Going Postal: How to Avoid the Post Office

Sorry for the long silence, now back to the show...

Stories abound about the United States' dysfunctional Postal Service and about how, at the rate they are going, they won't be around much longer. I heard they are stopping Saturday deliveries of everything except packages (a plan now put on hold), and rural branches are getting shuttered all the time. A little research reveals that the problems are much larger than any incidences of rude service, confusing changes in stamp values, and the mail carrier who somehow never gets it right. It has also been suggested that many of the USPS's woes are intentionally being escalated in an attempt to have the organization forced into massive bankruptcy, which would both eliminate current pensions and completely privatize the service. It has come to light that the spouses of US Senators have been given exclusive rights to sell USPS property. Corruption, anyone?

Is it email or ridiculous and unrealistic retirement plans? Or is most of what we are hearing misinformation? Or is it all about real estate? [If you haven't visited a blog in the past decade, when a group of words are underlined, that means they are a link you can click on.]

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the USPS. I think it is an amazing and quite affordable service when you consider just how much they do for you, and have done for you for your entire life. It really is amazing that you can send a letter to anybody, anywhere, no matter how cutty and out of the way they reside, for less than half a buck. Imagine you had to hand delivery all your packages.
Regardless of the reasons behind the troubles at the Postal Service, I sure hope they stick around, because my Part Time Picking business relies on them. Think about it... mail rules!

But visiting the Post Office does not rule. Visiting the local Post Office sucks! Lines are long, most customers are confused and angry, and most USPS representatives are pretty grumpy (the inevitable result of constantly having to ask confused, angry customers if their packages "contain anything fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous").

Well, if you're shipping more than a few items a month, I would recommend considering an online postage service. You can buy shipping direct from Paypal, Amazon, and the USPS these days, although there are some limitations on what services you can use. The last time I checked, you couldn't ship Media Mail rate with USPS online. For myself, after a bit of research and a few particularly frustrating visits to my local post office, I decided to give stamps.com a try.

Stamps.com will cost you about $16 a month for their minimum service, but when you consider the hours saved by not waiting in line at the post office, I think it is worth the cost. You just enter the weight and dimensions of your package (or padded envelope), where its going, and by what service, plus any add-ons (tracking), and print your postage right at home. Apparently you can schedule a pick-up from your postal carrier, but I prefer to just drop off my stack at the local post office.

I trust you already have a computer, so the only other supplies you'll need are a scale and a big stack of labels. I prefer affordable generic 1/2 sheet labels that feed right into my laser printer. It's easy to copy and paste the tracking numbers into Amazon or eBay, and stamps.com keeps your shipping history if you need to look up info on a late package. One of the only drawbacks is that international shipping, with its customs forms, is still more reliable through actual human transaction.

There are other online postage services services available, and the costs and terms are always changing, so do a little research of your own. You may find that printing shipping at home is worth it just for the envious looks on the faces of those suckers who are still waiting in line at the post office.

What to sell on eBay: Vintage Department Store Catalogs

I want all this stuff even more now than I did as a kid.

An amazing thing happens to an object after about 20 or so years. It is not longer "outdated" or "antiquated"... it has magically transformed into the desirable category of "vintage".

While experts may argue as to what exactly makes an item "vintage", unless you are dealing with wine (where the term originates from), we are generally applying the label to items from 20 to 100 years old. So anything from the 1920 to the early 1990s can reasonably be considered vintage.

Anything more than 100 years old has been further elevated to the echelon of "antique". Now, some folks will bend these rules and call their 1940s gear "antique" and their 1st generation iPod "vintage". People will throw around all sorts of marketable adjectives, but that don't make it so.

And I know it may be painful to acknowledge that items from your childhood are vintage. Heck, it still hurts me to think the grunge music of my teenage years is now considered classic rock. Don't be hurt; Vintage is good. Vintage means dollars on otherwise useless items.

Exhibit A: The 1980 Aldens Christmas Catalog.

Honestly, until I grabbed this catalog from a recycling bin I had no idea what Aldens was. But a quick check at the contents and it was clear I was holding a fully illustrated color catalog of a defunct department store.

This thing is chock full o' pictures and descriptions of toys, dolls, clothing, housewares, audio equipment, lingerie(!), shoes, and kitchen stuff, jewelry, and everything else your 1980 heart desires.

Vintage catalogs from department stores can regularly fetch up to $30 or more on eBay. The secret trick to getting the big bids (or quick sales) is to take lots of great pictures of the cool items featured in the pages, and make a comprehensive list of all the categories of items. My Aldens catalog sold not to a vintage catalog collector, but a Star Wars nut.

Many advanced eBay shoppers know to search the words within the listings, not just the listing title alone, so be sure to put lots a great keywords in there. The vintage appeal within these old catalogs is quite wide, so it is worth it to take the time to fully describe all the contents.

The Ethics of Thrift Store Picking

Don't let a guilty conscience haunt you.

The Ethicist, a series published by the New York Times and written by Chuck Klosterman, recently discussed a question about the ethics of bargain hunting. Someone wrote in:

"I make a good salary and can afford to shop and buy new clothes at a regular retail store, but I enjoy shopping at a particular thrift store where I find great bargains. I sometimes buy items that I don’t need. My question concerns my enjoyment versus the needs of others who are less fortunate (and are now deprived of the opportunity to buy items that they probably need more than I do). Am I guilty of fulfilling a shadow pleasure at the expense of those in need?"

The response was that if a business exists to aid the underprivileged, it is wrong for you to shop there if you can afford to shop elsewhere. "...like showing up at a soup kitchen..." was a phrase used. However, it is mentioned that many thrift stores exist not only to sell items to the impoverished, but to sell items to anybody as a means to raise money for other charitable work.

I think this is spot on. I've gotten to know the employees and even directors of several charitable thrift stores in my years of picking, and they all tell me they are happy to have all types of customers. In fact, many of these stores are dependent upon large sales numbers to complete there charitable mission; Be it job training, humanitarian aid, or funding an operation completely unrelated to poverty. As long as you are willing to pay what they are asking, it's all good. And if someone desperately needs inexpensive clothing or home furnishings, most large cities have organizations that can provide these things at no cost to the recipient.

I understand that these businesses aren't there for me to make a profit. I often still conceal the fact that I am purchasing things to be resold. If I am 100% guilt free about my picking from thrift stores, why would I not be completely open about it? Perhaps I am slightly conflicted. Certainly I am afraid of being ejected from the store (as many conspicuous scanners are these days). I also make it my priority to be respectful and courteous to all employees and volunteers where I'm shopping.

Sure, I'll haggle, but I will never use intimidation tactics to get a better deal. It is much, much better in the long run to be considered a valued and even 'preferred' customer. That great deal you may get from aggressive haggling now will likely cost you a lot of discounts in the future.

Fortunately, I have developed a technique to resolve any ethical conflicts that my picking my cause. I resolve to keep things balanced with the stores I pick from. It's simple. My solution is to donate back to the stores.

I rarely take a trip to the Goodwill on a picking mission without bringing a few boxes of goods to drop off. It has even become a regular occurrence to return home with much less than I started out with. I have found local non-profits that deal with books, clothing, housewares, toys, and even building materials.
Besides making me feel good about myself, regularly clearing out all the excess possessions is a bit of a necessity for a borderline hoarder like me.

This past winter I even took things a step further and volunteered at a local non-profit second hand store. I spent the day cleaning and organizing the housewares section of the store... and it was a blast. 

So remember, many of the thrift stores that we rely on for our Part Time Picking business rely on us and our donations to keep their business going. So donate that big pile of stuff that you will likely never get around to reselling anyways.

What to sell on eBay: Expired Polaroid Film

Technically, this photo features a Kodak Colorburst 100 Instant Film camera, not a Polaroid.
However, I'm going to allow it.

Remember a world before digital photography? Remember loading film, only having 24 or so precious images per roll, and then waiting for a week to get your prints only to discover you screwed-up all the exposures?
And if you needed a quick image right now (i.e. a couple of minutes from now) there was one go-to option; good old Polaroid Instant Film.

Well, those days are dead and gone. What used to be the standard product for impatient photographers is now relegated to the world of artists and nostalgic hipsters. The Polaroid Corporation, after being sold and restructured and filing several times for super-bankruptcy and having its parent company get criminally investigated, stopped making cameras in 2007 and then stopped production on the popular instant film in 2009.

With expiration dates set usually a few years after production, it is easy to reach the conclusion that every single package of Polaroid instant film has already expired. But this doesn't mean they are all worthless. Quite the opposite. Polaroid film, if stored properly, can often last many years beyond its expiration date. And with no new stock being produced, collectors (the previously mentioned artists and nostalgic hipsters), will pay big bucks just to gamble on an unopened pack of 10 instant photos.

Check a search of completed links for expired Polaroid 600 film. Go ahead, I'll wait...
There, you see. $20 to $25 easily on packages of film that expired over 10 years ago! I find these things all the time at garage sales. Most folks think they just don't have any value in the digital age. But you and I know better.

Strangely enough, most old Polaroid cameras, particularly those that take the 600 film, aren't worth very much themselves. It's mostly just the film the draws a bidding frenzy. And all this still happens despite the fact that there is a group called The Impossible Project that is currently making superior, non-expired instant film in the old  Polaroid factory in Europe.

The near-complete domination of digital photography has put a lot of high quality and collectible photo gear on the local reuse marketplace, and it is often priced a antiquated junk. Some of it is, but a lot of it can be sold for dozens, even hundreds of dollars on eBay. I'm talking cameras, flashes, lenses, film, medium format, even camera cases.

So next time you're a a yard sale and you seem some decent 35mm camera or unopened pack of Polaroid film, get that smartphone out and get picking!

What To Sell on eBay: Calculators

Make sure to save one to calculate all your profits.

One rainy afternoon, after a particularly fruitless quest at my local thrift store for any books to pick and resell, I stumbled dejectedly into the aisle that carries used office supplies. While I have purchased second-hand scissors and rolls of half-used packing tape from the messy bins before, I had never considered any of these items worthy of an eBay listing. Desperate and dejected from my failure to find anything on the bookshelves, I grabbed a particularly complex looking calculator and punched the model number into the search bar of my eBay app.

My eyes nearly burst from my head when I saw the results. What I thought was some worthlessly outdated 1980s hunk of junk was consistently fetching over $40! When I brought it up to the register, the clerk charged me 50¢. 

Fifty. Cents.

Even better, when I got home and put a new battery in, the sucker still worked. Well, I polished it up, took some photos, and listed it on eBay that very night. A week later the auction ended for over $50, nearly all profit. You can bet I was searching every nook and cranny for old calculators from then on, and still do. 

Since that fateful rainy afternoon, I've picked and sold a few dozen more calculators (amongst other office supplies). I've sold some vintage 1970s for big bucks (sometimes over a c-note!), and I've been able to make a decent profit putting several old non-working calculators into a lots to resell. I've sold HP, Casio, Sony and others, but, by far, the most common calculator to find and resell are the Texas Instruments Graphing kind. The ones with the big screen and the removable plastic face guard. If you find one that has a USB input, you're really happy!

Almost all high school and college students (or their parents) are required to buy on of these at some point, and they are rarely used again once classes are dismissed in the summer. They are one of those kind of items that are stupidly expensive to get new, yet are often overlooked as a big-ticket item on the local resale market

Just look at some of these common selling prices on used calculators I gathered from completed eBay listings just now:
  • TI 83 Plus: $30-35 each
  • TI 84 Plus: $45-60 each
  • TI 86: $30-40 each
  • TI 89: $55-65 each
Plus other, non-graphing calculators like the BA II Plus or the TI 35 Plus can get you $15-30 each. Some of the lesser calculators can even get you a fiver each, which is worth it if you are paying pennies on the dollar. Especially if you hoard a bunch to sell as a lot. And don't forget the big money being paid for working vintage calculators!

Calculators are just one of the many atypical items that can be commonly found cheaply in person and quickly flipped for a healthy gain. Stay tuned to Part Time Picker for more great items you may not have considered. If you have an uncommon category of items that you have profitable picked (and you're willing to share it), please send me an email or leave a comment.

Happy hunting!
...and don't forget the Little Professor.

The only issue of National Geographic you should ever try to sell on eBay

So collectible that they are nearly worthless.

If you have ever been to a thrift store or garage sale that is selling used magazines, you have likely been looking at a whole lot of yellow. Of course I'm talking about shelf after shelf of National Geographic magazine. With a US circulation of over 5 million per issue, multiplied by 12 issues per year, multiplied by over 120 years equals a damn big pile of magazine just about anywhere you might find yourself looking for something to pick. So something this popular must be worth some big bucks, right?

Well, not really.
Sure, if you find some mint issues from the 19th century (before they even had the yellow covers) you can flip them for some real dollars. But, generally speaking, you aren't going to make much in total unless you are selling these suckers in lots of about 50 years worth at a time. Have fun shipping that.

A current issue of Nat Geo has a newsstand  price of $6 (although you can get a subscription of 12 issues for $15). After it has been looked at once it is worth about 25 cents on the resale market. This is true for nearly every issue published after World War II. Great magazine, sure, but just too common to really have much value.

But for every antique issue you are lucky to come across, you will see thousands of modern issues, mostly from the 1980s to current era. But don't look away in despair just yet, there may be a nugget of gold in that mountain of yellow.

The issue you are looking to pick is June 1985...

There it is, staring right at you.

It's the famous Afghan Girl with the crazy eyes. That photo is so famous that people are willing to pay about $20 for a copy in good condition. And they really aren't any more uncommon than any other issues from the 1980s. The date is right there on the spine, and I find that while thrift stores aren't in the habit of arranging their magazines chronologically, issues from similar years are usually in close proximity to each other.

A local thrift store near me sells National Geographic published after 1970 for just 10 cents each. Over the past few years I have picked the June 1985 issue and resold it for nearly $20 on six separate occasions! This magazine is consistently selling well and rarely costs more than dollar in the store. Pair it with the April 2002 issue (where the Afghan Girl is "Found" 17 years later) and you may even score a few extra bids.

Remember, that's June 1985.    So now you know.


Selling on eBay: To Lot or Not To Lot

I once read in some book (I think it was 1000 eBay Success Secrets) that you should never sell in lots what you can sell individually. I don't still have that book for reference, but I think the logic was that you will always make more money selling each item individually than you would putting everything together in one "Lot" auction. People expect discounts for buying in bulk. On the surface, this advise is good, but I find that I often prefer to sell things in lots.

The reason I sometimes prefer lots is simple... it is much easier to sell things all at once. I'm usually willing to sacrifice a couple of bucks to save myself hours of work.

Let me give you an example. Suppose I have come up on a big box of, say, 100 shoelaces. This is a hypothetical... I've never actually sold shoelaces on eBay. The scenario is that I could likely sell each and every one of the shoelaces of $2.00 each. That is, if I was willing to list, sell, and relist a single shoelace 100 times. At the end of the entire series of sales, I would have $200.

The first problem you can see right away. That is a lot of paperwork, a lot of packaging, a lot of trips to the post office, and a lot of potential problems. Even with the ease of one-click relisting the item, it would still take a lot of time and effort, all added up, to make that $200. And don't think that you can just list all 100 shoelaces at the same time, at least not as an auction. You're going to be competing with yourself.

And, frankly, I don't want to list anything that will only make $2, even it that's 100% profit. $200 is great, but not in $2 increments. I wouldn't do this with another item I had only one of, so why would I do it 100 times in a row?

But there is another way. Perhaps these shoelaces will sell nearly as well when divided into Lots. It may so happen that I can sell a Lot of 20 shoelaces for $35.00. Now, $35 is a real decent amount to be making on one auction. And I can do that 5 times in a row and end up with $175, total.

I may make $25 less than if I sold each shoelace individually, but I'll be dealing with 1/20th of the hassle (5 listings instead of 100)! For a guy like me who likes his free time, that sounds like a bargain.

I do this all the time. I'll often collect certain items until I have enough to make a Lot that will fetch enough money to justify the energy of listing it. I've sold many things this way: video game cartridges, pens, pencils mini-discs, action figures, art supplies, audio tapes, DVDs, dice, kids books, and lots of other stuff. These things weren't worth the time to sell individually (some stuff wouldn't even sell at all), but get a box of them together and you'll get some bids.

So, sure, you can often make more money, all in all, if you sell similar items one by one. But at what cost?