Sunday, January 29, 2012

Going to Sleep

I admit, I'm not one to give advise about going to sleep.  I suspect I do everything wrong, including the biggie, ingesting caffeine too late at night.   Also, since I don't care for routines, and going to sleep is a routine, I generally do so grudgingly.   Far from making my peace with the world, I frequently find myself somewhat irritated at having to give in to biology in this regard, so I'm probably doing everything wrong.

Furthermore, I don't understand sleep.  I'm not alone in this, there are scientists who study sleep after all, so obviously there is a lot to learn about it. But I don't understand the basics of it.  It happens, I can't question that, but I can certainly question why, because I don't really know.  I'm curious about the transition.  It's both gradual and sudden.  There has to a instant where you are technically awake, then the next instant you aren't.  I don't understand the process that goes on in a person's body that makes that happen.

The way I know I'm about to fall asleep is because at some point I start thinking unusual things.  I have no control over this.  Also, like my dreams, I can rarely remember it.  That's too bad.

When you're asleep you cede control over everything, you're pretty much helpless.  Dangerous storms, fire, people and lord knows what else could threaten you, and you have no clue until it's way to late.  'Cause you're asleep.  Of course we have a dog who'll make a ton of noise if someone was trying to get into the house, so I guess that's a decent early warning system.

I know how terrible it can be when you can't sleep or are forced to stay awake or don't sleep well for long periods.  I've worked all kinds of shifts in my life, and I've spent years in jobs where I was on call at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week.   It can wear you down.

Since I removed myself from the traditional work force back in 2006, I will admit that over all I get a lot more sleep than I used to.  I don't work any kind of shift work, I'm not on call, I pretty much set my own schedules, for the most part there is a lot less to worry about or stress over, and in spite of myself, I generally sleep better.

I still don't understand it though, and I don't like it.  Frequently when you're falling asleep, you have these body jerks.  Sometimes its not much, sometimes it's your whole body.  I don't know why that happens, but I know I'm not the only one it happens to, because once when I was working for Electronic Data Systems at the Baltimore GM Assembly plant (may it RIP), my fellow Systems Engineers and I (all of whom were on call, all the time), sat around discussing it at lunch.  I'm fairly certain most of us did not get enough sleep. 

Going to sleep and sleeping is a strange process.  I suppose I have to admit it's natural, since most people do it on a regular basis.  However, it seems to be a forced requirement of living, and  I don't like it one bit.

Even though my tendency is to resist going to sleep, I'm not a morning person.  I don't wake up quickly and jump out of bed refreshed and ready to go.  I wake up slowly with a fair amount of grogginess, and find myself getting out of bed in stages:  the sit and stare stage, the standing up slowly stage, the bumping into the dresser stage and so on.  I don't understand any of this.

Monday, January 16, 2012


I find myself thinking a lot about routines.  One of my most common routines is the morning dog walk with Pickles the Dog.  I notice that after awhile, at certain times and certain places, you see certain things.  I began to notice many of the cars and drivers I see every day are the same as I saw the day before.   And eventually it dawned on me that I've become part of their routine.  Many days they will see me with this goofy dog in the same general area at the same general time. 

And that's just one of my routines.  I don't really like routines, but I don't understand how a person can live without them.

There's a couple of people I see every now and then who drive around in a pick-up truck looking for discarded metal by the side of the road.  Stuff people put out for garbage pick up.  I assume they'll sell it for scrap somewhere, and I often wondered how much money a person can make doing that.  My suspicion is somewhere between next to nothing and very little, but I don't know.  The point is, their routine is completely different than mine, yet every now and then, the routines intersect.

Many, many years ago, shortly after I got out of the Army, I found myself living in Catonsville, MD - a suburb of Baltimore, and started a job located in Springfield, VA, on the other side of Washington, DC.  That, dear readers, is a long commute.   Anyway, after a few weeks I began to notice things - on long drive, almost all with 6 to 8 lanes of traffic, I began to see the routines.  

For example, shortly after I crossed into Virginia, and was heading down a hill with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge starting to become a reality in my mind, I frequently passed a large white box truck.  Its back door was raised and inside were 4 or 5 people sitting on the floor against the walls.  I would pass this truck several times a week in the same general area, until I switched from day shift to evening shift.

On the return trip, as I was on I-95 north heading into Howard County, MD, I'd see this:  an old beat up dark colored car spewing smoke out of it's tail pipe, chugging along in the slow lane, the driver's window down (I'm assuming he had no A/C, cause it was quite hot), the driver smoking a pipe, with a bumper sticker that proudly proclaimed "Free At Last".    I saw this vehicle frequently when I was on the day shift, and always in the same area. 

I noticed these two events because they were unusual, and I noticed them so often I began to look for them.

There's no telling how much I didn't notice.  There's no telling how much was a one time event - someone traveling from Montreal to Miami who just happened to pass by along the way. 

Routines intersect.  It happens so often it can't be random.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ah, The Russia House by John Le Carre

Years ago I bought a CD by Metallica, because one day I was listening to the radio and I heard a song they covered, "Whiskey in the Jar".  I recognized that song as something of a folk song, probably Irish.  I had another version on another CD by the Pogues.  I didn't feel the radio had done the Metallica version justice, it being radio and all, so I was interested in seeing how it really sounded on a half way decent sound system.  Well I was surprise.  This most metallic of hard rock bands did a very good job, I thought.  There was a depth and richness to their version I did not expect.  It was very well done.

The Russia House is like Metallica's version of Whiskey in the Jar.  It has an extraordinary amount of richness and depth to it.  It is a spy story, with Barley Blair being a reluctant spy, set in the final years of the Soviet Union.   People are doing things that could cause them to end up in a Soviet prison or worse.  Portions of it are quite tense, and especially as it approached the end, I was wondering what was going to happen.  I didn't really expect what actually did happen.

When you get down to it, the book is about people.  Human, very fallible, complex people, some who have goals which are perhaps at odds with what they should be. 

This book had a good story & plenty of suspense, but I don't believe there was physical confrontations.  No one shot anyone, nothing blew up, I don't think anyone even took a swing at anybody.  But people spent a lot of time in various states of fear.  And like the fog of war, no one quite knew the big picture, and there was a lot of disagreement about what had actually happened once it was over.   Nothing was neat and tidy.

It is the anti-Icarus Agenda, and comes off being vastly more believable.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Our eBay Year - 2011

As promised, this is my post about how our eBay business did last year.  It may be an incoherent rambling kind of post - I'll at least try to keep some structure.

2011 was a good year, compared to 2010 & 2009.   Things kind of slipped in 2010, so 2011 was a very good year compared to 2010. 

Our gross was 23% higher than in 2010, and our net was 28% higher than in 2010.   My first thought was that our expenses must have been lower, but that's not the case.   There's an old adage, it takes money to make money.  Well, eBay, PayPal & just about every other business in existence has a very regressive type of fee structure.  The less you sell, the greater the percentage you have to pay in fees, the less money you get to keep.  When you sell more, the reverse happens, you pay less of a percentage in fees - it's an amazing thing when you finally cross that tipping point.  Our expenses were a lot, at least in my opinion, and the difference in the percentage increase between gross and net I attribute to increased sales.

This increase in net and gross income came in a year that we've offered free domestic shipping on virtually everything we sell.   This is our first complete year offering free shipping, and  it doesn't seem to have hurt the bottom line.   I track our shipping costs very closely, and it's a major expense.  In fact it's our second highest expense every month (and year) without fail.  Only our eBay fees are higher.  Free shipping only works if you know your costs, and can increase your sales.  It worked for us.

Internationally, we charge a flat rate, based on the item sold - postcards will be less than Cabinet Photos, for example.  Also, we charge less on items we send to Canada, simply because it costs less.  I've learned over time how much it costs to ship to the various locations, and roughly how long it takes to get there, in most cases at least.

I've come across sellers who refuse to sell internationally, and that's fine, but I don't understand it.  Possibly the items we sell, postcards and photographs, aren't high on the scamming list.  Whatever it is, our problems have been very minimal.  I can only remember one incident - in 2010 a person from Italy (yes, Italy), claimed he never received his item.  It had been a month, so I refunded his money without any kind of argument.  I did put him on our blocked buyers list though, because without going into detail, I had some suspicions.   And that is it - we've been selling internationally for over 5 years now, and that's the only issue we've had. 

Our international sales accounted for 10% of our transactions, and 17% of our gross income in 2011.  I don't know how that stacks up against other sellers, I don't know if that is good or bad or neither.  But we're glad to have it.

In December 2011, we had our biggest single order for photos & postcards in our history - it was significant to us, and it was going to Poland.  I packaged it up carefully,  sent it off December 17th, and crossed my fingers.  We received feedback for it this morning, and finally uncross my fingers.  We haven't really had any bad experiences shipping internationally.

Speaking of international sales - our highest sales for 2011 went to Canada (by a wide margin), the UK, Poland, Germany, France & Australia, in that order.  The only surprise on this list is Poland - and that was because of that one very large order in December.  In 2011, for the first time we sent items to Peru, Thailand, Turkey & the Ukraine.

I track lots of things.  Our best months in 2011 were, in order, Nov, Jun, Dec, Oct & Jan.  We tend to sell more items in the middle of the week - Tues, Weds & Thurs., I'm not sure what I can do with that info, but there it is.  I know our average and mean daily dollar amount for the year. I know the average amount we receive per transaction, and can split that out between auctions and fixed price.  I know the average number of transactions per day, and the average number of items sold per day.  I know how much we spend on postcards & the various photo types vs how much we're able to sell them for.  I know how many items we've listed vs how many we've sold for the year.   I know what postcards subjects are most popular (believe it or not I track about 137 different subjects).

Photos are a different matter.  I know which types have sold best for us, but subject matter is a different story.  People who collect photos are not looking for the same thing as people who collect postcards.   Photos are somehow more vague, and not as easy to put your finger on.  Photos are more of a feeling, at least for me.

The big change for us this year was the domestic free shipping.  We also offer expedited shipping, and a 30 day return no hassle policy.  If we sell you something and you don't like it when you receive it, just return it and we'll refund your money.   We're basically doing what eBay wants us to do in this regard, and in return (in theory) we should get a bump in the "best match" search results.  I don't know if it had anything to do with our increased sales or not.

Here's another couple of things driving our sales, and oddly enough, something I'm not tracking.  We're getting a lot of repeat customers.  People returning multiple times over the year to buy things - that is a very good thing.  And we're also getting a lot of multiple item purchases, and that is also very good.  When someone buys several items at once, it adds up quickly. 

We also do our best when it comes to customer service.  Package nicely, ship quickly, answer questions, communicate and so on.  I think excellent customer service is the most important ingredient in winning repeat customers.  And it doesn't happen overnight. 

So 2011 was better than 2010 (and also 2009).   We hope 2012, which has started off pretty well, will be better than 2011. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Our eBay Month - Dec 2011

This post is just about December & the 4th quarter of 2011.  I'll write another post to sum up the year in a couple of days.

December was a good month for us - better than October, also a good month, not quite as good as November, which was a very good month.  I'd gladly take a year full of Decembers.

However, our sales of "single" postcards were down - in fact they were the lowest for the year by far.  I don't know why.  If we had sold our average amount, then December would have been our best month of the year.  We got a fairly good price for them though, but for some reason we sold significantly less than average.

Our sales of photographs (Cabinets, CDVs, other Antique Photos, snapshots etc) were very good, on almost exactly the same level as November. This means we sold significantly more than average. And in December 2011, for the first time in our history we sold more photos than we did postcards. Something for us to ponder.

December also marked our highest photograph sales for a single order, ever. On December 17th we mailed out this large order to a buyer who (sigh) lives in Poland.  We've yet to receive feedback or any indication that it's arrived, so fingers crossed for now.

Another interesting thing that happened was yesterday (Dec 31st) an item was returned to us from Germany, marked "insufficient address".   It was pretty neat - it had the German custom sticker on it and everything.  The other neat thing was that we had mailed it way back on September 14th - about 3 1/2 months ago, with an address label printed from the eBay sales record.  We'd never heard a word from this person, no feedback, no emails, had no idea he hadn't received it.  It was so long ago that the buyer could not leave feedback now if he wanted to.  It was so long ago that the sales record was no longer available to us & we could not refund his money through eBay.  So we sent him a message letting him know what happened and sent the back money via paypal to his paypal account. What this means is we did not get any fees back, and paypal will charge him fees, but its the best we can do, especially since there's no other communication going on.  If he still wants the item I suppose he can contact us and we'll make arrangements.

The packaging survived quite well, which made me feel good.

Its always something.  Its amazing how many weird things go on in a little 2 person business.

The 4th quarter of 2011 was the best quarter of the year, by far.  In fact, it's better than any quarter we had in 2010 & 2009, so its the best quarter in the last 3 years.  One of the quarters of 2008 may have been better because we were doing consignments back then, but 2008 vs 2011 is apples and oranges as far as our business goes.   It was a very good 3 months for us

This is part of what's happening: we're getting a lot of repeat customers, and that is good.  Repeat customers can drive a business.  We're also getting a lot more sales of multiple items to a singer buyer than we used to, and that can add up quickly.  And many of the repeat customers and multiple item buyers (sometimes they're the same people) are buying our photographs.  We charge more for our photos than our postcards (because, they're generally worth more), and that has been driving our business, especially for the last 3 months.

January is starting off pretty well, so I hope it continues.