweeter but lots of people use Twitter so I thought I would create a feed there in case any of you are super active on that!


I'm currently using Pinterest to hoard rare item photos, to keep track of my collections and to just generally waste a lot of time liking and repinning 80's toys!

Okay, now that's all out of the way!

Aren't we all just super jazzed to see these guys in stores again:

I LOVE that they are using the old molds! Some other toy lovers believe this destroys the value of the old toys but I don't believe that to be true. Look at Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Ponies and Care Bears. Each of those had re-releases where they used the exact molds from the 80's and nothing happened to the value of the originals.

The way I see it, re-releases puts old toys in new hands and helps the value increase over time.

Popcorn is my favorite of all of them. On Saturday I went to Toys R Us and bought both these cuties. I plan to give them to my niece.

(Incidentally, just now as I was typing up this post, a deer came to visit outside my window. I posted the pic on Instagram. My office is in the basement and my computer is just in front of my window. I live near the mountains so wildlife is a regular occurrence!)

While at Toys R Us I also saw some cute new toys called Moonbeams. They are transparent, light-up creatures with little houses and vehicles. They reminded me of the transparent Charmkins I just blogged about. I am not sure if they will take off though. There seems to be something of a lack of consistency when it comes to their cuteness. Some are really strange-looking, others are adorable. Also, there have been some complaints online that they are made of hard plastic and they break easily.

Finally, I saw some other toys that reminded me of various 90's toys I used to drool over. Soft Spots! They are little PVC collectable dogs that resemble Blues Clues characters. They also bring to mind the animal versions of Magic Diaper Babies. They have five-pack sets as well as blind bags and a few playsets. I really think they are cute. Not sure if they have lasting power though. I would love to see kittens and bunnies and other animals added to the mix.

Did you see a new toy that reminds you of the 80s/90s recently? Do you follow a newer line of toys you adore? What do you think about re-releases? Go ahead and share in the comments section!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Greek Charmkins Alert!

Back to business!

I get excited about international versions of our favorite American toys. First of all, they are hard to come by. Second of all, they are sometimes difficult to get here to America. Third of all, they are almost always WEIRD!

Case in point:

I came across Greek Charmkins the other day and boy are they strange.

Why are they transparent? Why are they simply painted? Here's my guess:

1 - They are either knockoffs made after the machinery molds were sold off by Hasbro. This has happened a lot in the vintage toy industry. Companies cancel production on certain lines and so they unload machinery off their books by selling them to a lesser company.

2 - El Greco (an Italian/Spanish/Greek toy manufacturer) purchased the rights to sell these in those aforenamed countries but decided to do it on the cheap, eliminating the paint process. Remember, Italy especially has extremely strict import/export laws. Most toys have to be manufactured in Italy to be sold in Italy. I am not sure if this is the same with Greece and Spain but it makes sense that toys that got manufactured in Italy would be exported to these neighboring countries.

We won't know until someone finds one MIP, my guess is that #1 is true. I believe this because often when molds are re-sold a contingency is they have to remove identifying brand characteristics (example: the hearts on Care Bears bums had to be removed when the molds were sold for Angelorso bears).

I actually bought several Greek Charmkins and when I get them I will let you know what I find out!

Incidentally, I spent a month in Italy last summer and looked HARD for 80's toys. But not hard enough! I didn't find anything. Well, in Florence I found this crazy junk shop and located some Oodles, but didn't buy them. I couldn't speak Italian so it was hard to ask the lady who owned it if she had any 80's toys. But I did visit a lot of regular toy stores!

In front of a Toy Store in Sirimione, Italy. It had been raining hard all day!

I went around and tried to find more Greek Charmkin pics on the web and ended up finding a few. I started a pinterest board for them. It's going to be fun to collect variations of Charmkins over time.

PS - It's fun to be back to blogging!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Holy Cow! What's This? Angel is BACK? After . . . what? Four Years?

Hello folks.

I know this is weird to abandon a blog for four straight years and then come back as if nothing happened but what can I say? I am back.

Here's what happened:

- Job Loss
- Death
- Cancer
- Divorce

All this is true. I suffered the loss of three dear people. One to suicide, one to cancer, one to a stroke. Then I myself got diagnosed with cancer--which I am in treatment for. I am only 34. Somewhere in the mix I lost my job and my marriage.

In other words, the world of ADULTS rushed in and took over my life. I started to hang around different people. People who made it very clear that being "child-like" isn't cool. The opinions of these people severely affected my inner sense of self. Death and cancer made me feel existentially confused and, frankly, I had no idea what to think about life in general. Did anything matter? Was I important? If I die, what would my life have meant? I went on to study the meaning of life and God and all that. I filled my head full of philosophical erudite junk. I had to know what it was all about.

When you are studying the big questions it is really hard to goof around with toys. Everything went into storage. To pay for a surgery that I didn't have the insurance coverage for, I sold off a large part of my collection.

Things were bad for awhile. Over time I felt I was slipping farther and farther away from who I really was and becoming this orphan-thing. No longer was I light-hearted, goofy and passionate.

But time has this amazing way of bringing us back to ourselves. In time, I ditched all those people who thought my child-like self was shameful. In time I began to slowly started to come back. With the help of good people along the way, I remembered.

Fast forward to today. Things are not only good for me again, they are FAR BETTER than they were when I started this blog. My cancer looks to be in remission, I am in school, I am with the perfect man and I have brought what's left of my toys out of storage.

When I opened the boxes of my old toys I found an emotion there. It was joy. Just light joy. And I came to the conclusion that at times in life there are terrible things at our doors. Things we have no control over. Anxiety is always creeping in, threatening our mental health. We have to constantly prove and re-prove ourselves to spouses, kids, employers and parents. There is competition out there. There is, frankly, a whole lot of evil.

But toys will always be there. Toys will always bring us back to our fundimentals, our childhood. A place where we still believed that we might, if we ran fast enough, find the end of the rainbow.

I did not want to live a life devoid of the simple pleasures of the toys of my youth anymore. People NEED things that eliminate and reduce anxiety. We need things that bring us easy joy.

Remember that scene in Toy Story where Buzz finally flies? He has suffered incredible losses, but he's different now. He is finally a truer version of himself. No more is he burdened down with self-delusion and self-pity. He is flying!

That's me.

We live in a wonderful time. Nerds rule the world. Toy nerds are everywhere. But still there is so much shame in our culture surrounding collecting, child-like things, hoarding, passion over something that won't make you rich, and anything that isn't "done" by the "cool kids."

I reject that shame. I refuse to feel it.

Instead, I will live in this adult world if I have to. But honestly, it will not take all my joys away from me. It won't take my toys.

I'm back!